8 Jan 2017
“… and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13) In the name …
I’m very impressed with our church’s selection of 1 Corinthians 13 for the First Sunday after Epiphany every single year. This Sunday always falls in early January. It always falls at the beginning of each new year, and 1 Corinthians 13 stands there at the ready to remind us that at the center of Christianity is the virtue of love. Everything else in our faith has to be understood and practiced accordingly. The writers of the New Testament had three separate words at their disposal for love. There was φιλεω. That’s an ordinary, unexceptional kind of love. In Matthew, for instance, Jesus says the hypocrites love to pray in public for the attention (6:5). This love is painless and effortless. This is the love of slogans and bumper stickers: “I love New York,” or “I love my mutt.” This sort of thing. Then there’s ερως, which is a physical love. This word never makes into the New Testament and it’s not hard to imagine why. This is the kind of love that earns PG-13 movie ratings. It’s not used in the Bible and I doubt the word has ever been used here at Holy Name of Jesus either, well, until today.
But Christian love is αγαπη. This is an unconditional love, and it’s an initiating love. It’s not reciprocal love. This is love the hard way. It’s love as a way of life. Jesus says that if we love those who love us, then what’s the big deal. Everybody does that. (Matt. 5:43-48) Christian love is like God’s love. It is constant. Jesus explains it plainly by teaching His first followers that God loves just the way He makes the sun to rise on everyone, or the way He makes it rain on everyone. The sun doesn’t come up only for the good. It’s there for all. It’s the same with rain. And it’s the same with αγαπη. It is offered without concern for whether it will be returned or if it’s deserved. It is love as initiative, not as response. This is the kind of love Paul today calls “the greatest of these.” Faith is absolutely essential. Hope is absolutely necessary. But love, αγαπη, is bedrock Christianity.
The message of αγαπη is where we start the New Year. This is the bedrock on which we build everything that follows. Αγαπη sets our course. I recently finished a book called Now: The Physics of Time. I got it through interlibrary loan from our Tilton Library. The author is one of those strange hybrids. He’s a world renowned scientist who prays. He doesn’t believe in only what he kept calling the quantifiable. Reality is more than that which can be measured. And his book was about defining now. That’s a complicated subject for a physicist because they don’t see time as a constant. He even spoke about lab experiments that may show time moving in reverse. This stuff amazes me. This stuff, as strange as it may sound, makes God more real for me because the ordinary is so very extraordinary.
But the thought he closes with is based on the Big Bang. Scientists speak of space expanding ever since the Big Bang, but they’re not talking about the edge of space. They’re talking about space in general. The illustration they use is a raisin-bread rising in the oven. As the bread rises, the raisins inside grow farther and farther apart, which means the space between two distant points in the universe is expanding. That’s hard enough to imagine, but then he adds time into the recipe. Time expands like space. Now is the edge of time. We can anticipate the future, but the future is not yet real. And this religious scientist believes that’s true even for God because God has chosen to create a universe in which chance and freedom mean that the future can’t be foretold because it’s being born now. It’s not that God doesn’t know the future; it’s that God is allowing the future to become.
What this means is that when we run across a story in the Bible like today’s Gospel account of Simeon who foretells the baby Jesus’ future it’s not because he can see into the non-existent future, but because he is wise enough to play the present forward. Simeon could see what a life dedicated to αγαπη would mean for Jesus. And that playing the present forward is not only for prophets. It’s for all of us. This past Monday, for example, was national science fiction day, and that date was chosen because it is the birthday-anniversary of Isaac Asimov the great science fiction writer from Boston. And science fiction is not only supposed to be make-believe. This scientist and author spoke a “science-fictional” way of thinking. He wrote: "No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the word as it will be."
This means that our future isn’t determined. This means we’re creating it as we go along. There’s no some-future-me that’s already been decided. Each of us is creating who we will be right now. Now is as close to the future as we can ever get. This means that the present, the now, is full of consequence. It’s what Isaac Asimov was talking about when he said we have to think about the world as it is and as it will be. You know, when new television shows come-out, the networks pay for a short run of programs. They want to see if the show draws an audience. They test. A while back I remember running Google beta something or other. The beta meant it was a work in progress and Google was seeing how people liked it. They test. And maybe there’s some merit in that idea for us as church and Christians too. It’s all right to test different paths. But sometimes we think that because church has to do with God that tests mean we don’t trust enough, or because our personal faith has to do with God that tests can even be sin. But what tests may mean is that we’re working really hard at trying to figure out who we’re supposed to be, and that with each test we’re getting a little closer to the answer. And as we get closer and closer, I would not be at all surprised if we keep bumping into that bedrock Christian idea of αγαπη. There’s something essential in αγαπη. Faith points us in the right direction. Hope keeps us going. But αγαπη, love, is the destination, and that’s why we begin each year with 1 Corinthians 13 because “… and the greatest of these is love.” That we may better understand why, for is we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo