Sermon: “God’s Love Never Ends” (January 31, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God’s Love Never Ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
January 31, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today’s reading about love from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is one of the most beloved passages of scripture—often read at weddings, often included in English literature anthologies—but almost overfamiliar to the point that it is tempting to gloss over it.

As you may know in the days of the Apostle Paul there were several different Greek words for “love”, each emphasizing a specific type of love—eros is romantic love, philia is friendship love, storge is affectionate love, as between parents and children—but there was also another word for “love”—agape. Agape love is charity or self-sacrificial love. Agape love contains no hint of self-interest but is entirely focused on the other person. Agape love is unconditional love with no strings attached, no ulterior motives, no catch. Agape is the word Paul used for “love” when he wrote:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (13:4-7).

Deep in our hearts we somehow know that as singer-songwriter Todd Rundgren put it, “Love is the answer.” Deep in our hearts we somehow know that to love and be loved is our ultimate longing, as Richard Rohr puts it in his 2013 book Immortal Diamond:

Intimate love is the true temple that we all desire. I guess you have to want to love and to be loved very badly—or we will never go to this strange temple and will never find our True Selves. So God obliges and created us just that way, with a bottomless and endless need to be loved and to love (174).

In July 1969 just days before Apollo 11 landed on the moon the late rock icon David Bowie released his first hit, “Space Oddity”—a play on words on the title of the 1968 film 2001 Space Odyssey, in my opinion the greatest science fiction movie ever. He imagines the loneliness that would accompany space travel:

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
Ground control to Major Tom (10, 9, 8, 7, 6)
Commencing countdown, engines on (5, 4, 3)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (2, 1, liftoff…)

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
For here am I sitting in a tin can far above the world
Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much she knows
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you…
Here am I floating round my tin can far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.

Have you ever felt like that? Isolated, far away, alone, disconnected, out of touch—“Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong”? Did you catch what Ground Control wished for Major Tom? “May God’s love be with you.” God’s love is the only thing that can minister in those seasons.

The good news is that even when we feel like Major Tom we are never out of reach of God’s love, as the psalmist wrote about God’s omnipresence:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the seas, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast (Psalm 139:6-9, The Book of Common Prayer 794).

And yet believing and receiving God’s love is not always easy, especially if you have been burned by the fickleness of human love.

A couple illustrations from popular songs from past…When I was a kid one of my favorite songs was Nazareth’s 1976 power ballad version of “Love Hurts”:

Love hurts
Love scars
Love wounds and marks
Any heart not tough or strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud, it holds a lot of rain
Love hurts
(Written by Boudleaux Bryant—and also sung by the Everly Brothers, Graham Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and others).

Another song that powerfully expresses the fickleness of human love is “The Rose,” the title track from the soundtrack from the 1979 film The Rose in which Bette Midler sings:

Some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reed
Some say love, it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love, it is a hunger an endless aching need
I say love, it is a flower and you, it’s only seed

It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live

The final verse of “The Rose” offers a glimmer of hope:

When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose

Yes, sometimes “love hurts,” sometimes love is “a razor that leaves your soul to bleed.” And yet the fickleness of human love does not alter one iota God’s agape love for you, agape love personified in Jesus Christ. What is Jesus like? Since scripture assures us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) Paul’s description of love in today’s passage also applies to Jesus:

In other words…Jesus is patient; Jesus is kind; Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way; Jesus is not irritable or resentful; Jesus does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Jesus never ends.

And this patient, kind Jesus indeed went on to bear all things and endure all things on the cross, his death being the definitive, historical, once-for-all demonstration of his identify as Love. Scripture maintains that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is the ultimate sign of God’s agape love: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16); “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10); and “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

It all goes back to Jesus’ self-sacrificial, agape love for you.

In his 1960 book The Four Loves C. S. Lewis poetically emphasizes this as he connects God’s identity as Love with Jesus’ death on the cross:

God is love…We begin at the real beginning, with love as the Divine energy. This primal love is Gift-love. In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give. The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation. It is essential…God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them…He creates the universe, already foreseeing…the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up…This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves (126-127).

Perhaps when it comes to love, right now you are among “the lucky and the strong”—if so, enjoy it while it lasts. But if in some way you relate more to Major Tom—floating in a most peculiar way and there’s nothing you can do—be encouraged, because that is the exact place where the gospel enters the scene.

The good news of the gospel is that even in the winter of human history, even in the winter of your life “far beneath the bitter snow lies the seed that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.” And in the spring on Good Friday Jesus Christ, whom scripture identifies as the Rose of Sharon (Song of Solomon 2:1) took a lot of pain, took a lot of pain, as the omnipresent hands that hold you fast were nailed to a cross. And even now the Risen Jesus bears the scars, bears the wounds, bears the marks because of the love that hurt him so deeply.

This means that your “bottomless and endless need” for love has been, is and will be met by the “bottomless and endless” self-sacrificial agape love of God for you.

And God’s love never ends.

Amen.