February 12, 2017
#Adulting: Learning to Love
1 Corinthians 12:12-27; 13:1-8a
The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. We were all baptized into one body by one Spirit, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all share the same Spirit.
Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?
But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”
In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, while the more honorable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.
All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
* * * * *
The Sunday morning Prism discussion group has been reading Brian McLaren’s book The Great Spiritual Migration. On the first page of the first chapter McLeran paraphrases this passage from 1 Corinthians. He simply points out that Paul didn’t say, “Though I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not the right theory of atonement, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.”[i]
Paul said, “If I have not love.”
It’s not doctrine Paul’s talking about here, is it? It’s about attitude and behavior and compassion – or the lack of it. It’s about who we are and how we live, not what we believe.
Unfortunately, the church in Corinth was not exactly getting it right. It had become a whole congregation of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, a cacophony of Christians who had not love. They didn’t see themselves that way, of course. They saw themselves as urbane and sophisticated. They saw themselves as gifted – really gifted, with extraordinary, superior spiritual gifts – so much so, that having gifts had become a competitive sport. Hands vs. feet and eyes vs. ears, to use Paul’s metaphor. They were gifted, but it was difficult for them to grasp the concept, “There are different gifts, but the same Spirit” – and that they all belonged to the body of Christ.
They seemed to have everything except love.
Which means they had nothing at all.
This letter to the church in Corinth was Paul’s way of trying to help these baby Christians grow up. Which, unfortunately, was not going so well. When he first began to teach them they were just starting out, still dripping with the waters of the womb of baptism. “I fed you with milk,” he writes, “not solid food, since you weren’t ready for solid food.” That was to be expected… The problem was that they still hadn’t grown up. “You’re still not ready!” he laments. [1 Cor. 3:2] “Grow up, people!”
Which is why 1 Corinthians is such a great book for any of us who are trying to practice #Adulting.
The congregation in Corinth was complicated. The city of Corinth was about as diverse a city as you could possibly find. Because it was a busy port city, it wasn’t unusual for itinerant philosophers to come through and try to gain a following. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that some of the Christians in Corinth divided up, too. Some said they belonged to Cephas and some said they belonged to Apollos, and some said they belonged to Paul, which really irked him to no end. “You are the body of Christ” was a great idea in theory, but the body had broken down into factions.
To make it even more complicated, the church was made up of both Jews and non-Jews, sometimes called Greeks or Gentiles. It was almost impossible for these nouveau Christians to understand,
“We were all baptized into one body by one Spirit, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all share the same Spirit.”
Each group had their own measure of success, their own sense of what was worth chasing after. “The Jews demand signs [of power] and the Greeks desire wisdom [of philosophers],” Paul said. “But we preach Christ crucified,” he declared, “a stumbling block to Jews and idiocy to the Greeks.”
What Paul knew was that you could have all the power in the world – even enough to move mountains - but if you don’t have love, all your signs of power are just flash! You could be the greatest philosopher or wisest debater on the planet - but even if you can speak in the tongues of mortals or angels, if you don’t have love, it’s all noise!
It’s all just noise.
And, frankly, the world doesn’t need any more noise.
What the world needs most is love.
Getting that is at the heart of what it means to grow up.
In Brian McLaren’s book The Great Spiritual Migration, he talks about his own journey of maturing in faith, a journey that eventually led him to leave the pastorate. After leaving the church he was serving and moving, he wasn’t sure whether he would even want to be part of a church. No one would know whether he was or not. No one knew him; no one was watching. He was curious whether or not it would matter to him.
What he discovered was that he did need church to feed his soul. But, he says, it was different than what he expected; different than what he thought was important as a pastor.
I wasn’t looking for clever sermons or a certain style of music. I didn’t need a church that was ‘cool’ or ‘contemporary’ or big or small. I certainly didn’t need a church whose primary goal was to police the belief systems of its members.
Instead, I wanted and needed a church that would help me live a life of love, with as little distraction as possible. I needed sustenance, encouragement, and help in loving God, loving myself, loving my wife, loving my kids and grandkids and extended family, loving my neighbors, especially people I might struggle to love, and loving the earth.[ii]
When I read that I thought, “That’s what I need, too.”
Help being patient and kind.
Help letting go of envy and arrogance.
Help dealing with resentment and irritability and a need for control.
Help, as McLaren puts it, to “become the most loving version of [myself] possible.”
That’s what the body of Christ is for.
That’s what the body of Christ does.
That’s what the body of Christ is.
One of the most difficult things about ‘adulting’ is learning how to love well. I know I’m still trying to learn it. Experience has taught me how difficult it really is. Even with people I love, loving well is hard, and I miss the mark so much.
Last summer I was having an especially difficult time of it. Do to a couple of epic fails with people I love, I began to see if there was a pattern. What I noticed was that when things were going well, several pieces were in place at the same time.
I was feeling genuine compassion for the person I cared about – not just concern or worry, but compassion.
I maintained an attitude of respect – I had let go of the arrogance of thinking that I knew what was best for that person.
And I was practicing being assertive – not passive, or aggressive, but clear and strong.
Now, those behaviors and attitudes weren’t new. What was new was the realization that I had to have all three things in place in order for real love to be present.
If I felt compassion but was passive, it wasn’t really a kindness because it was just about my feelings and not the other person’s need.
If I was assertive but didn’t respect the other person, I ended up insisting on my own way.
If I was respectful but not compassionate, there was kind of a polite distance, but I wasn’t particularly kind.
Do you see what I mean? I had to really care about the person, with patience and respect for both them and me.[iii]
Which is absolutely impossible if we are caught up in how special we are with our own gifts and importance, or if we’re tied up in what group we belong to, and who’s in and who’s out, or even if we’re all about how sacrificial and pious we’re being.
Paul was as clear-eyed as he could be about this. This is why you have gifts: to be the body of Christ. This is what the body of Christ does: it loves.
A few weeks ago we hosted a woman from the Compass program at Broad Street Presbyterian Church in Columbus. Fredericka Wallace-Deena directs the Compass program there, which is geared to help people in poverty with what she calls a hand up instead of a hand-out. I wish all of you could have heard her talk. She told us her story of growing up in a neighborhood that was poor, only they didn’t know they were poor. She told of well-meaning people who came out to help, only it didn’t end up helping, it just tore apart the neighborhood and created dependence. She told of how easy it is for us to go into a community to ‘help,’ and then leave, feeling good about ourselves but not really respecting the people we just left. She was real about how easy it is to judge the people we’re ‘helping,’ which makes it almost impossible to feel genuine compassion. That’s not what love looks like.
But she was hopeful and encouraging: that we can learn how to love well, can learn how to serve each other respectfully, compassionately, honestly, truthfully, in ways that matter, that really change lives – others, and our own.
The more she spoke, the more I thought about my own experience last summer, wanting to love, and wanting to love well, and how challenging it was for me to live in patience and kindness, without envy or irritation or arrogance, without insisting on my own way. I began to see what love looks like, writ large.
You know, #Adulting is hard, but it’s a practice, not a goal. What Paul makes crystal clear is that we need the whole body of Christ to grow into it, to become the most loving version of ourselves possible.
We need each other, to love well.
At least, I need you.
And who knows, maybe some day we’ll even be ready for solid food.
[i] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian (New York: Convergent, 2016), 19.
[ii] McLaren, 50.
[iii] These are elements of Stephen Ministry training, which was invaluable to help me recognize the patterns in my own life.