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The Mysterious Chemical X

A Homily from I Corinthians 13:1-13

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

February 1, 2004 (Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany)

In our epistle lesson for today, Paul writes to a small church in a booming, cosmopolitan city. The church is well known for its expressive worship, its emphasis on learning, its commitment to thoughtful faith, and its socio-economic and cultural diversity. We can also infer from Paul’s writing that this church, like all communities of faith, had its share of problems. These included competition and infighting among its highly gifted, well-educated members; and a propensity for interpreting their freedom in Christ as a license to do anything they want to do.

At this point, you may be wondering if our epistle lesson for today is from Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Virginia-Highland. It actually comes from his first letter to the church in Corinth; but there may be more similarities than we might like to admit. This is particularly true – and convenient – since today is the day when we as a whole congregation will map out our strategic plan for the future of the church. How will we as a community embody and carry the gospel in the coming years?

The church in Corinth was asking those same questions, and Paul has some specific answers for them. Over the course of the epistle, he says many useful things like: “Get over yourselves! Following a God who was executed as a peasant is not about boasting;” and “No, you cannot be a Christian and have sex with whomever you like” and “Believing in Jesus means believing that – just as Jesus was physically raised from the dead – so will we be raised from the dead.”

He also spends a great deal of time talking about spiritual gifts, pointing out that every person has a task set for them as part of the Body of Christ; and that every gift is essential. Apparently the Corinthians had a tendency to get a little smug about the things they were good at, and tended to ignore or denigrate the gifts that they did not have.

To counteract that tendency, Paul spends a good deal of time building up all of the spiritual gifts. At the close of chapter twelve, he sounds almost like a cheerleader: “Go apostles! Go prophets! Go tongue-speakers! Go interpreters!”

Then he gets to chapter thirteen, our text for today. There, Paul tells us, “OK, you remember all of those things I just told you about how important our individual gifts and skills are; and how we should nurture them, and how the Body of Christ needs them? Well, every single one of them is worthless unless it also has one particular ingredient.” There’s only one thing that can take those gifts, and make them meaningful.

To borrow from the fine arts – as all good, scholarly pastors should – allow me to cite an example from The Powerpuff Girls. The underlying premise of the show is that an absentminded professor hoped to make three normal little girls; so he added the usual ingredients of sugar, spice, and everything nice. He also added the mysterious “Chemical X” – and instead of getting ordinary children the professor produced little girls with amazing superpowers.

Paul says that there is a Chemical X in Christianity as well, and without it we’re all just a bunch of nice people doing good deeds. That mysterious ingredient is love.

Just to make sure that we get his point, Paul gives us several examples of how worthless our very best talents are without love. His first example is targeted at what we can assume is the Corinthians’ greatest pride: their ability to speak in tongues ecstatically in worship. Paul says, “Even if I could speak with the very voice of the angels – a melody that could turn winter into spring – if I do so in anything but love; it will sound like a noisy cymbal clanking and rattling in the darkness.

Speaking in tongues isn’t really our thing at Virginia-Highland, so permit me to re-interpret Paul a little bit. Even if I throw wide the doors of the church, and offer the gospel without reservation to all of God’s children, regardless of race or culture or sexual orientation, if I do not love them; I am wasting my time.

Paul doesn’t stop there. He picks another example that needs no reinterpretation for our church. He says, “Even if I understand all mysteries. Even if I know everything. Even if I have faith so strong that I can move mountains – just like Jesus said. Even if I have all of these things; if I don’t have love I have nothing.

Now that seems hardly fair. Paul is a great advocate of learning and study, and he’s already told us how important the gifts of teaching and prophesying are. Yet he turns right around and tells us that it doesn’t matter how smart we are, how theologically right we are. All of that is absolutely worthless without love.

Quite frankly, this is the “smartest” church I’ve ever been in; and I’m grateful for that. This is a place where you can get a seminary education sitting in the pews; and many of the members already have one. That’s a good thing, and Paul clearly says so; but he reminds us that we don’t just need to be smart about our faith. We can have full heads, but if our hearts are empty we have nothing. It doesn’t matter how much “better” or “more informed” our theology is than that of our more conservative brothers and sisters. If we don’t have love, it’s hypocrisy, not theology.

In case we haven’t gotten the point, Paul draws out another example. He says, “Even if I were to give up everything I have – even my freedom – for the sake of others; without love I have nothing.” Sacrifice and charitable giving are important, even essential, but if they do not have love; they are meaningless.

So, Paul has made his point quite clearly and repetitively. We need love. That’s all well and good, but what is “love”? Is it the way a parent feels about their child? Is it the way a young couple feels about each other in the first bloom of romance? Is it the way two friends feel about each other?

Paul has a lengthy answer that we’ll go into in a second, but the short answer is “none of the above.” The love Paul is talking about is not a feeling, it’s an action. The love he describes does things.

