Sermon Epiphany 4
Throughout this season of Epiphany, we have learned of the ways that Jesus Christ is revealed to us as God.
Last Sunday, we heard the story of Jesus preaching in his hometown and learned that he is revealed to us in the Word of God. Jesus shared his mission statement with us in his inaugural sermon.
This week, God is revealed to us through a song. Our hymns and songs are poetry set to music. The book of psalms is the prayer book and hymnal of the Bible. It was the prayer book and hymnal that Jesus used.
The early church continued to use it in worship and added some new hymns of their own. First Corinthians 13 is one of those early Christian hymns.
Today’s second reading is familiar to most of us. Even people who don’t attend church regularly have probably heard it because it is often read at weddings.
Paul liked to insert hymns into his writings to make a point. This familiar hymn teaches us that God’s love is stronger than anything else.
Paul used this hymn when he was writing to the church in the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was set on a narrow strip of land that connected the larger areas of what is now northern and southern Greece.
The city of Corinth reminds me of the area around the Panama Canal, except there was never a canal there. Corinth had ports on both sides. It was a huge commercial area. People from all over the Mediterranean came to trade their goods. Many lived and worked there. Some were Jewish, most were Gentiles.
Naturally, in a big city like that, there were all kinds of people: rich people and poor people and working class people. There were people who owned the large shipping boats and people who unloaded them. All these kinds of people were members of the church.
Paul had started the church there, then he moved on to start other churches. Then a follower of Christ named Apollos came and lead the Corinthian church for a time. Then Apollos moved on.
Of course, there were no church buildings back then, so people met in houses. So you can imagine a dozen or so house churches, each with about this many people worshipping there each week.
The only houses that were big enough to hold a large group belonged to the rich people, so they always thought they should be the leaders in the congregations.
Usually, the rich did not socialize with the lower classes. Usually, the poor would not go into the house of a rich person except as a servant. But Paul told them that the church would be different from the usual ways of doing things.
In addition to the economic differences among the people, there were ethnic differences. There were Jews and Greeks, of course, but the Greeks were a diverse bunch themselves. There were the native Corinthians, and then there were the immigrants, the ones who moved there for the low paying jobs.
These new Christians came from groups that had worshipped a variety of different gods, competing gods. Their backgrounds were all different, so it was natural that their viewpoints were very different. They had disagreements.
Paul spends a great deal of time in this letter addressing the problems the church was having. Paul is like a bishop writing to a congregation that he started that is having problems. He has a deep concern for them. He knows them. They are his people.
They are fighting though. They are fighting about to serve Communion. They are fighting about the potluck dinners. They are fighting about worship – who gets to lead and how it is conducted. They are even fighting about what you should wear to church and how the women should fix their hair.
They are fighting about who was a better pastor, Paul or Apollos. They are fighting about sexuality. They even brought lawsuits against each other. They talked of dividing the church.
I wish I could tell you that Paul wrote them this letter and the letter solved everything. I wish I could say that no one in the church has ever had any of those problems since. But some things don’t change. The church is still made up of sinners and we still argue about the things that divide us.
But Paul did write this letter to them and his message is just as important to us. There is a more excellent way.
Paul gave them a hymn to sing together. It has been said that whoever sings, prays twice. And prayer changes us.
When you think about it, it is very difficult to remain angry when you are singing a hymn. Even if you are not singing and you are just listening, you are praying.
Last Thursday evening I was doing my taxes. I couldn’t figure out what I needed to do so that the submit button would work and I was getting very frustrated and annoyed. Then I heard something. It was six o’clock and the carillon started playing. I have it set to play one hymn every evening. Just hearing that hymn changed my mood.
Paul gives us a hymn about the love of God in Jesus Christ. He reminds us that there is nothing greater, nothing stronger.
He says it doesn’t matter how smart we are, how rich we are, how religious we act. If we don’t have God’s love, we can forget everything else. Everything else will pass away. Everything else is worthless without love.
Then he tells us what love looks like. It turns out it isn’t all mushy and sweet like a Valentine card. Love requires hard work from us. We have to be patient and kind with each other. We can’t insist on having everything our own way. We have to put up with things we don’t like.
We can’t act like we are better than anyone else. We can’t rejoice when something bad happens to people we don’t like. Love requires sacrifice and acting like a mature person.
Love is the very picture of mutual respect. It requires being in relationship with our neighbors, not just the ones we like, either, but all of our neighbors.
Jesus Christ is the model of this love for us. He is patient and kind. He rejoices in the truth. He endured all things for us. He even endured the cross and grave for us. By his suffering, he proved that God’s love is stronger than anything. Love is even stronger than death.
Paul wrote loving advice to the troubled Corinthian church. He told them to use the gifts that God have given each of them. He said there is an even more excellent way and he gave them a hymn to sing. That hymn was about God’s love.
Garrison Keillor says singing with Lutherans is one of the main joys of life. Let us now sing together joyfully about God’s love. Amen.