Epiphany 2 C: Neighbor Love is Costly

The readings for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany are

Old Testament      Isaiah 62:1–5

Psalm                    Psalm 36:5–10

New Testament     1 Corinthians 12:1–11

Gospel                   John 2:1–11

It’s time we affirmed that loving the neighbor requires a price be paid. Like freedom, love isn’t free.

We are losing the struggle to cope with Covid, and with viral attacks of the biological and political sort, because we think we can be good citizens without giving up anything. All of us want to see ourselves as decent, devout, caring people; but we draw the line when it comes to changing our lifestyles in the least. We will not trust, we will not cooperate, we will not wear masks or be vaccinated, we will not change the way we dine out, drink at the bar, attend sporting events, or anything of the sort. Yet we still think of ourselves as neighbor lovers and upstanding members of the community.

Hell no! There is no such thing as love without sacrifice. For that matter, there is no such thing as faith or grace that does not lead to changed life and the giving up of false commitments.

Our lessons for this Sunday are all over the place. Isaiah 62 speaks eloquently about name and identity, and how God vindicates those who hold on. Psalm 35 is a hymn of praise that lifts up every core quality the Bible recognizes in the One True God: steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, fair judgment, and the power to save. Faithful people shelter in these aspects of God. They find nourishment in them. And, most strikingly, they see all light in the light that God shines on them.  The Fourth Gospel’s story of water turned to wine at the wedding of Cana is full of challenges. We would like to have Jesus turn water to wine for us; but the Gospel challenges us to do more—to truly see the sign behind the miracle and encounter the Word of God made flesh, full of grace and truth.

But, because of the times, I choose to focus on one phrase in 1 Corinthians 12:7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul combats various aspects of a single problem—the one he addresses directly in chapter 12, when he writes, “Now concerning spiritual gifts…” The problem is that people in Corinth are drowning in “spiritual gifts.” But these are the wrong kind. The ones they cherish are “populist” gifts. They sparkle. They are popular. They seem to single people out for celebrity status. They are the gifts of superior knowledge, wisdom, charm, and persuasiveness. They are gifts that inflate the ego, and make people feel they float perfectly free of mundane matters such as the cohesiveness of community. The gift of speaking in tongues is especially popular because it seems to fill people with confidence that God has singled them out as exceptional.

But Paul writes that the sensation of being powerfully moved or drawn to something can lead us to the destruction of idolatry as well as to the truth and life of faith.

He then writes that there are all kinds of “charismas” or gifts, but the ones that come from the Spirit of God are for the “common good.” The Greek word sympheron that the New Revised Standard Version translates as “common good” can simply mean “advantageous,” or “beneficial.” But in Paul, and especially in 1 Corinthians, it means the good of the community. In 1 Corinthians 10:23 he writes to those who cherish radical freedom by writing, “[You like to say} All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial (using the word sympheron).” And then he counters, “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.” And in 8:1 Paul writes succinctly to those who fancy that they have the “gift” of superior spiritual knowledge, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Paul teaches, and demonstrates in his actions, that there is no such thing as neighbor love without inconvenience—without giving things up—without sacrifice. He will give up his freedom for the sake of others. He will give up ethnic pride and privilege. He will give up status, and the “superior knowledge” that it takes to win arguments. He will give up his comfort and his very life for the good of the neighbor, the gospel, and the community.

Since the beginning of this pandemic it has been apparent that care for the common good has become the victim of the relentless attacks on social trust. Many have sought political advantage by undermining public trust in government and in institutions of civic life. In quick succession we have been discouraged from believing in government leaders, journalists,, professors, and now scientists and health care experts. We are told not to trust, but to collate our own truth by searching social media for voices that, like our own, are rotten with suspicion.

Yes, it is time to privilege once again the common good by rebuilding trust. Not a blind faith in authority, but critical trust in learned practitioners devoted to Truth with a capital “T”.

But it is also important that we all be courageous and disciplined in paying a price for our love of the neighbor. The very fabric of civic life and human society depends on our habit of giving things up for the sake of the common good.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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