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This devotional originally appeared the week of 9/11. I hope it still speaks to today’s conflicts.
The events of this week remind us of the radical impermanence of the world.
Who would have thought – on Tuesday, September 11, before 8:45 a.m. – that the day would end with the deaths of nearly 5,000 victims and the total destruction of the Twin Towers and the partial destruction of the Pentagon? Who would have thought that a peaceful nation would, within minutes, be transformed into a nation gearing up for war? Who would have thought that the terror visited upon other, distant nations would be visited upon us?
Life, strength, peace – gone in minutes. Sic transit gloria mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world.
In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, Paul articulates the permanence of Christian love in contrast to the impermanence of everything else. The Corinthian Christians needed to hear this message because they had elevated impermanent things – the gift of tongues – onto a pedestal that one day would topple over. Life passes. Strength passes. Peace passes. The gift of tongues passes, as do the gifts of prophecy and knowledge. But love remains.
We are like children, Paul writes, who grow up. Activities appropriate to youth are inappropriate for grown men and women. Privileges reserved for adults are unavailable to children. Our very speech reflects the change; the halting lisp of childhood gives way to confident talk of serious adults. Our thinking matures. We are born, we grow, we live, and we die. Life passes. But love remains.
Faith itself passes away, as does hope. They are necessary only as long as God delays the final establishment of his kingdom and we enter into his rest. We believe in and we hope for only until our faith becomes sight and our dream a reality. When that happens, we no longer know partially, we know fully, and are fully known. Faith and hope pass. But love remains.
Why? Love remains because God is the only permanent reality, and God is love. Classical theology defines God as the unmoved mover, the being who shakes the heavens and the earth without being shaken. More recently, Clark Pinnock has called God “the most moved mover,” in recognition that his heart of love beats for suffering humanity. God remains, and so love remains.
At this moment in our nation’s history, love is – at the very same time – both close to and far from our minds. When we consider the victims of these terrorists’ attacks, our hearts go out to them and to their families. Throughout the nation, citizens have generously donated their prayers, their time, and even their blood to help those who are suffering. This is good. This is human life as God intended it to be lived.
And yet, I have also heard voices raised in anger. Calls for merciless and indiscriminate war against the citizens of Muslim nations, regardless of whether they perpetuated or supported the men who terrorized us all on Tuesday. This is bad. This is human life as Satan intends it to be lived. Love for our enemies, which Christ commanded, is far from our minds.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for justice, and if justice must come through the prosecution of war, then so be it. But after war, then what? In his second Inaugural Address, at the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln expressed thoughts that we must keep in mind when we are done with our war: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Charity for all. A just and lasting peace with all nations. That is what God is calling us to help establish once the coming war is justly prosecuted. The battle passes away, but love remains.
Sic transit gloria mundi. But not the glory of God.
The word “love” is one of the most indiscriminately used words in the English language. The statements “I love God,” “I love my children,” and “I love chalupas at Taco Bell” all use the same words to describe radically different emotional states. After all, if you love God and chalupas in the same way, then either God does not mean too much to you or chalupas mean far too much. Either way, your love is misplaced.
The Greeks have an advantage over us English-speaking folks, for they employed four words for love: storge, philia, eros, and agape. Storge is the word they used to describe familial affection. Philia – from which we get the word Philadelphia – is the word they used to describe friendship. They used eros to describe not merely sexual (i.e., erotic) love, but any love that is directed toward an object of high value. (Love of a beautiful woman, a fast car, and chalupas are all erotic insofar as the lover holds them in high value – which just goes to show that erotic love is not necessarily rational. I mean, really, chalupas?) Finally, there is agape, a word that under Christian influence came to describe selfless love. Often, agape is directed at an unworthy object.
Agape is the term Paul uses for love in 1 Corinthians 13.
The problem with the Corinthians is that their love was of the erotic kind. I don’t simply mean that some of them were sex-obsessed (although that is true as well). I mean, more broadly, that they directed their affections only toward objects that they considered to be highly valuable. They eros-ed philosophy and rhetoric because they valued wisdom and eloquence. They eros-ed to eat meals at pagan temples because they valued their spiritual freedom and individual rights. They eros-ed to speak in tongues because they valued mystical experiences and displays of spiritual prowess.
They eros-ed when they should have agape-d. They loved worthy objects when they should have loved unworthy ones, just as God had loved them. They should have agape-d the other parties in their many quarrelsome disputations. They should have agape-d the weaker brothers and sisters whose consciences they violated by eating meat sacrificed to idols. And they should have agape-d their non-tongues-speaking neighbors who had other, less dramatic spiritual gifts.
At the end of the day, in other words, the Corinthians had loved selfishly when they should have loved selflessly, for that is the primary distinction between eros and agape. Eros is love given with hope of return: a beautiful woman to satisfy desire, a fast car to sate the need for speed, and chalupas to fill an empty stomach. Agape is love with no hope of return; it is given gratis. Agape is grace.
And so we read in verses 4-7: “Agape is patient, agape is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Agape does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Beautiful women age. Fast cars break down. Chalupas only satisfy till we’re hungry again. But, as verse 8 puts it, agape never fails.
