Sermon Sept 6 Rom 12:19ff Our Chief Weapon is Surprise Rev. Betsy Hogan
And now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three – and the greatest of these is love. That’s a quote from First Corinthians 13: a passage from the Bible that’s almost always read at weddings.
The funny thing being, of course, that the kind of love that Paul’s actually talking about in this letter to the church in Corinth isn’t actually the kind of romantic love that we tend to associate with weddings. Which doesn’t at all make it a bad reading for a wedding – quite the opposite, in fact, because the love that Paul describes for us here is in fact the kind of bigger love, longer love, deeper love, that romantic love at its best can come to incorporate or mature into…
But still, I suspect that the Apostle Paul would be quite surprised at how often we hear it at weddings. Though to be fair, he’d probably be even more surprised that we actually hear it at all. Because no matter how definitely impressed with his own wisdom the Apostle Paul was – and he really was – I don’t think he ever would have expected that these words would have been so carefully preserved. And handed down, generation to generation, along with the gospels, the stories about Jesus, in the Christian Bible.
Because Paul, at the time, really was just... writing a letter. One very specific letter to one very specific church. The church in Corinth. One of the first churches he founded on his travels around the Mediterranean. When he stopped being Saul, a bully trying to get RID of the first followers of Jesus’ teachings, and started being Paul, an apostle enthusiastic about sharing Jesus’ teachings.
Which he turned out to be rather good at. So he’d go to places, and preach, and a community would gather and become a church, and then he’d take off and go preach somewhere else. And repeat the whole process. Always, meanwhile, sending letters BACK to the churches he’d founded – some of which have been collected into our Bible. Keeping in touch, answering their questions, trying to explain things they wondered about, and generally encouraging them in their new way of being together.
Which is what he’s doing in what we call First Corinthians chapter thirteen. Because as it happens, the Corinthians who make up this little church in Corinth, one of the very first he founded, are having a bit of trouble getting along. Or a lot of trouble getting along.
There are leaders in the community who are in conflict with one another, each one thinking they know best; there are some in the community who imagine they’re especially wise or especially faithful or especially holy – there’s just a lot of everyone getting on everyone else’s nerves. Being annoyed with each other, petty with each other, jealous of each other. Trying to outdo each other with ‘who God probably loves best’. And every one of them pretty sure it’s not the other guy.
It’s not a great situation. And if Paul’s a little frustrated with them – which he is – what he’s far more concerned about is how to improve the situation. What he’s far more concerned about is reminding them that whatever drama’s going on in the moment, deep down if they just pause and remember, they already know a better way to be with each other.
And it’s simply by stopping, and taking a deep breath, and then on purpose re-grounding everything they do in dealing with each other, in love. Not eros in the original Greek that Paul wrote in, romantic love, that depends on attraction and chemistry and affection, and not even philia, brotherly or sisterly love, that depends on shared memories or interests or connections in common –
But agape love. Which is really just about operating out of a basic stance that we're all, each of us, equally human. And so we all, each of us, equally deserve, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, reminds us, to be treated by each other like human beings. With basic regard for our essential value as people.
It’s an attitude, a way of being, that Paul describes for the Corinthians. This agape love -- it’s not like a thing we feel. It’s just a way we are. It's a stance. It’s a ‘how’, if you like, of how to live.
And if you don’t get it right all the time, he says to the Corinthians, and of course you don’t – but when you do? When that's your operative stance? Always remembering that the other person is human and deserves – as much as you do – the four essentials of food, shelter, safety, and well-being? Which includes the basic regard of courtesy, like you're treating them as a human being?
That agape, that love, it kind of takes on a life of its own. It grows. It moves, it gets shared from person to person. It builds things up. It becomes part of, and it stretches, that Love with a capital L that’s bigger than all of us but IN all of us. As, says Paul to the Corinthians, it’s in you. And it never ends.
It's the moment, I always like to imagine, when if Paul lived now instead of two thousand years ago, he’d have done a mike-drop.
And maybe, in some sort of First Century way, he actually did. Just by himself, in his own little study or wherever he was when he was writing this letter, pleased and impressed with himself – as he so often was – for having formulated by the inspiration of God’s holy spirit such a beautiful and timeless and meaningful ‘hymn to Christian love’. That would obviously, and for all time, sort out any issue and ALL the issues that those grumbling Christians in Corinth could ever possibly have with each other.
This is the moment when we notice, alas for poor Paul, that there’s a SECOND letter to the Corinthians in our Bible. But even as we pause for a moment of sympathy, that Paul’s beautiful hymn to love, alas, has failed to so perfectly heal and transform the Corinthians into a church that no longer had ‘issues arising’ with the basics of how to get along with each other…
Fast forward to just a few years later, when Paul – no longer the bright-eyed optimist of “love is patient, love is kind…” is writing basically about the very SAME issue, now to the church in Rome. In the passage we heard earlier, which I bet you were wondering when on earth I’d get to it. Well, now I’m finally going to get to it.
