Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Love Is...

Love is the heart of the Gospel of Christ. This is not a surprising statement. In the First Letter of John we read that God is love.

It does not always command our attention. When the times breed fear, when wars and rumors of war arouse our anxiety, we are likely to dismiss mention of “love” as escapist. Mostly, though, Biblical words about love strike us as one of the “givens” of the faith, stated casually and often, to the point that we hardly notice them...and therein lies the rub. We speak about love, never questioning it, wanting to experience it, but not pausing to notice how strikingly Biblical it is, or even how radical.  Listen to Paul, writing to the Corinthians.

Love is patient and kind...it is not jealous or boastful..
it is not arrogant or rude...not irritable or resentful..
.it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right;
 it bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things...it never ends.

Those words from 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 are among the most beloved in all of scripture. How often have I read them for couples at their weddings...for that matter, how often at funerals. They are frequently copied by calligraphers, embellished in needlepoint. They lift our spirits, and are truly beautiful. But did you ever notice how practical and down-to-earth they are? Reading these words anew can bring us up short:

“So you think you love, do you?”

“Yes, of course I love.”

 “Very well.  How's your patience? Your kindness?  Any twinges of jealousy? Puffed up with your own importance? Just how kind are you, really? To whom? Resented anyone lately? 

“When were you happy to see someone else shown up as a fake? When did you last rejoice to see someone you don't like do something really good?”

Exalted poetry it is, but this passage has teeth! 

It speaks to me where I live, because when I sit down and take my time, I discover that the Biblical words about love are not a collection of idealistic sentiments, but a detailed inventory for self-examination. Love, as Paul uses it, is not at all abstract, but concrete, demanding, and concerned overwhelmingly with our personal relationships. Love, thus described, is not a feeling, but way of relating to those about us.

“To love” is a verb. “Agape,” the word in the original Greek, literally means “to empty oneself” on behalf of someone else.  It describes Jesus’ willingness to die for us.  It means being willing to lay aside what I want to do, and do what another needs me to do. However, that does not mean doing everything someone else wants me to do. Sometimes love must be tough, leading me to stand back in order to give another person space to take initiative, or to be accountable for the consequences of a decision. It involves a clear sense of which relationships have priority; for no one, save Christ, can give him or herself to the needs of the whole world.

1 Corinthians 13 presents us with a way to examine our lives. It can help us see where we are failing to live according to God's standards, and at the same time it can tell us how to bring our attitudes and behavior back into alignment with God’s intentions for our living. A friend once suggested this passage as the basis for personal confession. I also find it useful as a basis for grasping anew just how serious God is about love, and how practical as well. Reread that passage as part of your Lenten journey; let it address you, and see what you learn about God and about yourself.

Howard MacMullen © April, 2011

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