What is Love?

Epiphany 4 2016

St. Paul’s Within the Walls

January 31, 2016

“What is love?”


“What is love?  Baby don’t hurt me…don’t hurt me…no more.”

Ok.  I’m hoping that more than just waking you up on a Sunday morning, that short verse from the 1993 song of the same name will set you thinking.

Perhaps those thoughts are of strobe lights and club smoke, with hands going up into the air and the floor bouncing as the Haddaway song “What is love” started pumping through the speakers.

Or maybe you think of Chris Kataan, Jim Carrey, and Will Ferrell bobbing their heads in the Saturday Night Live skit that would later turn into the movie A Night at the Roxbury.

If neither of these come to mind…don’t worry…it’s not the associations but rather the central question in that song that I want to discuss today.

What is love?

We talk about love all the time in the church.

Most of us are aware that John’s Gospel claims that “God is love,” and that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” but we rarely spend a lot of time in the church talking about the nature of love.

It seems appropriate to do so today…a Sunday after celebrating our patron saint’s conversion…when the lectionary presents us with the most famous passage from any of his writings.

First Corinthians chapter 13 forms the high point of Paul’s argument to the Christians gathered in Corinth in the mid 1st century.

It was a community that had many issues within it, but chief among those were the divisions between members that caused them to forsake full communion with each other.

Paul has spent the better part of his letter trying to convince them that the new life they have received in Christ is about forsaking the ways and the categories that their world constructed in favor of an alternative community based on love…rather than class, wealth, or status.

In the previous chapter of the letter he speaks at length about how this new community is like a body, with Christ as the head and with all us baptized as the members, or parts of the body.

Each of us has specific functions to play in the Body of Christ…we have each been endowed by God with various gifts in order to spread the Gospel and extend the joys of the kingdom eternal into this wondrous, but transitory world.

The problem with the Corinthians is that their divisions have weakened this witness, and their factions have received more attention than their shared faith.

In comes Paul’s celebration of love in chapter 13.

Most of us know the words of this hymn to love relatively well, because more often than not, it is one of the readings at most weddings celebrated in churches.

Consequently, so many people hear the words on autopilot when they are spoken…that is if they don’t groan first…and the deep power behind the words often gets lost.

“So… What is love?  According to Pa-ul, to Pa-ul…St. Paul?”

Primarily love is not just an abstract concept…like the philosophy and wisdom he has previously claimed the cross of Christ has rendered foolish…but love is rather an active force.

This distinction is hard to glean from the English translation of the Greek, where love gets “adjective-fied” (yes I made that up)…we hear that love is patient, kind, etc.

But it might be better to render these descriptors more actively as such:  “Love shows patience, love acts kindly” (Brian Peterson).

And Paul is just as clear that love does not express itself in envy or boasting or arrogance, nor insists on its own way.

Now we are starting to get a picture of the nature of love.

An active force that patiently and kindly seeks to bring together the estranged pieces of the Body of Christ and the fragmented elements of all life so that the wholeness and goodness of God… which infused the very created world from the moment there was light…might once more shine freely.

Paul makes the argument throughout 1 Corinthians that love is not only the nature of God, but is also the lifeblood of the church, and the tonic to the divisions that have infected them.

My favorite part of this whole hymn to love is the end where Paul acknowledges that all the instructions and advice he has given to them, and even faith and hope (because they will eventually become sight and fulfillment)…all else will end… but love will not.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Paul’s entire life was turned around when love met him face to face, leaving him blinded on the road to Damascus.

It was the light and love of Christ, the same light and love that made something out of nothing, and which will remain when all else in this world fades… love that is the Alpha and the Omega…the first, the last, the everything.

Most certainly love in all its forms…romantic love that turns into the love of commitment; the unconditional love of a parent for a child; the love that binds friends together; sacrificial love on behalf of others; and the love that forms the foundation of the Church…love is the singularly most important element in all creation.

Love is what characterized Jesus’ life and ministry…in Galilee and on the cross in Jerusalem…so we who follow Christ have an even greater call to be spectacular lovers than the rest of our brothers and sisters within the world.

That means we are called to privilege and cultivate the kind of active love that heals divisions in the body, and that brings life to others and to ourselves…as long as we have breath left in this mortal body.

Even if it costs us, as it cost Jesus in the Gospel today and throughout his ministry.

When you see love at work in the world, it is truly a beautiful and life changing thing.

This past Monday at the ecumenical vespers for Christian Unity, I saw the active love St. Paul talks about here on full display.

Instead of just witnessing an abstract concept of Christian unity, I saw Pope Francis ask the other two ecumenical representatives on his right and left to join him in an unprecedented shared final blessing of the entire body.

That action spoke volumes about the love Pope Francis has for Christian Unity, and for his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

And how fitting that it was done in St. Paul’s basilica with the bones and chains of the Apostle resting only paces away under the nearby altar.

Paul’s mortal body has long since faded, but the love of which he spoke is alive and well and moving more toward “the complete” with each passing moment.

Expressing and sharing that love took work then, and it requires the same attention in our time.

Indeed, only you can do the hard work of discernment to see if you are putting love first in your life…to see if you are actively connecting to the nature of God by concrete expressions of the love we have come to know in Christ.

Is the love you share, in all the forms I mentioned above patient, kind, and free of the characteristics that lead to coercion instead of freedom…to division rather than unity?

Each of us can express love in so many ways: by speaking words that build up another, sharing touch that heals, taking time that soothes, acting in service, and giving meaningful gifts when needed.

And while we do so, we must resist letting the incompleteness of the current time deter us from moving toward the complete.

Are you expressing love in these ways and open to receiving such love from others?

No one can do this work for you…although each of us can be transformed by being shown love (like Paul was)…we have to personally decide to act and walk in love or not.

What is love?

It is the single most important thing you can attend to this week dear sisters and brothers…and I pray that you will find grace, light and wholeness as you do so.



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