February 9, 2020

 “What the World Needs Now…”


1 Corinthians 13:1-8


When I was in 5th grade, I began singing in my elementary school choir. This was about 1971, and I remember one of the songs we started learning one day was “What the World Needs Now…” By Burt Bacharach. What a great song.  I remember learning the music and the words. Then when choir was over, I was singing those words in my head, “What the world needs now…is love sweet love. It’s the only thing, that there’s just too little of…” I had this ideal sense that Burt was right-The World Did need more love, especially on the elementary school playground- all of those stupid fights we used to get into. I really wanted to be that vessel of love as I walked out of the cafeteria doors. Then, as I opened the door, the heavens opened- a HUGE thunder and lightning storm hit. I saw a bolt of lightning that looked about ½ a mile thick light up the sky. The wind gusted suddenly as I ran to my classroom. Large pellets of hail began pelting me. As I ran and eventually got to the door of my class, I turned around and saw the custodian of the school chasing after the big green school garbage bin, which was being blown down the street by the strong winds! IT was a crazy scene and rude awakening! I remember thinking how I had been jerked from that dreamy Burt Bacharach “What the World Needs Now...” existence into a What the World really needs right now are some umbrellas, raincoats, and galoshes, along with a storm shelter, STAT!


It is so true, however. The world needs love. Good Lord, it was a needfully on display at the state of the union address! The state of the Union between differing points of view and parties is NOT strong. It is fractured- I hope not beyond repair… The results of the impeachment trial show a huge divide in this nation as well.  As we get ready to celebrate a holiday all about love, can we truly give the world what it needs?  Or are we just in some dreamy Burt Bacharach/ Apostle Paul existence, about to be woken up rudely once we get back out into the real world?


Love is often mentioned in scripture, at least 760 times if not more. Is it just the kind of love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, or something deeper? Since the concept of love is mentioned so often in the Bible, what are we supposed to do with love- Is it just a romantic notion for some, or is it a different concept of love meant for everyone?


In the New Testament, they did not have just one word, or one dictionary definition for love. In Greek, they had at least three different words to describe three different kinds of love. First, they had the word, Eros. Eros is romantic love, an erotic love, a Valentine’s Day kind of love. Second, they had the word philia. The name for Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, comes from that word philia. A philia kind of love is the love that you have for a close friend or for a family member.


Third, in the New Testament, they had the word agape. This is the form of love missing from dictionary definitions, and in reality, is the most important form of love. Agape is unconditional love—the kind of love where you love and care about other people even if they do not deserve that love, even if they do not return that love, even if they do not appreciate that love. Specifically, it is a spiritual love that comes from God to creation.


1 Corinthians 13 has become part of our popular culture, the gold standard of the meaning of love, as it is heard so often at weddings. I have preached upon the main passage for this morning at a wedding at least 20 times. Many couples approach this passage with the romantic, Eros understanding of love, rather than thinking of it in agape terms. Sometimes these couples, many of whom have no church background will sit down in front of me and mention there was a passage they heard at a friend’s wedding that they really liked, about love, “13 something...” I know what they mean, and wonder how many of them have actually listened to Paul’s description of love. Having this passage at your wedding sets the bar rather high! A Romantic love which is patient, kind, does not envy or boast, is not proud, rude, self-seeking, not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres? - I feel like asking some of these couples - “WOW! Are you sure you want this passage?”



But Paul is not speaking of Eros's love or Filial love. He is speaking about Agape love, and my goal for couples who are unfamiliar with this kind of unconditional love from God is to familiarize them with it. Agape love is much different than Eros's love - the Agape Paul speaks of takes that one line between the married couple and makes it into a triangle. The key is to include God’s love in their own, by connecting to faith in God, spending time in prayer, and ideally joining in social justice work, study and fellowship with other believers.  It is then and there that their line becomes strongly connected to God, creating in effect an unconditional love triangle. Their source, their strength to love is no longer dependent upon just the two of them. There is now another source, one which feeds their love with never-ending, unconditional agape.  That is the ONLY way, I tell them, to achieve these lofty goals Paul has placed before us in this passage of scripture, and even THEN, marriage is still really, really hard!  God’s agape feeds all other aspects of love and perfects our imperfect attempts to love each other.


That is the kind of love the world needs now. I don’t have a quick cure for the enmity in our nation, or want to suggest some sappy song about love from the ’60s will make it all better, but starting from the place of agape is a good place to start.  For Paul, agape was the way to unite the body, the way for the church community to work, live and play together. Agape love includes justice and righteousness. So we can act in agape to right the wrongs in society- to call for truth, to support acts of justice and mercy, and to speak out in love when immoral acts-acts against God’s agape are carried out.


