Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sermon: “Love’s Prerogative”, 1 Corinthians 8 (January 31, 2021)


Whether you realize it or not, you’re already quite familiar with Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians—at least one particular part of it. “Love is patient; love is kind; Love never ends…Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is Love.” These words are from 1 Corinthians 13 (five chapters after today’s reading). Odds are that you’ve heard this passage preached at a wedding or seen it on inspirational wall art. Many Christians embrace it as their favorite passages because, like John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 13 seems to encompass the essence of our faith succinctly, memorably, and poetically.

In summary, this passage is Paul explaining agape love to the church in Corinth. If you didn’t know, the Greeks had four different words to describe different aspects of what we call “love”—romantic love (characterized by passion), familial love (characterized by duty), brotherly love (characterized by affection), and…agape. Agape goes beyond all of these other forms of love. There’s no single English adjective that can effectively encompass its meaning. Agape is unconditional and transcendent; it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. It describes the type of love that God feels for humanity. It’s so powerful, so abundant, that agape can’t be confined to the conduit between the mortal and the divine. It overflows and pours out among all human beings. And since each of us is a reflection of imago dei, we’re expected to practice agape love towards one another.

In many ways, chapter 13 is the apogee of the entire epistle. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is in response to specific reports of conflict within the community; he’s hoping to help resolve their disputes through education and clarification. Chapter 13 is the “why” for all of the instructions that he gives them in the preceding chapters. See, Paul isn’t only an exceptional writer; he’s also a really practical guy. He knows that even the most well-crafted theological treatise isn’t really an effective reform measure for your average person, so before he offers his theological reason for them to change their behavior (agape), he pragmatically addresses every issue individually.

This is where today’s reading comes in. One of the (many) conflicts that were brewing in the church was about eating meat sacrificed to false gods. Some in the community were abstaining, but others insisted that because there WERE no other gods, there was nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to imaginary beings. Paul weighs in, saying that while there’s nothing INNATELY wrong with eating the meat, the community should still refrain from doing it so as to avoid confusing those who don’t yet buy into monotheism completely. His reasoning, of course, is agape—if the Corinthians truly love their neighbor, then they should avoid doing anything that could potentially cause damage to their neighbor’s relationship with the one true God.

Paul seems to perceive this conflict as stemming from a tension between the values of knowledge and love. Both are important characteristics worth fostering—after all, it’s true that the knowledge of our one God is an important aspect of our faith, and also that Jesus’ teachings are chock full of agape. As Presbyterians, we value both as integral parts of our identity: we require rigorous education and testing for our clergy so that they might share their knowledge with their congregation, and we also work towards justice for all humankind as an outgrowth of our agape love. But Paul insists that even among admirable values, there’s a hierarchy…and we need to keep our priorities straight. Although knowledge has its place, it should always come second to agape. If we cleave to knowledge at the expense of our love for others, then we’ve denied agape of its sacred prerogative.

All humans have complex identities with many different parts of “who we are” competing for our attention at any given time, so it’s important for us to understand which aspects should have the most authority in our lives. Think of your identity like you do your job; for most of us, that’s a pretty central part of our identity, anyway. Nearly every job has a variety of responsibilities that come with it; very few job descriptions are a single sentence long. But in order to be successful at your job, you need to figure out which responsibilities always come first, which ones are comparably important, and which ones should only be done in your spare time. And although these evaluations can be somewhat subjective, more often than not, there IS a wrong answer.

Consider my job, for example. As clergy, I have a number of different responsibilities on my plate. At different times, I’m a worship planner, communications manager, student, preacher, organizer, creative director, teacher, Session moderator, pastor, Presbytery committee member, and so on. All of these roles are important, or else I wouldn’t bother doing them. But there’s no question that some are higher priorities than others. Moderating Session is an important responsibility to ensure that the church’s business is accomplished, but you’d better believe that if one of you were in crisis, I’d reschedule the meeting in a heartbeat. Continuing education is vital to helping me improve as a pastor, but if I spent all my time reading instead of writing a sermon, I’d probably get fired. When a lower priority task gets more of my attention than a higher one, that task transforms from an essential part of the job to an encumbrance to my calling. Think about your own job, whether it is (or was) CEO of a company, hourly retail worker, or parent: I bet your ability to prioritize is one of the biggest factors to your daily success or failure.

