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That’s Radical, Man

February 4, 2013

“‘That’s Radical, Man’” 1 Corinthians 12:27-14:1a © 2.3.13 Ordinary 4C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

My how times have changed! Today almost no one raises an eyebrow when someone plays a guitar in worship. But back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, that instrument was forbidden, at least in the congregation in which I grew up. That’s because guitars were played by those long-haired hippie types in bands like Cream and Iron Butterfly. They were pagan instruments, associated as they were with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. If someone like me wanted to play one in church, it had to be on a Sunday night, in a youth service, and only once in a great while. And it couldn’t be amplified. Strictly acoustic and softly strummed or finger-picked. Every so often we pushed that boundary, playing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun,” but such appropriation of secular music for spiritual purposes was more indulged than approved by the session, the minister, and parents. There was a lot of head-shaking and laments of “these kids today” and all that.

Another crazy idea my friends and I came up with was to read 1 Corinthians 13 while in the background the organist played “What the World Needs Now is Love.” Some of you may remember that song. In it, the singer told God “Lord, we don’t need another mountain” or valley or river. What we had to have instead was “love, sweet love.” Of course we couldn’t do such scary, experimental stuff on Sunday morning. Thank goodness we still had an evening service or all the teens in the church would have been bored.

Those things we did seem pretty tame today. But in the slang of that time of ferment, they were “radical, man.”

By my middle teens, I had had Latin in school, but I’m not sure I really knew what “radical” meant. It was just something to say to express approval. Without knowing it, though, in reading 1 Corinthians 13 to the congregation that evening, I was inviting those staid Presbyterians to a truly radical lifestyle, in two senses of that word. Paul’s poem to love gets down to basics, the root of what it means to be a believer and truly human being. And his ideas are extreme, requiring a fundamental change in behavior, an adoption of a way of living outside the norm of society.

We typically hear this text in weddings. Or maybe a part of it is done in calligraphy and framed as a gift to the couple. Unfortunately, it sometimes gets bogged down in what one writer has called a “quagmire of romantic sentimentality” (Richard Hays). Love is something in a fairy tale, like Shrek or “Cinderella” or any story that begins “once upon a time” and ends “and they lived happily ever after” and in between features prominently the notion of the power of “true love’s kiss.” The text can be co-opted, like in the current TV commercial in which a jeweler from New Albany hawks expensive engagement rings while a part of 1 Corinthians 13 is read.

Still, it rightly belongs in those times of worship when two people promise to give themselves unreservedly to each other. Anyone who has been married even a little while knows that successful unions require a lot of self-sacrifice, patience, and trust, along with all the other qualities Paul says love displays. Even the fairy tales acknowledge that. Robust, enduring, hopeful love especially is required when one partner or the other gets sick or disabled or starts spending too much or becomes a slave to some obsession or seems to be irritable all the time, when the kids have problems or the in-laws interfere constantly or something vital seems missing that once was there.

Love in individual and family relationships can be difficult and demanding as well as joyous and fulfilling. There’s no doubt about and no discounting that. But if we limit our understanding of love as applicable only to individual relationships, whether marriage, friendship or parenting, we only scratch the surface of what Paul intends. I would even say we tame him a bit. We privatize love, when Paul intends for us to recognize it as a quality of the life of a community, expressed very publicly amid all the problems, politics, and posturing we see when people gather in groups for whatever purpose.

Paul’s particular emphasis is, of course, the church, a certain congregation with a multitude of concerns as well as abundant possibilities. The apostle had founded the church, then moved on to other places. Some in the congregation maintained their loyalty to him, while others decided they preferred Apollos with his spell-binding sermons. That was in stark contrast to Paul, who stuttered and put folks to sleep. Others thought Peter was the ideal leader, while still others committed themselves to teachers that arose within the church. Some maintained that they merely belonged to Christ and had no preference for a particular spin on the faith.

The factionalizing was just the beginning of their problems. They argued over everything. Marriage and celibacy and sexual morality. Eating meat from animals offered to pagan gods. The extent of Christian freedom. How worship should be ordered. And most of all, spiritual gifts. They also sued each other, got drunk at the Lord’s Table, ignored the poor among them, and dragged their feet on a promise to help the Christians in Jerusalem. This was one conflicted, confused, squabbling, troubled church.

Paul’s great poem on love comes right in the middle of his discussion of the purpose and problems of spiritual gifts. Some of the folks in the church were craving those spiritual abilities that made them stand out, that said “look at me.” Gifts like speaking in angelic tongues or being able to translate such speech or being able to preach with effectiveness. Having heard tongues a couple of times, I know it’s pretty hard not to notice the speaker. It’s scary and fascinating at the same time. And how many preachers, including this one, crave recognition and approval and stroking the ego?