How then, do our own actions and relationships express-or fail to express- Agape for one another? Agape is not just about our love for God, but it is to be directed towards others. Agape has to do with how we use and reflect that love to others here in the church, as well as outside these doors. In reflecting upon this passage, Theologian Richard B. Hayes says that “Agape is the criterion by which we should assess ALL that we do.”


One example to consider who modeled such love is the one the holiday we will be celebrating on February 14 is named after- the original St. Valentine.


We do know that Valentine was a real person and that he was executed on or around February 14th, in 269 or 270 A.D. After that, things get a bit complicated. Most scholars believe he was either a bishop of the early church, or a physician who practiced the healing arts in Rome, or quite possibly both, during a time of Christian persecution and the reign of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. (214 -270 A.D.).


The story goes that Valentine, both a physician and a priest in the early Christian church, would treat his patients and then pray to God for them at night. He also was said to have performed secret marriage ceremonies in the Christian catacombs below Rome. It was a dangerous time to express faith in Christ, due to Emperor Claudius’ decree to persecute people who called themselves Christian. Yet his fame spread, due to his healing abilities. Valentine would not stop praying for patients or uniting couples together in holy marriage, in large part because he agape loved and cared for others. The world really needed that kind of love back in the 3rd century as well.


One day a man with a small child came to Valentine’s Door. He worked as a jailer at the emperor’s prison and heard about his healing powers from other patients. The man brought his daughter into Valentine’s room, and as he began to examine her, he realized she could not see. “She has been blind from birth”, said the jailer. “Can you help her to see?”


Valentine mixed up a waxy paste of medicine, and placed it in the corner of each of the child’s eyes, telling the jailer to bring her back once a week, so that he could apply more of the ointment. The father and daughter returned each week, and each time, Valentine would apply more of the ointment on her eyes. Yet she remained sightless.


Weeks went by, with the father and daughter going to Valentine’s office and receiving the treatment on the child’s eyes. However, due to Valentine’s role as a priest in performing secret weddings, and word spreading on the streets that he saw praying to God as an important part of caring for his patients, he was arrested and taken away by Roman soldiers. He was led to the emperor’s prison and put in a dark, cold cell.


When the jailer heard of Valentine’s arrest, he went quickly to his cell. He let Valentine know that many Christians were being imprisoned and put into other cells within the emperor’s prison and that there was nothing he could do. Valentine slowly nodded and asked the jailer for pen and papyrus paper, which the jailer hurried to get. When he came back, Valentine quickly wrote on the scrap of papyrus paper and handed it back to the jailer. “Give this note to your child,” he told the jailer. Then 2 soldiers came and took him away, as the jailer watched helplessly. That was the last time he or anyone else would see Valentine.


When he arrived back home, the jailer did as instructed. “This is a note from Valentine,” said her father. The girl held the paper in her hand and asked her father, “What does it say?” “With love, from Valentine,” said her father. Slowly, the little girl held the paper in her hand up before her eyes, until she began to see the words appear before her.  


So, the legend has it that it was Valentine himself who delivered the first “valentine.” He was martyred and his body buried at a Christian cemetery on the Via Flaminia close to the Ponte Milvio to the north of Rome, on February 14, which has been observed as the Feast of Saint Valentine (Saint Valentine's Day) since 496 AD, when Pope Gelasius venerated Valentine and made him a saint. Relics of him were kept in the Church and Catacombs of San Valentino in Rome, which remained an important pilgrim site throughout the Middle Ages until the relics of St. Valentine were transferred to the church of Santa Prassede during the pontificate of Nicholas IV in 1290 A.D. His skull, crowned with flowers, is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmed in, Rome;

Things do get a bit mixed up, in part due to the date of Valentine’s Day. The earlier Roman tradition of Lupercalia, which took place on February 15, involved the writing of love messages by young girls to potential loves. The messages would be put into a big urn and then drawn out by eligible bachelors, who then courted the writings of the girls. Eventually, the 2 dates merged, signifying 2 things- St. Valentine’s Agape love for others despite the danger, and the romantic Eros love of Lupercalia.  Sadly, now for the most part, the memory of St. Valentine, his agape love, his example of faith are long forgotten.



Together, we must find a way to show agape love. Together, we must learn patience. Together, we must be taught how to let go of our lists of perceived wrongs or mistakes. Together we must learn how to speak the truth to one another in love; not in anger, envy or rudeness. As we model together what love is supposed to be, we will demonstrate that example of love to the community of Ashland, and throughout the Rogue Valley, and hopefully to a fractured nation. This is the love the world so needs, right now!


God sent Jesus into the world to model for us agape love. St. Valentine was a perfect example of that selfless, agape love. Our calling for today is to live our lives in a more excellent way - the one way, the more excellent way, and what the world needs now…is Agape.  Alleluia! Amen.

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