Love Bears All Things

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:22-30
January 31, 2016
[revised and expanded, February 2016]
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

The Gospel reading that we just heard contains such a shocking, indeed disturbing, shift in the attitude of the people to Jesus.  They started off very pleased, but didn’t stay that way for very long.  All spoke well of him,” but only a little later, “all…were filled with rage.  29They got up, [and] drove him out of the town.”  (Luke 4:22,28-29a)

Among the many lessons we might draw from this is the clarity that not even Jesus made everybody happy.   If the sign of our authentic faith, if the sign of our real spirituality, is that we “make” everybody happy, we have to ask, hearing today’s Gospel passage:  What about Jesus?  If that was the enterprise, he certainly was a spectacular failure.

So, at the least:  If the Son of God doesn’t “make” everybody happy, it’s unlikely that God expects us to try to “make” everybody happy—nor should we have that expectation of others.  The truth is, we cannot make anybody happy, except ourselves, and that’s a project that we can undertake only with God’s help.

This leads to our principle focus this morning.  I would invite us to draw our attention to today’s second scripture lesson, from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:  Chapter Thirteen—the Love Chapter.  Even people who have characteristically a problem with Paul often are able easily to delight in First Corinthians Thirteen.  It’s not for nothing that this wonderful passage is often chosen to be read at weddings.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  (13:1-3)

So, once again; I’m going to invite us to lean in.

Nevertheless, there may be one element—so obvious that we may miss it—that we must consider if we’re to understand this passage, so that we may truly take it to heart.  Paul—or the Spirit of God through Paul—is saying a lot of things here about love.  But what, in the first place, do we mean by the word “love”?  More importantly, what might the Holy Spirit mean by it in this great and so well-known chapter?

Fact is, in this human condition of ours, we’re often rather confused about what love really is—and about what love isn’t.  And I don’t think the church is immune from this confusion.  Not by a long shot.  To the point, I believe that there’s a particular confusion about this—what love is, and what love isn’t—which is one of the greatest threats in the contemporary church to the vitality of our future mission.   This is the confusion of codependency for love.

Now, this is going to take some unpacking—and will engage us in some difficult work.

“Codependency” is a term that often comes up in contexts of addiction or abuse.  Given what are lives are, I’m fully aware that we likely have many gathered here this morning who have dealt with abusive or addictive situations—and maybe both.  So this is risky territory; a topic that may have a good deal more immediate relevance to our personal lives then we may be comfortable acknowledging.  And I’ll have challenges to our thinking that I’ll be inviting us to consider—all of us.

So, calling on God’s leading; God’s strength, God’s truth, God’s mercy, let’s lean in.

Codependency is a learned behavior; actually a survival mechanism in seriously compromised environments.  Furthermore:  It’s much easier to learn where it’s already taken root.  It’s catching; in fact, highly infectious.  Having said this, it’s important to underscore that people often first learn codependency when they’re in positions of great vulnerability—trying to do the best they can at the time in dangerous, high stakes settings.  This needs to be acknowledged with great compassion.  The problem is that this survival mechanism, as understandable as it may have been at the time, is one that cannot serve people well as they go forward.  It can become a habitual, even predominant life-disposition that can inflict its own considerable injury—on others and on our own selves.

Codependency doesn’t only operate in family systems.  It can take root, as well, in cultures, in organizations—and most certainly, I would stress, in the church.

So, before we go on, what are we talking about here?  I’ve put together a working definition, for our purposes this morning, especially as significant for church relational systems.  There’s a lot in it, to be sure; perhaps much, that we’ll need to continue to think about in the time to come.

Here it is…

Codependency; a working definition:  Codependency is a minimizing, enabling response to chronically abusive/boundary-violating behavior.  Although frequently cloaked in the language of love, codependency is in fact profoundly self-centered.  It procures “benefits” (of various sorts) for the codependent, usually at the greater expense of others, and is counter to the actual better interests of the person caught in the abusive pattern of behavior.    

