“There are more slaves alive today than all the people stolen from Africa in the time of the transatlantic slave trade. Put another way, today’s slave population is greater than the population of Canada.” So says the sociologist Kevin Bales in his important book Disposable People (9). That book was first published in 1999, less than two decades ago. Earlier this month Bales released a new book, Blood and Earth. It describes the connections between modern slavery and environmental degradation. You can find some of his related talks and media appearances here. Bales has done a number of related talks and media appearances available here.
‘Slavery’ is a key word here, and Bales defines it as “the total control of one person by another for the purpose of economic exploitation” (6). But here’s the thing, in older times exploiting people in this way was quite costly, representing a large financial investment. This gave some incentive to ‘owners’ (it’s hard to even write that word) to care, at some basic self-serving level, for those they enslaved. In our own time, however, enslaved persons have become less valuable. They have become disposable bodies. Surely our world—notwithstanding our handy devices, notwithstanding our theories of universal rights—surely our world remains in the grip of great evil. Bales is right, slavery is an “obscenity.” It isn’t just stealing labour, it is stealing lives.
I’m not having us think about this just to draw you into a sermon. I want to draw attention to Bales’ work and to this cause. I also want us to see that our world and the biblical world are not as different as we often think. Scripture is not just an artifact of a rougher time. It speaks to the abiding human condition, one that continues to include the exploitation of one human by another in the most vicious ways imaginable.
In the latter part of the first century a church leader in Rome named Clement wrote a letter to a church further east. In the years that followed, some Christians would read this letter alongside the documents of the New Testament. Here are a few lines from that letter, 1 Clement chapter 55 “We know many among [us] who have given themselves up to bonds, in order [to] ransom others. Many, too, have surrendered themselves to slavery, that with the price which they received for themselves, they [could] provide food for others.” Did you catch it? Clement knew of people who sold themselves in order to make enough money buy the freedom of others! He knew of people who sold themselves in order to buy food for others.
I’m not sure what category to place acts like those in. What could anyone do that would bear similarity to that? Clement isn’t so shy. He places those acts right alongside those of biblical women like Judith and Esther who risked their lives for their people. And he places them alongside stories of political leaders who left their native cities rather than stir up conflict that would devastate those communities. The over-arching category for Clement is those who willingly, without being manipulated, make their own interests secondary to the interests of others.
Here’s just a bit more of the context: Clement wrote that letter about 95 CE, which means it might have been written before John’s gospel. It’s also important to note that Clement was only a couple of degrees separated from Jesus. He had been consecrated as a church leader by one of Jesus’ disciples, the apostle Peter. Finally, the church to which Clement addressed his letter was that of Corinth. That’s the same group to whom Paul’s letter, the one to the Corinthians (of course), was addressed. There would have been about forty years separating the two letters. The implication is that the sort of acts that Clement described in 95 CE were not at all far removed from the imagination of the Corinthian believers. The actions Clement writes about are shocking, but they take us into the world of Scripture.
Here’s what I mean. Consider the phrase in I Cor. 13:3: “If I hand over my body, so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” If I hand over my body . . . I gain nothing. It’s likely that Paul had in mind exactly the sort of thing Clement wrote about—someone willing to hand over his or her own body for the good of a sister or brother, someone selling their body to buy another’s freedom or even their food.
This should begin to pry us out of the rut of thinking that we know what I Corinthians 13 means. We’ve probably heard this passage many times. You might have heard it read at a wedding, even though that’s entirely the wrong context. Paul isn’t talking about the love of spouses but about the love of a church community. The two are not the same ballgame are they? We choose who we marry, while a church includes people we don’t even like. It’s easier to think of love in the context of a marriage. I might not be easier in the end to love in that context, but it’s easier to think of it there.
Another feature of the rut we find ourselves in when we hear this passage is the generally vague way we often think about love. Think of the famous lyric—“Love is all we need.” Love is often described with such vagueness and fluff that no-one could possibly vote against it. Vague and fluffy notions of love are popular because they don’t demand anything from us. Yet as Paul speaks of it in I Cor. 13 love is anything but fluffy and vague. For Paul ‘love’ is a feature of one’s character. It is not a nebulous ideal; it is not simply a requirement to be met by doing some specific things. Love in this biblical sense is a way of being.
This chunk of Paul’s thinking on the matter begins in the last half of the last verse of I Corinthians 12. You might want to have an eye on that passage as we reflect further on it. [Here’s a little insider church wisdom. During the sermon you can get away with looking at your phone as long as you give the impression that you’re reading an e-Bible—just nod and laugh at the right times.] So again, this line of thought begins at the end of chapter 12: “I will show you a more excellent way.”
