Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (31 January 2016) by Revd Rosemary Morton, Succentor

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Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (31 January 2016) by Revd Rosemary Morton, Succentor

What does it mean for the Church to live as a community of love, asks Revd Rosemary Morton

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Love is patient; love is kind

Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ These words are probably not unfamiliar to us. If we’ve been to a church wedding it is quite likely that we have heard this read – but this is not about romantic love.

This passage continues on from the one we heard last week concerning the variety of spiritual gifts given to the church. Paul writes to the Corinthians: ‘To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.’

The Corinthians were actively pursuing the gifts that Paul is talking about, and there is nothing wrong with these things in themselves, but there is a danger that the Church in Corinth will measure themselves, their abilities, and their status relative to one another based on these gifts. And, if in the process they forget about loving their brothers and sisters then these gifts become worthless.

Paul is warning against this loss of love.

Without love it doesn’t matter what budgets, buildings, or Mission Action Plans we have – such things on their own don’t give the church the shape that God desires. 

In our pursuit of spirituality, proper doctrine or justice-based activism, which are all fine things, we mustn’t forget that the Church is called to be a community that practices love. The list of things that love ‘is’ (patient, kind, etc.) show love to be a busy and active thing that never ceases to work.

This is not meant to be a flowery description of what love ‘is’ in an abstract or theoretical sense but instead a description of what love ‘does’, especially what it does to our brothers and sisters in the Church. It is in the difficult realities of relationships and communities that the love described by Paul needs to be lived out in costly ways. This was as true then as it is now, we still see the cost of this love played out.

Paul doesn’t actually say that love feels good – this kind of expectation creates difficulties for the Church. Because we have muddled assumptions about what love really is, we often act as though the mission of the church is to gather likeminded people together, and that in these communities that we have constructed we will be able to ‘feel the love’. But true love, of the nature that Paul describes isn’t measured by how good it will make us feel.

‘Today the Primates agreed how they would walk together in the grace and love of Christ’ said a statement issued following the Anglican Primates meeting just over a week ago. The action of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America in affirming the full inclusion of LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) Christians in the life and witness of the Church was said by the Primates to ‘impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us’.

The consequences of the action of the Episcopal Church (and this is what is has been referred to, rather than sanctions, however much it feels like that) mean that it cannot represent the Anglican Communion on committees or take part in decision-making about matters of doctrine for a period of three years.

It really doesn’t feel very loving – the consequences of love are exclusion. What will be the consequences for those who continue to treat LGBTI people as second-class, as less than ‘fully human’ and who, despite the Primates' words, support or just stand by in the face of criminal sanctions against LGBTI people? Although many in the Church feel that the inclusion of LGBTI people in the full life of the Church is a matter of justice, we are led to believe that we can ‘disagree well’ with those who are against full inclusion, or inclusion on any level. 

Is ‘good disagreement’ a real thing?

It is interesting that we are being told that we can have good disagreement about the inclusion of LGBTI people in the life of the church. Though we may have done so in the past, would we now say this about people from ethnic minorities, or women, or those with disabilities – or is it just LGBTI people who are the last bastion of bigotry and undeserving of love? Social and cultural concerns press upon the Church, and lead some within the Church to insist on their own way.

When this happens, Christians seem to have a special gift for cloaking self-interest with self-righteousness. In contrast, Anna and Simeon, in our gospel reading, are looking for God. They are not concerned that people should see they were right; they only want, with desperation, to see God glorified. The Corinthians have confused the incidental trappings with the reality,
the gifts with the glory.

They have become so enchanted with the things that they can now do, thanks to God, that they have lost track of God. Paul’s words about the priority of love can help both us and the Church to understand that there are things which are more important than being right or powerful or honoured. If we, or the Church at large, do not do what we do in a spirit of love, then all religious talk, knowledge, and piety add up to nothing.

Without love, we are like the salt that has lost its saltiness and not good for anything.

Those who think they have gained everything by standing on principle, by dominating others, or by being right, have lost it all.

Paul is speaking about the love embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. This love is not in the first instance a feeling, but an action. This love seeks not its own good, but the good of the one who is loved. It seems to be that this is precisely the kind of love that the American Episcopal Church has embodied through their actions.

All of us have room to grow

– the standard of love is, after all, set by God and made real in Christ. As Paul tells us, we are each part of the body of Christ, which is the Church, part of the community that is called to practice the love of which Paul writes. And if that community is not practising the love that Paul describes then we can, and we should, do something about it.

As we come to the Eucharist we share in the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, offered for us in a love so fierce that no sacrifice was a sacrifice too far. As we receive these gifts, may we be empowered to work together as the body of Christ, living out that fierce love, a love that is patient and kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. Which does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful; does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

A love which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. A love which is faithful and true, and utterly extraordinary.