in a riddle

"through a glass darkly" by craig brewer
I Corinthians 12:31b- 13:13 You have to pay attention. In the midst of this beloved ode to love there is a riddle. These verses seem so clear, so straight forward. No wonder they are chosen by so many brides and grooms. The poem seems anything but puzzling: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude”. It sounds like accessible greeting card theology. You can almost picture the image of the honeymoon couple walking into the sunset.

But there it is, later on, as Paul is piling up images of not knowing. He says that preachers will run out of things to say. He says that speaking in tongues - inspired speech that comes directly from God - will go mute. He says that even knowledge itself will finally come to an end. These ways of knowing are but partial, limited glimpses of the immensity of God’s future. “When the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” Paul says we are like children in our speaking and thinking and reasoning. He says all of our talk and thought about God is of the toddler variety. Paul includes himself. He say it is as if we see “in a mirror, dimly” or, if you prefer the King James Version, “in a glass, darkly”. He is speaking of the burnished metal mirrors of his age in which you can just barely make out your own features. But he doesn’t really say “dimly” or “darkly”. In the Greek he says, literally, “we see in a mirror in a riddle”. Paul says that trying to see what God is up to in our lives and world is like looking into a riddle. It is immensely puzzling. “Now I know only in part, then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

One of the most difficult challenges facing early Christian preachers like Paul is how to deal with the knowledge people. They are called “Gnostics” meaning “Knowers” or, I suppose, “Know-it-alls”. Gnosticism promises to give secret knowledge about God that will save you from the world’s troubles. It is a hugely popular movement in Paul’s time both without and within the church. Truth is, gnosticism still regularly shows up in our midst. Preachers and congregations fall for the temptation that there is some secret knowledge - some new book about God - that we have only to discover and  then we will be saved out of our earthly pain. This is what Paul is saying “no” to when he writes: “Now we see in a puzzling mirror ... Now I know only in part”. He says we don’t have secret, insider knowledge to go on. We are not gnostics, not know-it-alls. Faced with the riddle of life we live as trusters, hopers, lovers of God.

Given what little we know, says Paul, there are three things we count on: God’s faithfulness, God’s promises and God’s suffering love. And the greatest of these is God’s cruciform love. Here Paul, the pastor, is not only in dispute with gnostics in the congregation. Here he is challenging the church’s habit of giving pride of place to those who appear to be supplied with impressive spiritual gifts. At St. Paul’s Church of Corinth there is an informal ranking of the spiritually gifted people. It takes Paul three chapters - First Corinthians twelve, thirteen and fourteen - to deal with this perplexing problem. Notice how often the thirteenth chapter is lifted out of the longer argument so that it appears to stand on its own. Then it can seem as if Paul really is writing a greeting card. But this ode to God’s love is not generic wisdom. It is a necessary corrective to a church that is forgetting its identity. Paul is a doctor of the church who pays attention to the symptoms of arrogance, rudeness and resentment that appear under the veneer of what look to be gifts of the Holy Spirit. Those in the congregation who have apparently received lesser gifts look to the so-called “really gifted” people as somehow better, more spiritual, closer to God. Compared to the spiritual people who are in the know these lowly members think that they are not very spiritual at all. In fact, many feel as if they are still waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up in their lives. These symptoms lead Paul to diagnose the illness as congregational amnesia. It is a church that has forgotten the gospel.

So Paul responds to the question: “What is the gospel?”. It is the question that lies at the heart of the New Testament. It is the central question in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, a letter we will be reading together in Lent. As a result, I am making it a Lenten discipline this year to ask this question explicitly in today’s sermon and in each of the next six sermons. One of the crucial challenges facing congregations in our time and place is the recovery of a lively, authentic, lived response to the question “What is the gospel?”. We need and long to live our answers with passion and integrity. Each of these sermons will respond to this question through the lens of a different scripture. I hope that one of them will resonate with you in such a way that you will discover a new script for your part in the gospel drama. Then, in the season of Easter, we will invite testimonies in response to the question: “What is the gospel that you are seeking to live and speak with your life?”

Here, in First Corinthians thirteen, Paul answers the question “What is the gospel?". He says that the most artistic sermons and angelic anthems delivered without God’s suffering love are nothing but noise, spam, junk mail. He says that without cruciform love all the prophetic power, all the theological understanding and spiritual knowledge, even the faith to move mountains is good for absolutely nothing, zero, zilch. He says that giving everything away, even your life savings, even your life itself in a spectacular philanthropic act of sacrifice but absent suffering love gains not one iota, not one credit, not one round of applause. He is saying that the gospel is God’s suffering, cruciform love revealed in Jesus Christ and at work in us as a gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the good news according to Paul: in Jesus Christ the sacrificial, reconciling, forgiving, saving love of God is breaking into the world.