There is the average, the run of the mill, the way that seems normal. Then there is the “more excellent way.” How Paul is about to describe love is guaranteed to make us shift in our seats. It is precisely not how we intuitively think we should be toward others.
I once had a car with heated front seats. Depending on who my passenger was I liked to turn the heater on without them knowing and see how they responded. If you aren’t expecting it a heated seat can give you the impression that you’ve wet your pants. Heated seats may or may not be a more excellent way, but they definitely feel odd to the unsuspecting. So does the way of love, or more specifically the way of agape.
So what is this way of agape love? To grasp it we start with the idea that high-minded talk, even the spiritual gift of speaking in other tongues, is useless noise without love. Talk is easy, we all know that. High-minded talk and fancy jargon can even make us feel like we have the world figured out. It can hide our vacuous character.
The New Testament scholar Richard Hays tells us that Corinth was famous for its production of bronze vessels. I imagine pitchers, bowls and the like. What shows up in our text as “sounding gong” could just as well be the word ‘brass’ or even ‘pot’. Either way, Paul’s readers would have known exactly the sound he referred to. Can you picture pots hanging from a string, clanging in the wind? High-minded talk is meaningless noise—without love.
Paul is using vivid language in this first paragraph, and he pushes the point by mentioning the “clanging cymbal.” Many in his original audience would have been reminded of the cult of Cybele, with its wild, ecstatic worship. After all, worship is the topic in this part of I Corinthians. The point is that spiritual gifts and insight, ecstasy, even faith itself, are of no value without love.
And so too, Paul says, is giving away our possessions or our bodies. As horrible as it sounds, handing over one’s body is itself not a definite sign of love. It could be done in desperation. In the Ancient Near East honor and obligation could have played a part as well.
Notice the larger case that is being made in this passage. The things that we think may be the most obvious ‘good things to do’ are not necessarily signs of good character. What Paul is encouraging isn’t a set of actions but a certain type of character. We can’t love by pulling the wool over the eyes of others with a few nice deeds or with the splendor of our talent or smarts. Offering to do things for others isn’t necessarily love.
The passage continues: love is expressed in patience, explains Paul in the second paragraph, and in kindness. This love isn’t envious or boastful or arrogant.
I’m afraid the point for the Corinthians was that the way of love wasn’t the way they had been living. This precision, this naming what love is not, is important. It is important because we sometimes use the command of love as leverage against others. We want others to ‘love’ us while we remain precisely the envious and boastful people we are. “They should love me,” we say. By which we may well mean, “They should let me be as I am” or “I should be able to be in community without ever having to change. Others should mold themselves around me.”
It’s pretty easy to tell when we’re being boastful or arrogant. All of our thoughts and sentences start with “I.” Maybe you’ve had one of those conversations recently where you came away knowing a great deal about the other person and hadn’t even been asked about yourself once. If you have, you’ve met an arrogant person. Unless you’re a psychotherapist or you work for Border Services, then I imagine things are different.
Arrogance and boasting may be relatively easy to spot, even in ourselves. Kindness and patience, though, are harder to see. They can be harder to see because sometimes what passes for kindness or patience is the opposite of arrogance—thinking too little of ourselves. To walk in the way of love is not the same thing as being a patient doormat. Kindness and patience are hard to see as well because modern convenience works to undermine the development of these virtues. Our lives require a certain “desirable difficulty,” to steal a phrase from learning theorists, if we are to become patient. Neither your microwave nor your internet connection want you to become patient. They depend on exactly the opposite.
So the question confronts us, if someone where to look for these traits in our interactions with others, what would they see? If they heard our conversations on the way home after church, what would they conclude? Let me put it differently. We think of the church as a school for character, but putting aside sermons, Scripture readings and Sunday School lessons, what traits do we learn from each other? What is the way of being we learn here? What are the rarely-spoken assumptions we have about how our lives should be lived?
When the young person takes a gap year to volunteer or to deepen their faith, do we nod excitedly, do we support them, or do we sigh in disappointment and bemoan the fact that they will be a year ‘behind their peers’? When our worship features music that isn’t our preference do we complain or do we celebrate that fact that regardless of our preferences we can worship together?
Scripture tells us that “[Love] does not insist on its own way.” Does not insist on its own way? “What other way is there,” we might be tempted to ask. “I know how this all should be done. I know how a church should work. I know how we should engage our community and our political leaders.” [If you ever want to quote me out of context, start with sentences like those last three, “I know how . . .”]
