Nowadays, we typically spend 18 of the first 22 years of our lives in full-time education. And that’s not the end of it. There is post-grad school, employment training, books and journals to read, part-time and on-line courses to take. We spend a lot of time learning skills and acquiring knowledge. We can build skyscrapers, we can split the atom, we can replace joints, we can dig right into the mysteries of life and the universe.
St. Paul writes, “If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Kind of puts it into perspective, doesn’t it? We spend an immense amount of time and effort acquiring knowledge. How much time and effort do we spend learning to love?
It’s not a question of fleeting significance. “As for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues they will cease; as for knowledge it will come to an end.”
But love never ends.
The reading we heard this morning, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, is perhaps one of the most familiar in all of scripture. That’s because it’s the “love chapter”, the one that so many of us choose to have read at our weddings. Guylaine and I chose this text for our wedding, and it is a beautiful way for a newly married couple to set out on their journey. Just before two people make their vows to love one another for the rest of their lives, it makes so much sense to be reminded of what love is and is not. Love is patient; love is kind, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. Love is not envious or boastful. Love is not irritable or resentful. Love does not insist on its own way. That’s a good reminder, a great text for a wedding.
But this would also make a great text for a funeral!
Because did you notice as you were listening this morning that Paul is also writing about what happens when we die? This is a text where Paul is grappling with the mystery of eternal life.
“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.”
Jesus talks about eternal life a lot too. Especially in John’s gospel, we are told that the very reason Jesus came was so that we could have eternal life. Over the centuries, in part due to the influence of Greek mythology and medieval literature, we have tended to think of “eternal life” as “heaven”, and we usually talk about heaven as the place we go after we die. Which is why we tend to get a bit confused when we go back to scriptures and Jesus talks about eternal life as a present reality, something we can experience here and now.
How does that work? According to Paul, the thread that holds it all together, the overlap, if you like, between this life and eternal life, is love.
We don’t normally read the love chapter at funerals. But we do read another of Paul’s great statements about love, found in the eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
When we die, much of what is familiar will end. Knowledge will come to an end. Bodies will come to an end. Possessions will come to an end. But there is one thing that will remain. Love never ends. Love abides. Love is what will endure beyond death. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Love is the enduring feature of eternal life, the active element of this life that continues beyond the grave. The reason that we can experience eternal life here and now is that we can experience love in this life. Perhaps not fully yet, we are after all still in learning mode. But in this life, in this mirror in which we see dimly, even now our connection to God and to one another is love. It is no accident that when Jesus was asked which was the greatest of the commandments, he said that we are to love God and to love one another. Neither was it a coincidence that that last instruction he gave to his disciples before he left this life was that they were to love one another.
When you look at things from the perspective of eternal life, which is what Paul is trying to do in this chapter, you realize that our primary task in this life is to learn to love.
How are we doing with this?
My son is at medical school. He wants to learn to be a doctor. And you know what? Our society has invested a huge amount of time and effort and money into making that happen. There is a highly structured program of classroom learning, clinical rotations, practical experience, seminars, textbooks, databases and residencies all designed to teach my son to be doctor. We’re really good at helping people learn to be doctors.
But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a lot more important to learn to love than to learn to be a doctor. How are we doing? I’m not sure that I see the same social infrastructure set up, the same time and effort invested in teaching people to love. Maybe that’s why we need church.
If the primary task of this life is to learn to love, then the primary task of the church is to be a community within which people can learn to love, can practice love, can experience love, and in so doing get a taste of eternal life.
Or as Brian McLaren puts it, the church needs to become a school for love.
Here’s how we fit into the curriculum:
Love 1.0 begins for most of us in the family. Couples fall in love, we develop intense bonds of affection with our children, and we depend on each other for our well-being. We get our first lessons in loving within the family, a gift of God supported by millennia of evolutionary history. Family life, ideally, helps us to experience and understand what love is, makes love feel good and natural, and provides us with a secure environment in which to practice love. That’s a great start.
Love 2.0 moves us beyond our immediate tribe. We make friends, and we practice love beyond the boundaries of the family. We become aware of the choices we make to love other people, and we learn to negotiate in a loving way the differences that people from different families bring to the table.
So far so good. But in all likelihood our family and friends consist of people a lot like us, affinity groups with shared values and assumptions. The next lesson in love occurs when we encounter people who are different from us. People for whom we have no feeling of love. People we may not even like.
That’s where church comes in! Let’s call this Love 3.0. The primary task of the church is to be a community within which we can be intentional about learning to love, and within which we can love people who are not like us. The church is at its best when it is diverse and inclusive, and that means that there are people who are not like me, who think differently, who live differently. That’s the sort of community where we learn to experience love as patient, love as not insisting on its own way.
In the church we believe that God is love, and we believe that Jesus shows us that divine love in human form. Love becomes the centre of our community. We receive God’s love, and then we learn to love one another. We welcome one another, we practice humility, we share a sign of peace, we gather around a table, we care for each other, we practice compassion, we pray for each other, we laugh, we cry, we sing together. We don’t always get it right, but when we don’t we confess our failings and accept forgiveness. Then we forgive others. We are grateful for what we receive and generous in what we give. In every aspect of our communal life, in our worship, in our fellowship, in our service, in our teaching, and in our care for one another, the church becomes a school for love, a community in which love is intentionally learned, practiced and experienced.
Of course, according to Jesus, there’s still more. He’s going to push us even further, to another level, call it Love 4.0. He will tell us that we are to love our enemies. That’s going to be a challenge for most of us. Learning to love is not just our primary task in this life, it is also the most difficult.
So let’s get to it. School is in session.
Love one another. Because love never ends.
Homily. Yr C Proper 4, February 3 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Jer 1.4-10; Ps 71.1-6; 1 Cor 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30
Image by Alberto Begue, Creative Commons