Now this topic, the confusion of codependency for love, is one that I preach about this morning with some considerable trepidation.  Certainly with much thought and self-question.  Once again:  This is risky territory.  But I am convinced that it is my obligation as your preacher to do so.

If we are to hear First Corinthians Thirteen as the Living Word of God that it is, we must have the right idea about what love is—and isn’t.  If were confused about what “love” means, this beautiful chapter might not only lose its meaning.  Its meaning might get corrupted to something rather ungodly; twisted to say something it never could say—and never meant to say.

Before we go on though, let’s highlight a critically important qualifier.  When we are speaking of “codependency,” we are speaking of an unhealthy response to chronically abusive, boundary violating, and seriously disruptive behavior.  We are not talking about the everyday quandaries; the natural frustrations of knowing how to deal with ourselves and one another, sinners that we are.  Codependency, rather, is a particular response to specific acute situations.   

We are, all of us, from time to time at least, both difficult and disappointing.   I’m sure many people have experienced me, personally, as both!  That’s not what we’re talking about here.  In response to the inevitable disagreeability we experience in one another from time to time, we are, indeed, as Paul puts it in the Letter to the Galatians, to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way…fulfil* the law of Christ.”  (6:2)

On the other hand, the specific confusion we’re considering—codependency for love—is a response to chronically abusive or boundary-violating behavior that is unhealthy, and actually unloving.  And it procures “benefits.”  Yes, it does.  We get something unholy out of the codependent deal.  I know that this is can be a very hard truth to face—and at least to some degree, we all deal with it.  Realizing that codependency is not altruism can be one of the hardest, but still necessary, steps that we have to take in our spiritual growth.

Well; what might some ungodly benefits of codependency be?

Here’s one:  We get to avoid the hot seat—or at least the hotter seat.  Put more simply; conflict avoidance.  We keep ourselves in a position of comparative safety.  The greater price of the situation gets passed on to someone else.

Here’s another:  We get to keep thinking of ourselves as the “nice” ones; the “kind” ones.  Someone else will have to be the heavy.  And it can be made to sound very devout, as well.  Lots of pious stuff has been quoted to injured people, from positions of relative advantage.

Yet another common benefit of codependency is that we get to preserve the circumstances of our life the way we like them; not too disrupted.

None of these sound like truly loving behavior, do they?

Codependency is, in fact, profoundly self-centered.  (Remember, it starts off as a personal survival mechanism.)  It does not serve the better interests of others, including the person with the identified troubles.  (Truth is, it doesn’t even address our own best interests, either, but the point at hand is getting past the habit of confusing it for love.)

And love, the real thing—Love, capital L; the Love we hear about in First Corinthians Thirteen—is  other directed.  True love is directed toward the actual wellbeing of the other.   

This is true not only for individuals—but also for persons in community.  Nowhere more so than the community of faith.  I’m convinced that systemic, habitualized codependency is one of the greatest threats—and perhaps even the greatest threat—to the church’s future.  For examples one doesn’t have to look far.  Many of us in recent weeks have seen the movie Spotlight—a powerful, very difficult to watch portrayal of the cover-up of the sexual abuse of children, on a huge scale, in the Boston Archdiocese.  Other expressions of codependent culture in the church—much more subtle, nowhere near as horrific, but still widespread and destructive—abound.  In congregation after congregation, enabling, minimizing responses to acting-out, bullying behavior cause real injury, not to mention colossal waste of the church’s life-energy.   

We were sent into the world as bearers of God’s love in Christ—Holy Love; not to be serving ourselves in the phony gospel of niceness:  the real thing, not the counterfeit.  If all this sounds discouraging, it certainly is.  But we must remember that God’s great work of regeneration, only later to be recognized for what it was, often begins in us with our sense of discouragement; our sense of conviction and burden.

The old song says:

You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley,
You’ve got to go by yourself.
Nobody else going to go there for you;
You’ve got to go there by yourself.

