Have you ever noticed that dentists and dental hygienists are chatty people? They love to ask you questions right after they tell you to “say ah” and squirt water in your mouth. After years of trying to answer their questions with my mouth wide open… I developed a strategy: I ask them questions.
This past week, I had a new dental hygienist – a young woman I’ll call Rachel. In response to my first question about her plans for the weekend, she told me that she planned to do something with her fiancé.’ I thought… aha! So… before I opened my mouth again, I asked her: “Tell me about your plans for your wedding….”
She had many. She told me about her problems with choosing the venue, the guest list problems, the future in-law problems, her challenge with keeping the wedding small but including everyone… all of it seemed fairly typical of things that today’s couples think about. But in all of her talking about the wedding… she didn’t mention a word about the wedding service. So I asked her: What are your plans for the service? Any scripture?
She replied… “Oh… I haven’t even thought about that yet.”
Having been reading and contemplating Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I was sorely tempted to say: “Let me tell you about a more excellent way…”
Paul writes so eloquently and poetically about love in Corinthians that it is often read at weddings. How many of you have heard 1 Corinthians 13 read at a wedding? How many of you had it read at your wedding? It is a beautiful reminder of the power of love.
But… the love that Paul writes about is not… emotional or romantic or nostalgic or sentimental. It is, however, about the way of God. It is a reminder of God’s promise: God loves you’all.
In Jesus’ first sermon to his hometown congregation, he quotes Isaiah saying, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Isaiah 61:1-2). Imagine hearing those words from the hometown boy - after all… wasn’t this Joseph’s son?
Jesus knows their expectations, and tells them, " you will say, "Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.' "
But Jesus didn't perform. Instead, he reminds them that Elijah and Elisha healed outsiders – a foreign widow and a general in their oppressor’s army... They knew the stories.
Jesus reminds them that God’s kingdom is not theirs to command because it is not just for them. And it never has been. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, freedom to those in bondage and to announce God’s embrace of the outsider, the refugee, and God’s welcome of the unwelcome and God’s love of those that they might think were outside of God’s grace.1 This is God’s way. This is the way of love.
The way of love: This is the most excellent way that Paul writes about to the Corinthians – who were having a big church fight. They were a community divided. And so Paul reminds them – and us – about both the variety and the importance of all of the gifts God gave them. And then… he tells them: I will show you a more excellent way” and proceeds to tell them the way to use their many gifts. This is the way of love, the way of Christ. Love is not a gift that is available only to some. It is not listed with all of the other gifts. The way of love, the way of Christ, is a way to live.
Paul knew that the Corinthians couldn’t sustain their faith community without the way of Christ, the way of love. And neither can we.
So how is Paul urging the Corinthians – and us – to pursue this “more excellent way?” My seminary Greek professor, Dr. Jim Boyce, explains that the “way” is an invitation to a journey, a venture whose end is known only to God. And so we are called to trust in the promises of God who is faithful, and who has called us into community.2
This is a journey that requires participation. It is not an invitation to sit and ponder how beautiful the love of others – say a wedding couple --- but an invitation for all of us to be a part of the way, the journey, the venture whose ending is unknown. This is an invitation to “Pursue love” because that is God’s way.
Paul is not theoretical about how to do this. He writes: “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.”
Listen to those verbs of what love is. These are action verbs, proclaiming that the one who acts out of love will NOT be: Envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, insist on their own way, irritable, resentful or rejoice in wrongdoing. Instead, the one who loves will be: Patient, kind, hope-filled, bearing with the other, rejoicing in the truth.
These are two different ways of being. Love is the way of Christ. This is the way for Christians to act, and to be on our journey.
Yet, as Paul admits from his own experience, living into the way of Christ doesn’t come automatically. We are not transformed into perfect Christians the moment that we are baptized. Living into the way of love, the way of Christ is a process… a journey for us to pursue our whole lifelong. And… it is a journey for us to take and to live into – not on our own – but in community, in the community of Christ.
This is the message that I wanted to share with Rachel, the dental hygienist. I wanted to let her know that Jesus has invited her – and her fiancé – to “pursue love” but not just the romantic love that they share – which is wonderful – but into the way of love, the way of Christ. And that… if they could pursue the way of love in their marriage and in a Christian community… they would be blessed far beyond what they could imagine.
This is not to say that all of the problems of venues and guest lists and family dynamics would disappear. No… they will follow you. But… so will the promises of Jesus.
When Paul writes, “Pursue love,” and when Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another” it is not to give us an impossible task. Rather, the command to love one another reveals the promises of God and the way in which God wants us to live out God’s love for the world. We are to live in Christian community.
Again, it is not always perfect – the Corinthians are a good example of a church full of divisions. And it is still true today – we are saints and sinners…we are not perfect but are still on our journey. But… unlike other organizations whose goal may be for power or wealth or fame… our purpose is what Jesus commanded us: “love God and love your neighbor.” Or as Paul writes, “Pursue love.” And, when we do this, when we act as Jesus would have us act, when we live into God’s way, then we bring to light God’s promises and realize the blessings of Christian community supporting not only one another but also the neighbor, the other, the refugee, the poor and in doing so, we follow God’s way and do God’s mission in the world. Amen.
Pastor Pam Stalheim Lane, Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church February 3, 2019
1 Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher, 2010 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=550
2 James Boyce, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1540