Prioritization of our identities works the same way. None of us is one-dimensional; each of us is an amalgam of different “mes”: Christian, pacifist, parent, writer, U.S. American, baby boomer…make your own list. And each of those identities demands that THEIR characteristics claim dominance. The trick is for us to figure out which parts of our identity have the right to speak the loudest. Paul believes that there’s no question: our preeminent identity is our identity as those saved by Christ, which in turn demands we consider agape our driving principle.

Not all of us have as straightforward an understanding of who we are as Paul does. Some of us are still working out which parts of our identity are the most prominent, and as such, there are other values competing for our devotion: safety, comfort, achievement, pleasure, personal freedom…all valuable, worthy principles. At times, some of them even overlap with the values demanded by our identity as Christians. So it can be difficult for us to sort through which are most important, especially when some of them personally benefit us more than others. But Paul would argue that this isn’t up for debate: when you were baptized, you took on your identity as a Christ-follower above and beyond all other identities. Being a Christian is our full-time job, and our most important responsibility is agape love. So if we claim to take our faith seriously at all, we need to grapple with the fact that, according to Paul, there’s no room for negotiation here.

Paul would be particularly confused by our societal devotion to personal freedom. Allow me to reiterate: THIS IS A VALUABLE PRINCIPLE, and I’m not saying that Paul would disagree on that point. Self-determination is the right of all human beings, and a central aspect of our identity as U.S. Americans. The problem arises when our devotion to personal freedom impedes our ability to practice agape, and therefore subordinates our identity as Christians. When our allegiance to our personal freedom causes us to forget the imago dei of others.

In the book of Galatians, Paul says, “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Gal. 5:13). Even Paul recognizes that personal freedom and agape can coexist…but the choice to preserve them both is not always an easy one. The state of Idaho has decided to preserve personal liberty in the form of making pandemic mask-wearing a choice. Since our government has no religious affiliations, that’s its prerogative; to uphold that value as supreme. But as Christians, we shouldn’t even have to think twice about wearing a mask to protect our neighbors. That’s love’s prerogative. We still have the freedom not to wear the mask, but we choose to do so because of our identity in Christ.

When we lift up our personal freedom (or any other value, for that matter) above agape in God’s name, we’re breaking both the first AND second of the ten commandments as well as the so-called “Greatest Commandment” in one fell swoop. We’re making that value into an idol, we’re using God’s name in vain, AND we’re failing to love our neighbor as ourselves. On top of all that, we’re also failing pretty miserably at the Great Commission: what are we telling others about Jesus, whom we claim as our king, if we insist that our personal rights are more important than love? It’s your prerogative to choose which values dominate your identity, but know that if you claim scripture as authoritative for your life, the answer is already clear: as a Christian, love must always, ALWAYS, win.

Ironically, the only instruction Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 8 is to “Watch out” that our freedom might be a problem for others. He doesn’t order the Corinthians to act in a certain way. Paul presents agape as a personal choice rather than an imperative. But as I said, Paul is an exceptional writer. While preserving the value of personal freedom, he still makes the right choice clear. It’s understood that, because Christ died for ALL, a Christian will always, first and foremost, choose the path of love. It’s our job, after all. So whatever values are fighting for your attention, take a moment to think about how you’re prioritizing them. Which ones are shouting the loudest right now? You don’t need to throw any of them out; just make sure you’re prioritizing them faithfully. It’s love’s prerogative to come first in all things. May we choose to honor this truth throughout our whole lives. Amen.

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