By Joey Royal
I spend a fair bit of time talking to people who aren’t Christians, particularly to people who have deliberately chosen to not be a Christian because they have objections to Christianity or the Bible. I’m always interested in hearing what their objections to Christianity are — sometimes they tell me that they think science has disproven the Bible, or that they could never believe a loving God could send people to hell. Other times their rejection of Christianity comes out of deep pain or distress in their life, and they wonder how a good God could allow so much pain or suffering in the world.
These are very important questions, and I do plan on addressing them in this church. But not today.
Today I want to begin with what I think is the most common objection to Christianity: the moral failures of the church. In our culture, many people have rejected Christianity because they are disappointed or disillusioned or disgusted with the church. They may feel the way Mahatma Gandhi felt when he said to a group of missionaries: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”
For those of us who count ourselves Christ-followers, those words should hurt. They are meant to. And which of us can’t see some truth to this criticism — why is it that we who call ourselves Christians are so unlike the person we claim to follow?
The church’s moral failures have undermined the Gospel because they all arise from our failure to love. And if love is absent from the church, then Christ is absent too, so no wonder people so often reject what they see. I want to address this failure to love, and I want to do that by looking carefully at the words of Paul in our epistle today.
The passage we just read (1 Corinthians 13) is one of the most famous of all Paul’s writings, often called the “love chapter.” In it Paul beautifully lays out the characteristics of true Christian love in such an eloquent way that it almost reads like a poem. This is why so many people choose to have it read at their weddings.
The trouble, though, is that often we take it out of context. Paul wasn’t writing a wedding poem, or an isolated reflection; he was writing a letter to a church. Not just any church either; he was writing about the Church in Corinth, a church notorious for its moral failures. If there ever was a church that would turn someone away from Christianity, it was the Corinthian church. They ignored the poor, they slept around, they solicited prostitutes, they got drunk during Communion, they were constantly trying to “one-up” each other over who was a better Christian, they were suing one another in court, and they were generally confused on the most basic Christian teachings. It would be hard to imagine a more messed-up church.
But, despite the rampant corruption, God was still working among the Corinthian people. They were recipients of special gifts from the Holy Spirit — gifts like wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, teaching, administration, gifts of helping, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in strange languages (“tongues”), the ability to interpret these strange languages, and so on. God had poured out his Spirit on this church, and remarkable things were happening in spite of the troubles. (God still does this today, by the way. If you are a Christian, you have a gift from the Holy Spirit).
But here’s the trouble in Corinth: God had given gifts to people in the church for the purpose of building up and helping others. And that wasn’t happening. These gifts were being used for their own benefit. God had designed the church so that the people would all fit together harmoniously like parts of the body — everyone helping one another with the gifts they had been given. And what happened? They blew it. They used it all for their own gain.
So Paul reminds them that God has given them gifts and abilities to benefit others, not just themselves. Paul calls the church the “body of Christ” and tells us that Christ is the head, and the rest of us are other body parts, and that we’re joined together in one unit. And then Paul says something surprising: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (12:26).
Listen to what he is saying: If one person in the church suffers, we all suffer with them. If one person is honored, we all rejoice with them.
What Paul is saying here is truly amazing: If you are a Christian, then you are joined together with other Christians. Other Christians are your true family. Whether you like them or not doesn’t matter much; you are still bonded together with them. If you’ve said “yes” to Jesus, then you’ve said “yes” to his people. But the reverse is also true: If you say “no” to the church, then you also are saying “no” to Jesus. You can’t take Jesus and ignore his disciples — Jesus and the church are a package deal.
So now we get to the part about love. Paul says all these gifts — even the amazing, miraculous ones — aren’t worth a rip if we don’t love each other. No matter how gifted we may be, if we don’t love our brothers and sisters, then all of this is just noise. And if it’s all just noise, then let’s pack it in and forget about it. That’s the context of the love chapter — it’s about how the church (that’s us) is to relate to one another.
The implications of Paul’s words are this: If there’s no love in the church, then there’s no Jesus in the church. So Christian love is pretty serious business — the church lives or dies based on the love among its members.
So what is this Christian love? What does it look like? Paul describes it this way: Love is patient, kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but instead rejoices with the truth. And then Paul adds that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” What I think he’s getting at is that love is like the “glue” that binds us to Christ and binds us to each other. Without that glue, none of it holds together.
When I was a teenager, a pastor once asked a group of us to read this passage. So we read through the description of love that I just read you. Then he asked us to read it again, but this time instead of the word love, we were to insert our names (“Joey is patient, Joey is kind”). So I did, and the further down the list I got, the more discouraged I felt. And he asked us to reflect on the extent to which our lives embodied this kind of love.
At that point I realized that, from a human perspective, this kind of love is impossible. If it is only up to us, we will very seldom love others in this way. More often, we look out for ourselves and our own interests. We do this because we are sinners, and the church’s failure to love had everything to do with the fact that we are sinners who very often choose to ignore God. God made us for love, but we’ve chosen to go our own way.
But that’s not the whole story. Because then the pastor told us to read 1 Corinthians 13 again, but this time instead of love we were to put Jesus’ name in there. And here’s how it read: “Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast; Jesus is not arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way; Jesus is not irritable or resentful; Jesus does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”
Then it made sense. This kind of love has everything to do with Jesus. The call here is not for us to focus on ourselves. When we focus on ourselves, we either focus on our superiority to other people, which translates into pride, or we focus on our shortcomings, which translates to despair. The call is to focus on Jesus, who showed us what love looks like by dying for us, and who gives us the Holy Spirit to empower us to love like Christ.
The fact is we don’t have the resources to love in this way. If loving in this way is purely up to us, we will fail. But if we turn our lives to Christ, we are given the power of God. Only then, in his strength, can we live like this. The church belongs to Jesus, not us; and the love that holds us together is the love of Christ, not our feeble imitations.
Remember earlier I said that love was the glue that holds the church together? Here’s the catch, though: We don’t create that bond. The Holy Spirit creates that bond. The Holy Spirit binds us together in love. Our job is to preserve and maintain that bond. When we become Christians, the Spirit links us with Jesus and with other Christians. Keep that unity going: that’s our job.
I began this morning talking about the fact that the church’s failure to love is one of the most significant stumbling blocks for people in our culture. People look at the church and often see a lack of love, and it makes no sense. And the worst of it is that our critics are often right.
So what’s the answer then? The answer is not to deny it, because the reality is that the church is sinful and has done plenty wrong. That’s true.
But equally the answer is not just simply to try harder with our own efforts, because as I said, if it’s up to us alone, we will fail.
No, the answer is always to turn to Christ. Away from ourselves and to Christ. Christian love isn’t about more effort from us, it’s about more trust in God. This is Christ’s church, and it is Christ’s love that binds us together. We need to keep our eyes on him. Christ is our only hope in this life and the next, and without him we’re sunk; but with him, and with the Holy Spirit among us, we can do seemingly impossible things like love each other selflessly.
Paul ends this passage so beautifully. After describing the ways in which love — unlike other gifts — will pass away, he then closes with this perfect line: “So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
And love abides because Jesus abides.
The Rt. Rev. Joey Royal is suffragan bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of the Arctic.