But Paul says that spiritual gifts aren’t about you or me. We didn’t create them or earn them. They are given by the Holy Spirit for a particular purpose, and it isn’t to prove to the community that we’re special. They’re given for building up the body of Christ, which means making sure our worship glorifies God, our care helps heal the broken, and our mission shows the compassion of Christ in the world. So if there are better gifts, it may be those that are unspectacular, like the ability to run a meeting well or being able to quietly encourage someone who is lonely. What we might call the gifts that have a wow factor, and the kids might think are cool, are actually less to be desired if our purpose is to exalt Christ and help his people grow in him.

The apostle particularly zeroes in on the tongues-speakers and the would-be preachers. Without love, they are as annoying and pointless as a noisemaker. Fun for a bit, attention-getting, but tiresome after awhile. But he also goes after the folks who seem always to be able to do mighty deeds for God, the mountain movers. And even those who sacrifice themselves, laying down their lives for the kingdom. Even these people can do the right thing for the wrong reason, like getting points with God. As the scholar Gunter Bornkamm once observed: “The highest possibilities of human life become vain and shatter in the presence of love if they have not become one with it.”

When motivated by love, though, the sacrifice, the great deed, is not in vain. Even tongues and preaching serve their proper purpose when they issue from a heart filled with love. Love gives a transcendent quality to what we do.

Paradoxically, it does this by bringing us down to earth, connecting us with our neighbors, rooting us in concrete action, reminding us of what is most basic, which is to say, radical, about life. Love shows it’s eternal precisely as it draws us and sends us into the world. All the verbs in the central section of 1 Corinthians 13 presuppose some kind of social context. Remember: the love spoken of here is not private. Catholic scholar Hans Kung once remarked: “The gift which is above all others and regulates all others is revealed unobtrusively in the thousand, very unsensational situations of everyday life….”

Love does not escape the world and other people; it embraces it and them. That’s the very thing some of the Corinthians wanted to avoid. The appeal of the sensational gifts was that they lifted folks out of the ordinary into a heavenly realm full of angels and light, very unlike the real world of demons and darkness. They wanted to escape responsibility to and for their neighbors, other Christians, and the world in general. It’s great to be caught up in heavenly ecstasy. That way there are no hard relationships to work out, no problems to solve, no issues to struggle with, no people who make you angry or tense or bothered, no one to challenge your cherished beliefs and practices.

But every one of the verbs Paul uses to describe love in action leads us to ask a question about relationships. Love waits patiently. For whom? Love is kind. To whom? Not jealous or envious? With whom are we in competition? With whom is love not irritable or rude after a stressful day? With and for whom does it endure and bear all things?

There are so many ways we could go with this, but I want to focus on one quality of love that constantly challenges me, namely, “love is not arrogant or conceited.” So I was drawn to the comments of evangelical blogger Mark Osler. He observed recently how crucial it is that Christians be aware of the consequences of their behavior, especially concerning one particular group of people in our nation, known as “the nones,” because they are not affiliated with any religious denomination. 20% of Americans designate themselves this way. You may know some of them.

Here’s what Osler says: “Much has been made of the "rise of the nones" — that is, the increasing percentage of Americans who identify with no religion. It is a fascinating and undeniable trend, and one that should catch the attention of religious leaders.

“I know quite a few Nones. Few of them were raised in the absence of any faith tradition. Instead, most were part of a Christian denomination at some point, but consciously made the decision to leave. What interests me about their stories is this common thread: The majority left Christianity because of the attitudes of a person, and that person was not Jesus. It was an overbearing parent, or a judgmental minister, or a congregant who told them they did not belong because they were gay or they were questioning or they had conflicted ideas. In many cases, it was a combination of these types of influences.

“Something is wrong when we drive so many people away. I think a big part of that something is arrogance….

“It might be that our first job in responding to the rise of the "Nones" is that we should stop creating so many of them through our own arrogance and our attempts to judge others (contrary to Christ’s express instruction). People are drawn to those who are strong and humble; is there any more compelling combination of attributes? Perhaps it is now the time to be those things, as Christ was, rather than smug in the conviction that we are always correct, and always the best” (“Christianity Without Arrogance,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-osler/christianity-without-arrogance_b_2533474.html).

Whether love keeps us humble or prevents us from envying our neighbor, bears up under adversity or believes the best about others, it’s the presence of God in our midst. The Eternal in the Now. Love is the assurance that wholeness is possible, that someday we will be made complete, that when the perfect comes, the imperfect will be no more. However broken our lives may be and become, there is one thing that shows us we can be made whole, one thing which never fails, and that is love. Another name for it is Christ, present by his Spirit with us, for Jesus our Lord embodies as no other the love of God.

And that’s radical, man.

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