Because it is spectacular, when it’s read as exactly what it is – the Apostle Paul, still urgent, still passionate, still just as fervent and formidable in raising up for his congregations the good way, the best way, the way that Jesus embodied and taught about how we should be with one another –
But the Apostle Paul, a few years and quite a lot of letter-writing later… no longer nearly so poetic, maybe slightly more cynical, but also? Quite enjoyably, finally, realistic. Because whither the glorious ‘hymn to love’ by the time we get to his letter to the Romans?
“If your enemies are hungry,” Paul writes, “feed them; if they’re thirsty, give them something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. For by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Not exactly, I suspect, how Jesus imagined his most fundamental teaching being communicated to that first generation of post-resurrection followers – but Paul is not Jesus. If from the very beginning of his ministry he couldn’t depend as Jesus had on himself literally embodying the goodness of Godness being manifest in the agape love of treating everyone with kindness, even those who have hurt us –
Paul also knows, by the time he’s writing to the Romans, that he also can’t just depend on inspirational phrases and uplifting poetics. Love is patient, love is kind, yes – but by the time Paul’s writing to the Romans, he’s learned a thing or two about pushback.
So he’s gone straight-up utilitarian. Remember what Jesus taught?, he says to the Romans, to us? Love your enemies, do good to those who hurt you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who harm you. Rise above, don’t play their game, love is patient, love is kind. If your enemy’s hungry, feed him. If he’s thirsty, give him something to drink. If he’s rude, be polite. If he hurts you, don’t hurt back, be kind on purpose. You may not be able to choose what’s happening, Paul says, but you can choose how you behave within it. So choose kindness. Always.
And why? Because, Paul of the Letter to the Romans says, having learned a thing or two over the years about pushback – because it works.
He could have said it works because it stops the cycle of escalating back and forth hurting – he could have said it works because it reasserts our own power to be in charge of how we behave instead of just being reactive – he chose to reflect in a less than seemly manner on how it works because it makes the other person suddenly feel ashamed of themselves – but the point is, it works.
For all those reasons, but for one more reason too. It works because it’s a surprise. Because when someone’s been nasty to us, when someone’s been hurtful toward us, when someone’s deliberately tried to provoke us into forgetting who we are and whose we are? The very last thing they’re expecting is that we’ll deliberately choose courtesy and kindness in return.
The very last thing they’re expecting, having treated us as less than a fellow human being, is that we’ll treat them precisely AS a fellow human being. Not necessarily deserving of our respect or our endorsement or even our continued presence in their vicinity, in the sense of any appreciation for the rightness or okayness of anything they happen to be coming up with –
But still and absolutely, simply deserving of basic regard – the courtesy and care of agape love -- as a fellow human being.
It’s the last thing they expect. It’s a surprise. And surprises discombobulate. However briefly, they shake things up. Someone who’s hurt us assumes they know exactly how we’ll respond – and that’s not how we’ve responded. Paul resorts to imagining hot coals on their heads – if we were equally cynical, we might instead talk about messing with them...
The point is, it works. The point is, it reaffirms our agency. Even if we can't choose what's happening, we can ALWAYS choose how we behave within it.
Our chief weapon is surprise. Or if the satire of Monty Python evokes an image of Christian love somewhat less peaceable than we might ideally hope for, our chief offering, if we prefer, to the enterprise of building up the human family instead of adding to its brokenness, is surprise.
The point is this. Human instinct is when someone's being a jerk, to be a jerk back. Human instinct is when somebody CLEARLY doesn't care about other people when they're suffering, to laugh and jeer and sneer when they're the ones suffering instead. Human instinct responds in kind, but human instinct also EXPECTS a response in kind – in which our agency's been stolen and how we behave's being directed by the other person.
But our chief weapon is surprise. Someone sets us up, like they can make us be a jerk? Or they can make us laugh and jeer and sneer and unleash all the 'obvious' human instincts?
Surprise! WE'RE in charge of how we behave in whatever situation, and Surprise! We can choose otherwise. We can even turn ourselves around and get out of Dodge permanently, but Surprise! Without EVER having descended to whatever level of behaviour's been inflicted on us.
What Jesus handed the disciples, what Paul – bless him – reoffers with the oh so human addition of imagining hot coals on someone's head, it's essentially a stance of basic regard for the humanness of other people. Loving, because it INSISTS on their value and their due as human beings – but also powerful.
Powerful because it's an assertion of OUR agency, and OUR choice, about how we behave in any situation. Not directed by instinct, not directed reactively, but directed from inside our own selves on purpose. Because where we stand is grounded in Love with a capital L.
This past week, weirdly and out of nowhere, one of the quintessential movies of my generation had a thirty years later reboot. Which I'll probably never see, but in a classic case of how pop culture gets into our heads it meant that one line from the original kept popping into my mind all weekend.
The Apostle Paul may be a little more poetic, hot coals notwithstanding, but Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure does pretty much sum it up. Be excellent to each other.