SERMON PREACHED AT THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
FRED’S PASS (NORTHERN TERRITORY)
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY (3rd February) 2013
1 Corinthians 13
What a surfeit of readings! Every now and again the lectionary throws us a vast feast of pivotal moments in scripture: the call of Jeremiah, which, along with the call of Isaiah and other prophets stands as a prototype of the touch of God’s hand on all our lives. The Psalm, which along with Psalm 139, reminds of the depth of God’s knowledge of every fibre of our being. The attempted assassination of Jesus which reminds us that, long before the events of the Passion, his prophetic proclamation of truth and justice was leading him into conflict with corrupt authorities, secular and would-be sacred alike.
I cannot pretend to blend the readings into the theme of perseverance in faith – or perhaps I can, but only in passing. And, as a lover of Paul’s faith and theology I can hardly go past his
Hymn to Love. While this passage doesn’t quite drive to the heart of his soteriology (theory of salvation) it drives to the heart of his expectation of the lives of those who profess to follow Jesus, those who profess the Lordship of Jesus. If I have not love then I am no more than a clanging gong or a noisy cymbal. We need to hold this powerful attestation in tension with two other great Pauline statements: ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’, and ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’. The last two at least provide an escape clause when we are confronted with the task of preaching on love, painfully aware of our own human inadequacies. I will fall short, but by the grace of God may I be a vessel of God's love.
As it happens these come each from a different letter of Paul, each from a different context, each addressing a community with different presenting issues. We can be only too painfully aware that the community in Corinth had ceased to be a community of love – indeed a journey through the several parts, the several letters that we know as First and Second Corinthians takes us deeper and deeper into the Corinthians’ failure to exemplify even the rudiments of love to Paul and to the faith he lived and died for. The Corinthians, forerunners of much contemporary Christianity (perhaps much Christianity from go to whoa), had turned the way of the Cross into a form of entertainment, and were defending their own particular entertainment interests. They were as a consequence of this, wracked by schisms and interest groups. They were not a walking advertisement of the Way of Jesus Christ, and Paul was increasingly outraged.
Yet in his anger he turned not to destructive fury but a celebration of the greatest Christian challenge, the challenge to exemplify love. Scholars are divided as to whether he actually wrote I Cor 13, or was citing a hymn beloved of the Corinthians congregation. I see no reason to suppose Paul didn’t write it, but think scholars are right to believe that it was a hymn of creed that was at the heart of Corinthian congregational life. If it wasn’t then, it soon was, for, although the close of 2 Corinthians suggests that Paul was losing the battle for the hearts of the Corinthian Christians, the fact we still have this magnificent passage, and the fact that there are subtle allusions to it in the Book of revelation suggest that ultimately, perhaps after he had died, Paul’s passion won the day.
Which brings me to Diana, Princess of Wales. Just as for a previous generation the death of J. F. Kennedy was a defining moment, for many of my generation the death of the Princess of Wales was a defining moment, and many of us can say where we were when we heard of it (I was in Unley, Adelaide, coming home from church). Attempts to portray one as a great national leader and the other as a flawed product of women’s mags and paparazzi are doomed to failure. All have sinned and fallen short: both were human beings with great heart and vision and with great flaws.
But I will never forget Tony Blair’s recitation of 1 Corinthians 13 at Diana’s funeral a few days later. It was dramatic – even more than Diana’s brother’s vitriolic but strangely poignant speech. It was in a sense a little optimistic: Diana was not the epitome of human love. But nor am I and nor are you, and nor can any of us even begin to be unless we are invaded by the Spirit of Christ, and even then – and this sentence gats longer and longer – we will be flawed and fallible shadows of all that we are called to be. But that is our call, the heights to which we are called to aspire, of which we are bound to fall short, yet to which in the end , perhaps in a heavens and earth not yet seen, we will be transformed. It is after all in the same letter that Paul speaks of transformation from mortality to immortality, and, implicit in that, is the transformation from fallibility to an as yet unimaginable perfectedness.
But let us not run ahead of ourselves. In the meantime, like Jeremiah, we are the unworthy servants of a call in which we shall again and again fall short. Yet the God who knows our innermost being does continue, where we allow it, to transform us. We are called to surrender again and again, to receive Christ’s redeeming love again and again, to open ourselves up to transformation again and again. It is to that journey we recommit each time we make Eucharist together.