I know, I know, at weddings and here today the lector does not say “suffering love is patient, cruciform love is kind”. The English text in our Bibles simply says “love”. It is a problem. It is a problem because love is such a catch-all word. It means many things to many people. But Paul and the congregation in Corinth know that he is talking about a specific kind of love, a rare kind of love, the love that is the wondrous gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not a generic love, not love generated by human beings. It is not love you can turn on like a faucet. This is love divine, all loves excelling. This is love that is a precious gift from the God who gifts the world with Jesus.

Paul has choices when he speaks of love. He can use the Greek word “eros” from which we derive the word “erotic”. It is love that makes me feel better, that fills me, that is about my need. He does not use eros. He can use the Greek word “philios” as in Philadelphia, the city of sibling love. It is the love known in family and clan and among friends. He does not use philios. Or Paul can use the Greek word “agape”. It is love that is poured out for the other. It is self-giving, selfless, sacrificial love. It is love that lets go. Agape is not commonly used in Greek speech of the day. Paul always uses the word agape. It is the word that he teaches the congregation in Corinth to use when it speaks of the God who is transforming its life in Jesus Christ. God is known in agapeic love, in suffering love, in love that takes the shape of a cross - in love that is cruciform. The Old Testament calls this God’s “steadfast love”. We are speaking of agape when we talk of the gospel as God’s Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday love. It is this suffering, cruciform love that is intended with the final words of the liturgy each Sunday: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the participation in the working of the Holy Spirit be yours this day and all your days.” In this announcement we discover that we are blessed with the gift of the suffering love of God and, as a result, with participation in the agapeic work of the Holy Spirit.

This is the “more excellent way” that Paul is commending to his forgetful congregation. It is the heart of Paul’s gospel throughout his ministry. In his Letter to the Romans Paul says that our baptism as followers of Jesus is a “baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). He means we walk in newness of life that is patterned on the cross, new life that is inspired by God’s cruciform, suffering love for all the world, all its peoples, all of you. God’s love does not insist on its own way. The love of Christ does not seek its own advantage. This is not everyday, run of the mill love. It is not fall-in-love, chick flick, romantic love. More often than not the suffering love of God is difficult. Usually cruciform love is a choice. It is a decision to do the hard thing. It is an act of will to stay in relationship. It is a long term habit of the heart, cultivated over years in congregations like this one. We receive agape, we do not create it. The cruciform love of God is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Actually, it is more than a gift. Paul says that this precious form of love is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Faithfulness is important. Hope is central. But suffering, cruciform love is essential. Agape is the pre-eminent sign of the good news that Jesus Christ is risen and at work in the world, in the church, in our life together.

Paul proclaims this gospel to a world enslaved by forces that are antithetical to suffering, cruciform love. Narcissism is rampant, pride runs amok, arrogance and rudeness and selfishness are in the ascendancy. The church is not spared from these oppressive powers. Conceit and competition and envy are all too evident within the church, the very people that is meant to be known as the suffering love people, the agape people, the gospel people. But Paul announces that God has stepped into the fray and has broken open the prison doors of the place we once called the “real world”. Now we are free, free to become children of a new creation, baptised through our death to the so-called real world into the life of God’s kingdom come new world in which a servant, Jesus Christ, is the Lord and where cruciform love is the law, the culture and the way of life. Listen to Paul describing this new gospel life in the Letter to the Galatians: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another ... Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 5:25-26; 6:2). Burden bearing, burden sharing. It is what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Bearing, sharing burdens. It is what it means for congregations like University Hill to be outposts of the kingdom of God that is breaking into a world in which too many carry heavy burdens alone. Being a gospel people means being a people who share one another’s burdens, who put the suffering love of God into words and into action. It takes imagination. It takes improvisation. It takes courage and compassion and faithfulness and hope. Most of all it takes the suffering, cruciform love of God.

Thank God that it is God who is the source of such a rare and needful love as this. Thank God for the Holy Spirit which gifts us with the suffering love of Christ. This love divine“is not irritable or resentful, <God’s suffering love> does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Agape love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Or as Paul writes to another congregation, this one in Rome: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the <suffering, cruciform> agape love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39). This is the gospel truth. Amen. Amen.          

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