There is a story that I read about a while ago about a project undertaken by a sociology class at a university somewhere in the United States. The project was to track a group of former elementary school students who had been part of the same class twenty-five years earlier. The members of this class grew up in an inner city neighbourhood which was economically and socially challenged. When the sociology students began their research they learned that a few of the people in the study group had died but most of them were still alive. Through public information the sociology students were able to find out where the remaining members of the study group lived and what they did for a living. To the researchers’ surprise they found that despite the challenging circumstances in which former classmates were raised almost every one of them were economically and socially successful by American standards. These people were doctors, lawyers, teachers and successful entrepreneurs. Statistically this was an anomoly that astounded the sociology students and they wanted to know how people, who grew up with immense challenges, transcended the socio-economic boundaries that so often hold people back. In order to find out how this was possible the sociology students contacted all the former classmates and interviewed them individually. Each person in the study group was asked what they attributed to their success. The answers to this question astounded the researchers because without exception each one interviewed gave the same answer, “There was a teacher and she loved us.”
Love has the power to transform lives. Jesus knew this very well. Love that is unconditional and persistent, steadfast and sure, no matter what the situation, can change and transform lives.
The Early Christian communities that Paul visited, and corresponded with at various times in their early formation and evolution, struggled with behaviour that was not always in keeping with the example of the selfless and radical love that Jesus embodied. Such was the case with the Christian community in Corinth. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian community is full of encouragement and firmly worded commendations for its members to return to Christ-like behaviour in their life together as a community of faith. In past weeks we’ve heard Paul speak about spiritual gifts as being God-given and meant to be shared for the good of the whole community. He also speaks about each member of the body of Christ as being equally important and valued. In today’s excerpt, from Paul’s letter, he pulls out all the stops and states clearly and plainly that love is the essence and the guiding value of Christian community. Paul addresses some of the ways in which the Corinthians are falling short of Christ-like behaviour when he reminds them that, “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.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Ilia Delio, who was one of the speakers at the Epiphany Explorations symposium that I attended a couple of weeks ago, spoke about “Christian Life in Evolution”. Delio spoke at length about theological, cosmological and scientific understandings throughout the course of history before she settled into the essence of her presentation which was that evolution is Christ-in-the-making. She called this process Christogenesis which she explained is the process of “unfolding love” leading to the “fullness of unity in love”. Delio quoted someone as having said that, “The world is like a crystal lamp illumined by the light of divine love from within.” Mirroring Christ’s own life she believes that “what we are at our core is Love”; divine love – the love that Christ revealed to the world. Delio asked her listeners to “Imagine a future where we are more deeply in love and respectful of each other” and she encourages Christian communities of faith to “strive for greater integral wholeness” and to “seek to form new patterns of relationships”. And, while we are doing this she commends us to ask, “What is the ‘new’ breaking into our midst?” and “what are the visions and dreams inspiring us?” All of this in the context of a deep and abiding faith and hope in the love of God revealed to us in the life and ministry of the Jesus Christ; the Cosmic Christ who transcends all human boundaries of race, economics, religion and other human constructs.
This divine love is manifest in daily living at the very heart of every human life. Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love offers an example of how love can be fully realized. This is not a sentimental passive kind of love that accepts every action and behaviour but is the kind of love that is honest and accountable, that puts the well-being of others in the community first. One commentary that I read this week offered the opinion that, “There is nothing sentimental about the image of love that Paul sets before the church. Such love is active, tough, resilient…” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, pg. 306)
Nellie McLung, a Canadian woman whose Christian faith motivated her to speak and act in favour of social justice was once quoted as saying,
“How very glad I would be to exercise my religion in a peaceable, blameless, mellow way, to sing hymns, read a Bible, teach dainty little dimpled darlings in Sunday school, carry jellies to the sick, entertain strangers, and let it go at that. Then I would have the joy of hearing people say, ‘She is a very sweet woman.’ But here is the trouble. God demands our love, not just our amiability.” (Globe and Mail article by Lorna Dueck, June 29, 2002)
In similar fashion, Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians encouraged them to live the love they’ve witnessed in the life and ministry of Jesus. To be rooted and grounded in the love of God through Christ is to be kind and respectful while being open and honest, it is to value relationships and the good of the community in a way that is wholesome and intentional. This requires persistence, hard work, the ability to admit when one is mistaken and to make amends. It is love that is patient, kind, faithful, hopeful, gracious and forgiving.
Paul encouraged the Corinthians, and through his letters encourages us still, to embrace Christ-like living in our community of faith. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to take seriously the example that Christ set before us and to put into word and action what we profess to believe. Nothing in our behaviour and how we interact as members of the body of Christ is too minor to receive our attention. Mother Teresa once said, “I can do no great things, only small things with great love”.
As God loves each one of us may we love friends and strangers with equal measure, guided and inspired by Christ who leads our way. Holding this intention in our hearts we pray,
Gracious God, You call us by name, loving us as your sons and daughters. We come as the lost and the found, seeking to live in right relationships, guided by your grace and enlivened by your presence. Love us into being, we pray, that in this place and on this journey of faith we may embody your love made known in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in whose name we pray, live, and serve, this day and always. Amen