Sandwiched between two very practical chapters on the nature and use of spiritual gifts stands 1 Corinthians 13 – the “love chapter.” Too often, we divorce the “love chapter” from its literary context and read it at weddings. Of course, 1 Corinthians 13 applies to the relationship between a husband and a wife, but first and foremost, it applies to how members of a church should treat one another.
The Corinthians, it turns out, did not know how to treat one another. Their common life was characterized by “jealousy and quarreling” (3:3). They ate food sacrificed to idols, indifferent to the effect their actions might have on fellow Christians with “weaker” consciences (8:9-13, 10:23-33). In their common meals, the rich would “pig out” and leave the poor with little if any food to eat (11:17-22). And now, in chapters 12-14, we learn that some of them elevated one spiritual gift (speaking in tongues) above all others and opened that gift in such a way that others couldn’t open their gifts.
Against such spiritual selfishness, Paul shows a better way – love. Verses 1-3 describe three common ways that people attempt to be spiritual. Without love, however, Paul argues, such attempts are ultimately pointless. Let us examine these three verses more closely.
Verse 1 describes the way of experiential mysticism: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels….” Throughout the history of religion, even in the history of Christianity, people have tried to be spiritual by means of mystical experiences. Such experiences defy intellectual definition. They go the heart of emotion and leave the mystic with an overwhelming sense of being in touch with the divine. Such experiences tend to promote narcissism, for the mystic becomes so caught up in personal experiences that he or she forgets to care for others. When spiritual gifts become self-centered, the giver is no better than an annoying noise – “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Verse 2 describes the way of intellectual excellence: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains….” Many people attempt to be spiritual by attaining knowledge and understanding of the heights and depths of the faith. They read endlessly, write without ceasing, argue fine points of doctrine, and strive mightily to figure things out. All of this is well and good, for God desires that we not only experience him but understand him as well. Nevertheless, the pursuit of intellectual excellence in Christianity is pointless if we do not gain knowledge and understanding for the benefit of others, as well as ourselves. It is possible, in the pursuit of truth, to lose one’s way and be rendered null and void as far as the gospel is concerned.
Finally, verse 3 describes the way of ethical stoicism: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames….” Some people, realizing the dangers of experiential mysticism and intellectual excellence, resort to right living as the test of true spirituality. They engage in radical acts of selflessness and generosity and martyrdom. They give their all to the poor and their life to the flames. And yet, even they do not truly love. Perhaps their ethic is motivated by self-righteousness or duty or guilt. Whatever they case, they do good things in a bad way. They live selflessly, but without love. Such ethical stoicism is unprofitable: “I gain nothing.”
Experience, intelligence, and moral behavior are all equally important aspects of Christian spirituality, but first and foremost, there must be love. As the song says, “Without love you ain’t nothing, without love.”
A few years ago, I attended a church with a young man named Michael. Michael’s body was (and is) wracked by cerebral palsy, an infirmity that binds him to a wheelchair and requires a caretaker to help him with his daily tasks. It might seem that Michael would be able to contribute little to the ministry of the church. That was my first impression, anyway. How wrong I was!
Michael actually had two ministries in the church. First, he inspired love in other people. Often, we shrink away from people with physical disabilities, especially those with severe disabilities like Michael’s. Their handicap makes us uncomfortable. Not so Michael! People always went up to him to say hello and give him a hug. He brought out the best in them. Second, and more importantly, Michael prayed for the church. He could not walk, he could not completely control the movements of his hands, and his speech was very difficult to understand, but his mind ran free. And as it ran, he prayed. Michael may have been physically disabled, but he was one of the more spiritually able people I know.
When I reflect on Michael’s spiritual abilities, I think I understand Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 a little better. Verses 12-13 provide an excellent summary: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” In other words: Because all Christians share a common faith in Christ, they share a common experience of the Holy Spirit. Because of the Holy Spirit, they are brought together into a community that is characterized by unity of end and diversity of means. The unified end is love; the diversified means are the various spiritual gifts God gives the church.
In the Christian community, no spiritually gifted person is inferior to any other spiritually gifted person. No one should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” or, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body.” A body needs its hands and eyes, but it also needs it ears, nose, feet, spleen, liver, and lungs. At Corinth, spiritually immature people vaunted their spiritual superiority by a promiscuous display of the gift of speaking in tongues. Those who didn’t have this gift were made to feel inferior. But a body isn’t a body if it’s all tongue! If a church is to make any progress in the world, it needs to have all its body parts intact and functioning properly. It needs to exercise the full panoply of ministries God has given the church, from the preacher in the pulpit to Michael praying in his wheelchair. In Christ, no one is inferior.
By the same token, of course, no one is superior. No one can say: “I don’t need you!” The world would be a truly lonely place if we didn’t need each other. It would be full of singers without hearers, preachers without congregations, artists without patrons, cooks without eager eaters, lovers without beloveds, and rich people without poor people to receive their generosity. It would be a world filled with physically able people who didn’t have a spiritually able Michael to pray for them. If you knew Michael, you would know how much you need his prayers. In the church, no one is without need. And in the church, no one is without a gift to meet that need.
In the synergy of the body of Christ, the needy are brought together the need-meeters so that grace may flow more abundantly. For as Paul writes, “God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”
What need do you have? What gift do you have? Bring them both to church!