What does it do? What are we to do, if we are to love one another? If Christians are defined by their love and not just their gifts, what does a follower of Jesus do? Paul tells us:

A Christian is patient. A follower of Jesus waits until the right place and the right time to act.

A Christian is kind. A follower of Jesus is gentle and benevolent, seeking to do what is good and helpful.

A Christian is not jealous. A follower of Jesus does what they do because it is right, not because they want what another has.

A Christian is not boastful or arrogant. A follower of Jesus will follow Him to the cross first, not the throne.

A Christian is not rude. A follower of Jesus acts to bring joy to others, not shame.

A Christian does not insist on getting their way. A follower of Jesus works for Christ’s priorities, not our own.

A Christian is not irritable. A follower of Jesus is not troubled by minor things, and does not act out of grouchiness or annoyance.

A Christian is not resentful. A follower of Jesus trusts that they have what God wants them to have, and that others have what God wants them to have.

A Christian does not rejoice in wrongdoing. A follower of Jesus never acts or works to bring harm or destruction to others.

A Christian rejoices in the truth. A follower of Jesus recognizes and celebrates the will of God, wherever they encounter it.

A Christian bears all things. A follower of Jesus sets out to do whatever task God has called them to do.

A Christian believes all things. A follower of Jesus acts out faith, not out of logic.

A Christian endures all things. A follower of Jesus is in it for the long haul. No matter how tough things get, they stick it out.

If, at this point, you are thinking that maybe you should stop calling yourself a “Christian” – I can sympathize. Just typing up the list made me feel guilty. Nevertheless, Paul is right. A Christian acts first, foremost, and always out of love, and love is defined by the merciful example of our God who lived, suffered, and died as one of us.

That is the unachievable standard, and Paul would be the first to admit that we are not able to meet it. Yet, as Paul will later remind the church at Ephesus, God is able to work within us “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” [Eph 3:20]. We are simply not able to love this well, this strongly, this perfectly; but the God who created us and loves us can.

That’s the love that started it all. We serve a God who is patient and kind to us, who is not irritable or arrogant toward us (even when we deserve it); a God who instead bears our burdens, endures our struggles, and believes in us. When we open ourselves to accepting that love from our very Creator, we slowly learn to act on that same love toward others.

Why is that so important? Why focus first on being kind and supportive when there are so many things that need to be fixed? When there are so many battles that need to be fought? So many injustices that need to be righted?

Because, Paul says, love is the only thing that lasts. It is the only thing that is eternal. It is a castle that will never be taken, a foundation that will never crumble.

Prophesies will be fulfilled and then become irrelevant. All songs and hymns and speeches (and, if you’re lucky, sermons) must come to an end. Everything that we know about the world will someday be irrelevant.

In fact, no matter how much we know – or think we know – we only see a very small part of the magnificent reality of creation. Paul says we are like children, and someday all of the things that seem so important to us now will seem as small and minor as the worries of our childhood.

He goes on to use an often misquoted image. Paul reminds us that as mortals we see the true world – the perfect reality of God’s creation – as if reflected in the distorted image of a funhouse mirror. To quote Paul literally, the image we see, our understanding of how the world works, is an “enigma.” It is a puzzle, and we aren’t even close to figuring it out.

No one could shave in a funhouse mirror without nicking themselves in a few places. And so, we had better act out of love; because we may miss the mark sometimes. In fact, it’s a sure bet that we are wrong about some things. I would even go so far to guess that we could pick any group – Christian or not – whose views we disagree with; and we would find that we are wrong just as often as they are. The only difference being that we are wrong in different areas.

That doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying, or that we don’t value the gifts we have. Remember, Paul’s exhortation to love comes as part of his affirmation of our gifts of study and worship and understanding; not in contradiction to them. It simply means that, in nurturing those gifts, we have to do so out of love; because only in love’s mercy toward the weakness of others can we hope to receive that same mercy for our own weaknesses.

Today we have set aside time as a church to look at what our goals are and to look for tangible ways to act upon those goals. That’s an important process for us as a congregation, and for each of us as Christians. As a part of it, we ask, “What really matters to me?” and then we ask “What can I do to work for the things that really matter?”

Paul reminds us that with every decision we make for ourselves or for our church we must ask additional questions. “Am I acting…are we acting…out of love? Is this the loving thing to do?” Asking this of ourselves is a way of reminding ourselves that, no matter how clearly we think we see our situation, we are only seeing part of the picture; and a reflected, distorted part at that.

Faith and hope allow us to trust that, ultimately, God will take away the mirror, spin us around, and show us the full beauty of eternity. When that happens, everything we’ve done, everything we’ve worked for, everything we have put our energy into will not matter. Everything except one. The love will remain.