Our passage continues, saying that love isn’t irritable. It isn’t resentful. “But I have a right to be irritable,” we might think, “because life has done me wrong.” Or “I’m an artist or a manager under pressure or a tired parent or a moody teen or whatever . . . I have a right to be irritable.” You might have a ‘right’ to it, but the biblical mind would point out that there is a better way.
Love doesn’t rejoice in someone else’s wrongdoing, even if it advances our cause.
For this letter’s original audience the list of those eight negatives—envy, boasting, arrogance, rudeness, needing one’s own way, irritability, resentment and rejoicing in wrongdoing—they would have made them squirm. Paul knew his audience. Our question, though, is does he also know us? Is the world of the Corinthians so far away?
Does something in the description of agape love make us aware of our need for the healing work of the Spirit? Do we need the healing hand of God, just as, say, the young Jeremiah did? In the first chapter of Jeremiah we read that he needed God’s healing touch so that he could live out his calling. If the way of agape is our calling, do we need God to renovate our hearts? We should remember that the things on Paul’s ‘love-does-not’ list aren’t particularly terrible. They wouldn’t shock your neighbours into calling the police. They wouldn’t violate the moral-turpitude clause in your contract. They’re mundane, they’re comfortable, they are the normal way.
In Scripture agape describes not only the way we should be toward each other but more fundamentally the word describes God’s love for us. First John (4.7) makes the connection: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” John goes on to say that God’s love is demonstrated through the presence of Jesus.
So that list of vices, envy, boasting, arrogance, resentment and the others. Those are things that don’t come from our roots in God. They’re the parasites, the mold clinging to our leaves. The problem is that we get so used to them that they seem to be part of the human plant itself. But, Scripture tells us, there is a better way, a more excellent way, a way that brings questions to everything we do—even if we were to put our bodies up for sale.
One of our temptations today is to think we don’t need these sorts of critical descriptions. We like to think that we can be all openness and all hospitality, ruling out nothing. However, communities can’t be that way. To welcome the weak we close the door to the violent. To affirm the dignity of the slaves of our day we must put aside our desire for criminally cheap goods. Those goods are ubiquitous, from phones to countertops to seafood (to refer again the work of Kevin Bales). Closer to home, the context Paul has in mind for this description of love, we recognize that if we are to grow in the way of love we must let go of arrogance and let go of any obsession we may have with getting our own way.
There’s more. Love gets pumped about the truth. And through it all love believes. It hopes. It endures.
As we track to the end of our reflections on I Corinthians 13 we turn now to the last paragraph of the chapter. In this rather long section Paul gives another reason for the importance of love. He points out that spiritual gifts—wisdom, prophecy, tongues and the like—are for the here and now.
In the here and now we don’t know fully. Our sight is dim. We see reflections. We don’t see the whole. Paul isn’t just thinking about our knowledge of God. It’s everything. All knowledge is perspectival and partial. It all comes preloaded with goals and agendas. Anything substantial we say about the world is an interpretation of it that says something about us. Paul, along with Jesus, are deconstructionists in a way.
That being the case, Paul suggests that there will be a time when we know fully, when the shadow will be dissipated in the light of God’s being. That time was not Paul’s own, neither is it ours. We do not know fully, completely nor without doubt. The Christian tradition has known this for centuries, even if its public face hasn’t always admitted it.
Here in Canada many of our churches are learning more about what it might mean to pursue reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. We’ve been learning quite a lot from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We’ve learned of instances when Christian communities gave up their own best insights in exchange for co-operating with colonialist agendas. We’ve learned of times when people bearing the standard of Christendom exchanged the openhanded sharing of good news for the forceful tools of Constantinianism. We’ve learned of times when, instead of offering ourselves, we demanded the bodies of others. We’ve learned that there were crucial moments when we professed to know too much with too much clarity. And we’ve learned of failure in the way of agape love.
We are also seeing signs of hope. Part of that hope comes from acknowledging that we do not yet fully understand God. There is still fog on the river, later in the day it will look quite different. But Scripture tells us that even in that transformation love will retain its value. Love will remain. There is hope in that too—deep, fundamental transformative hope.
If our church community is a school for learning to love, we’re learning something with lasting value. I wonder if you remember in school when you were told that learning to write was important because you would need to know how for the next grade. The next year they told you something else was necessary, maybe knowing how to make an outline. The rationale was the same—you needed that skill for the next grade. Then at some point they told you that you needed to learn to take tests, because that’s what happened in high school. When you got there you were presented with a list of skills required for a vocational program or university. It’s a racket you realized, a Ponzi-scheme of learning.
Love is different. Love isn’t one of those things we are just learning for the next grade. We learn it because it fits with the nature of the Creator. We learn it because it is the skill—no, the character—that fits with eternity.