That’s what it feels like; that’s what it must feel like, at a critical point.  We’ve got to get going, and we don’t know how.  However, thanks be:  Later down the road, we make the retroactive discovery of Grace:  We were never really alone; we were never traveling by our own strength.  There’s only One who took that journey by himself.  He did, so we wouldn’t have to.

All this business with which we’ve been wrestling; it’s hard stuff.  We think about our personal stories—the relationships and communities we’re involved in, and on which we depend.  The questions and answers here are seldom simple.  We can’t always count on ready to go scripts that can easily or quickly tell us just how much is codependency and how much is real love in the complicated, often contradictory mix of our blended lives.  And even when we begin to come to some hard won-clarities, there usually aren’t ready to go scripts or simple answers for what to do about it.  This is hard stuff.  Nevertheless, engaging it is a part of living into the healing and recovery that God has in store for all of us.

We won’t get it completely right, all at once.  The point is doing the work God is giving us to do:  keeping at it; relying on God’s grace every step of the way, bearing with the challenges of a long process—and often walking in uncertainty.  That sounds pretty loving to me, doesn’t it?  A loving born of God’s love, the real thing.

I’ll share a key distinction that may be of substantial ongoing help as we sort things out—if we consider it deeply and well.  Let’s go again to First Corinthians Thirteen:  “[Love] bears all things…endures all things.”  (13:7)  That’s what it says.  Indeed so.  However, the text does not say, “love has other people bear all things; love has other people endure all things.”  That’s a critical difference, isn’t it?

“BEARING ALL THINGS,” ourselves, might include such things as accepting the fact that we can’t “make” everyone happy.  It might involve confronting our own addiction to  approval; or acknowledging our deep seated tendencies to play it safe—evade risk—when others are counting on us; when coming through for them would put us out of our comfort zone.

“Bearing all things” may mean taking a painful look at the benefits or “cuts” we may be getting from the codependent deal, when so much in us, instead, just wants to keep telling ourselves how “nice” or “friendly” we are.

Finally, “bearing all things” sometimes will require naming boundaries with those who don’t want to hear them named—and then accepting the consequences of having done so.

In other words, real love puts itself on the hot seat.

The Godly love we hear about in First Corinthians Thirteen builds up our soul (both personal and corporate); it bears us more and more surely in the river of eternal life.  The phony substitutes corrode us from the inside—and end in death.

Pretty heavy stuff.  Yes, it is.  We may well ask:  Where’s the Good News?  Where’s the Gospel? Where’s the word from heaven?

Here it is:  God has not been “codependent” with us—even though we once thought that’s what we wanted. Our agenda was non-disruption.  We may have wanted blessings, of sorts, but certainly not interference.  Instead, God has given us what we needed.  God has been truly loving; “for God is love” (1 John 4:8b)—righteous, compassionate, transformative, other-directed, “for us and for our salvation.”  Good News:  God was willing to put God’s own Self right on the ultimately costly hot seat to do so.

That’s what—and that’s Who—we meet in Jesus, who bore the full cost of dealing with the likes of us, in love.  The real thing.  In him, we will know, at long last, what it is.

For those in Christ, it is no more a lonesome passage; but it may be a long one.  It’ll be OK.  To be sure, our motives—even our best intentions—are never absolutely “pure.”  Not at this present stage of the journey.  We are now, all of us, still sinners in a sinful world.  We aren’t to drive ourselves to distraction with the anxious perfectionism, which is just another form of self-centeredness.  The critical matter is not our scrupulosity, but rather, this:  God’s great work of salvation.  Are we living into it?  Is it becoming more and more characteristic of us?  Are we growing up in Christ; growing into his Love?  (Ephesians 4:13)  The point isn’t shortcut answers, but New Creation!  (Galatians 5:15b)

For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 1but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these…

…is love.”  (13:9-13)

Amen.

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