The greatest of these is love

4th Sunday of Epiphany: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4: 21-30

Today’s epistle is one of the more familiar passages of scripture, where Paul tells us that love is the greatest spiritual gift. When I first saw that this was the reading, I thought, oh, yeah, I know this. No need to think. But as I read it again, I realized that it is a message for all of us. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard Paul talking about spiritual gifts, and today he tells us that if those gifts, whether speaking in tongues, prophecy, or faith are not exercised with love, they are worthless.

“Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude”. Uh-oh. I like to think that my faith is anchored in love, and that I show love at all times. But we’re two years into the pandemic, and my love for those who have not been willing to make the small sacrifices to protect others has been sorely tried. No, let me be honest. I am impatient with those who won’t wear masks, and who won’t get vaccinated. I’m arrogant about my choices, and while I’m not rude in public, I am in my head.

Christians have always divided on a range of issues: whether the nature of the Trinity in the 4th century, or the meaning of the Eucharist in the 16th. Today those debates are centered on issues of identity: race, gender and sexuality. Can women preach? Can gays and lesbians be married? Is abortion the greatest sin? What do we owe (if anything) to the descendants of those slaves who built up the wealth of this country, and of many of our churches? Many of these have become not just religious debates, but political ones. It’s complicated, and hard.

Opponents of the ordination of women, or gay people, or of abortion, or reparations have not been precisely loving to those of us who disagree with them. It is difficult to respond to demonization with love. But that is exactly what God is calling us to do. It’s hard work.

Given this, I was grateful for today’s psalm, one of my favorites.

“Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;

you are my crag and my stronghold” (Psalm 71:3).

Whenever I read this, I think of Durham Cathedral in England, perched on a rock above the River Wear. Now they tout the woodland paths along the riverbank, but the walls of the Cathedral were part of Durham Castle; the Bishop had not only religious but political and military power. It was indeed a castle to keep you safe. If we have that strong rock, we may have the courage to love.

Durham Cathedral from the River Wear

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