Bible Reading John 13:34-35, Romans 5:5b-8
During the Last Supper near the end of Jesus life on earth, Jesus expresses what values he most hopes will be most ingrained in his people. He says,
- 34 “I give you a new command: Love each other. You must love each other just as I loved you. 35 All people will know that you are my followers if you love each other.”
- God has poured out his love to fill our hearts through the Holy Spirit he gave us. 6 Christ died for us when we were unable to help ourselves. We were living against God, but at just the right time Christ died for us. 7 Very few people will die to save the life of someone else, even if it is for a good person. Someone might be willing to die for an especially good person. 8 But Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and by this God showed how much he loves us. (ERV)
For generations, it had been a common rule. It first appeared in 1866. It was created as a ditty -- a sing song-y rhythm that helped us remember the rule. But the rule had exceptions. In 1888 the rule was expanded to try and capture the exceptions. But there were too many exceptions and it became complicated and confusing. The rule is "i" before "e" except after "c" and the longer versions such as :”or when it sounds like a short “a”.” But so many words escaped the even the longer versions that the farmer McDonald jumped in with [say the “ei” with uncertain concentration, then the “oh” as a frustrated resignation] “e - i e - i ohhh!” England made it a rule to abolish the rule because it was never really a rule in the first place. If you are a good speller without spell check, it is probably because, at least in this case, you ignored the rule and learned each word by practiced repetition.
Jesus gave us a first rule of love. It wasn’t meant to be complicated or have exceptions. Paul gives us what is known as “the love chapter”, 1 Corinthians 13. It is a familiar passage, especially from its frequent reading at weddings. Unfortunately, that connection tends to relegate the passage to the marriage or “valentine” relationship and not how we are all supposed to treat each other. In it, Paul elaborates on how important the rule is, what the rule looks like, and that we need to grow into this rule of love. He begins with the importance at the end of chapter 12…
- Set your hearts then on the higher gifts. And now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything own and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it benefits me nothing. (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3 (MOUNCE))
i before e… i before U / U before I…
Paul spells out the priority of love. It is far more poetic and much less complicated than the chant of “i before e except after c”. It is central to our Christian faith that we love our neighbor as ourselves. We value having compassion and empathy for others and serving them, but putting “i before u” is so deeply ingrained in the human fallen / sinful nature that even when we want to, even as we follow Jesus, most of us find that putting “u before i” doesn’t come naturally or easily. Saying and knowing the rule and living it are two different things.
Years ago, the Nova TV series advertised that it was going to air an intimate portrait of two groups whose members labor exclusively for the good of the community, where no individual put himself or herself first. Where were these remarkable groups marked by such selflessness? Some previously undiscovered tribe in the African jungle or in the interior of South America or in the far, frozen North? No. As it turns out it was in the common ant and cockroach. To find groups of people that are by nature selfless, Nova looked outside the human species. It is a great challenge to live love consistently.
What it looks like
Paul now describes what that love looks like.
- 4 Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy. Love does not brag, it is not arrogant, 5 it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no account of wrongs, 6 it takes no pleasure in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8a Love never comes to an end... 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a (MOUNCE)
The perfect swish
Someone compared these verses to the perfect shot in basketball. In my day it was called a “swish”. These days they call it “nothing but net”. When said beforehand, it is a claim of assurance that there is no doubt that the perfect shot will indeed be made. When said after, it is a remark of admiration along the lines of applause given to a master violinist or the stare of wonderment of those admiring a great artist. Being able to consistently repeat such quality time and again takes a skill developed by persistent training and practice. To love consistently day in and day out as Paul describes takes a lifetime of persistent training and practice -- especially on those days when life’s circumstances are coming at you like a “full court press” trying to “block your every move” and “bat the ball out of your hand”.
Truth be told, there are days, even the best of us having given our best shot, life painfully “clangs loudly off the rim” or we miss completely with the dreaded “air ball”. We lose our patience against whatever or whoever tests us. Being kind (that is, being helpful, profitable, or beneficial) to some person or group may not enter our mind due to our feelings about them or it just doesn’t dawn on us that they need that kind touch. We may choose to be jealous, bitter, and competitive instead of rejoicing with others’ blessings and gifts and skills; and when we become aware of our failures, our sins, it is easy to beat ourselves up, and to be beaten up by life.
And in our failure, we feel too damaged and broken to play. Basketball has a rule for that too. A fouled, injured player who cannot resume play can be replaced by someone else to shoot the free throws for them, and the coach can pick someone who always hits “nothing but net”. While we were yet sinners and unable to help ourselves, (we heard in the pre-sermon reading) the Father sends Jesus to step in as our substitute with his sinless, obedient life. He is patient not wishing anyone to perish in judgment, but to be saved, Likewise, he perfectly fulfills what is kindness, a lack of competitive envy, humility and modesty, politely encouraging for the good of others… And with that perfect love, he takes our place. He takes our sin and failure on himself (through his sacrificial death on the cross), and in so doing, because of his love --
The rebound / with him, we become better
he also places on us, and in us, his forgiveness, healing and righteousness which allows us to rebound in our life and begin to play again, with him on the court as our personal and team captain. There are those special players on teams that can carry the team on their shoulders in hard times, but more importantly, because of their incredible talent, knowledge, and words, they inspire and increase the level of play of all the players around them. The team begins to work less like individual players competitively, selfishly lifting up their own skills (I’m not sure if that is still the term but we used to call them hot dogs -- and it was what the Corinthians were doing to each other), and they begin using their varied talents and skills to coordinate and contribute more to the team to enhance the team’s effort.
In the following verses, Paul has made it clear that we have not yet arrived, but we need to keep moving forward toward maturity and more fully experiencing God and living in his love, and then he concludes,
- And now remain faith, hope, and love; these three. And the greatest of these is love. Pursue love, (1 Corinthians 13:13-14:1a) (MOUNCE)
Closing Prayer Let’s pray… Lord you gift us with faith in you because you sent your son, that we could trust him for forgiveness and for eternal life, a quality of life that begins even now. You gift us with a hope that we can better walk in that life each day by the power of the Holy Spirit that you have poured out in our hearts. You gift us with love and call us live it out. Because we are loved by you in Jesus Christ, give us the confidence to love, and how to express that love, and who needs to be served by love -- in our words, with our resources, and in every action. Amen.
Closing Hymn The Gift of Love
Closing Blessing Now as we go, may we be strengthened, comforted, and inspired to live a life of love, bringing honor to God through the power of the Spirit and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.