Rich and Poor, Honor and Shame

File:I000073 (10704267663).jpgFile:Homes-LuxuryHome3-Bel Air California.jpg

This is the message from Sunday, February 17, 2019, based on Luke 6:17-26:

Jesus came down with the twelve and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
….“Blessed are you who are poor,
….….for yours is the kingdom of God.
….“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
….….for you will be filled.
…. “Blessed are you who weep now,
….….for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

….“But woe to you who are rich,
….….for you have received your consolation.
….“Woe to you who are full now,
….….for you will be hungry.
…. “Woe to you who are laughing now,
….….for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

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Last week we talked about some of the material that comes between the portion of Luke’s Gospel we read last Sunday and our reading this morning. In the text last Sunday we heard about Jesus teaching from Peter’s boat, directing Peter to a wondrous catch of fish, then calling Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow him. We connected that story with a passage from Ezekiel to show that the focus of this story is on the wondrous catch of fish as a sign of the dawning of God’s reign. The summons to follow Jesus was a call to gather all people into this new creation, this dawning of God’s grace and life. Peter and Andrew, James and John, were not being asked to join a religious club, but to join God’s mission of reconciling all creation.

It was important, last week, to touch on the material between the wondrous catch and our reading today to better understand last Sunday’s text. And we need to do so again because we are jumping over sections of Luke’s gospel. Presumably we are skipping parts of Luke’s account because we read these stories from other Gospels in other years but, unfortunately, this means we can lose track of the thread of Luke’s narrative. So just as a reminder: Luke is the Gospel that gives us the familiar nativity story about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and the shepherds hearing the angels’ song. Luke is quite clear in his narrative about the presence of Roman imperial rule, but the poor and the powerless receive God’s promise and recognize in this child the fulfillment of God’s promise to come and reign.

Jesus is anointed with the Spirit of God and God declares that Jesus is God’s beloved ‘Son’ – a royal title indicating that Jesus is invested with the full authority to speak for God and to dispense the gifts of God. At this point, Luke inserts an amazingly honorable genealogy for Jesus that goes back through David and Abraham all the way to Adam and to God. When the devil attacks Jesus to show that he is unworthy of such honors, Jesus never breaks faith with God. Jesus is worthy of the title he has been given.

Jesus returns to Nazareth, but the people in his homeland are outraged when Jesus stops his reading of the prophet Isaiah without reference to God’s wrath on Israel’s enemies and they refuse to recognize Jesus as God’ s anointed. When he cites scripture to show that God’s grace and mercy are for all people, not just Judeans, they try to kill him. The story foreshadows what will happen in Jerusalem. Israel’s leaders will declare that Jesus is speaking falsely about God and seek to invalidate everything he has said and done by handing him over to be crucified. But, just as Jesus walked untouched through the murderous crowd at Nazareth, God will vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.

After Jesus leaves Nazareth, he comes to Capernaum where he is received as true, and great crowds are healed and delivered from evil spirits. When Jesus teaches by the shore of Galilee, and the crowd press in to hear him, he gets into Peter’s boat to teach. Jesus then demonstrates the dawn of God’s day of grace by the abundance of fish, and summons Peter and the others to follow him to gather all people into the nets of God’s mercy.

They leave everything to do that.

So the mission of God has been announced and disciples summoned to gather all into God’s grace. Jesus then goes on to embody and bear witness to this mission. He touches(!) and heals a man with leprosy; the man is an outcast and Jesus restores him to the community. While Jesus is teaching, the friends of a paralyzed man carry him to Jesus and, when they can’t get in the door, climb up on the roof, pull apart the branches shading the inner court, and lower the man down. Jesus releases him from the debt of all his sins. The Pharisees go crazy, but Jesus heals the man and he walks away restored to his life, his family and his community.

Jesus then calls Levi, a local tax gatherer, to be one of his disciples. Levi is a despised person, working for the imperial powers who are stealing the lifeblood of the community. By the very nature of his job, he is an unclean person.  But Jesus eats with him and his companions, gathering him back into the community of Israel.

Jesus is pressed by the Pharisees about the failure of his followers to observe the customary fasts and he declares that you cannot fast in the presence of the bridegroom. These are all signs that the day when all things are made new has begun in Christ. The reign of God is at hand – which, in Jesus, is a day of grace and not judgment, a gathering of all creation into the nets of God’s mercy.

The conflict with the Pharisees continues over the rituals of hand washing and Sabbath observance. When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, they begin to plot his destruction.

Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray and summons twelve of his disciples to be his apostles, to be sent as special witnesses of his mission. Jesus then begins to teach both them and the crowds about the nature of God’s reign – and this is where we pick up today.

Luke has gathered a collection of Jesus’ teachings and assembled them here. It is similar to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain (our translation said Jesus stood “on a level place”). Where Matthew imagined this moment as something like Moses at Mount Sinai giving God’s instructions, Luke envisions it as something more like Moses’ exhortation in the book of Deuteronomy when Israel was about to enter the land after their journey through the wilderness. It declares who God is, what God is about, and what it means to live God’s way. It announces the reign of God and teaches us how to live that reign.

Both Matthew and Luke start their account of Jesus’ teaching with a list of beatitudes, and it’s important that we understand what these words mean. We tend to talk about blessings as if they were the good things we have in life. We talk about our many blessings and we have in mind our children (maybe our grandchildren) and things like our family, our spouse, our home, our health – all those things we tend to mention around the thanksgiving table. Those are all great and wonderful blessings. We are fortunate if we have them. And all of us have something for which to give thanks. But the word Jesus uses here doesn’t refer to those kind of blessings, those things we refer to as good fortune.

There is nothing fortunate about being poor or hungry or grieving, and we do God and the scriptures a terrible disservice if we try to say that the poor are somehow fortunate. The woman in my parish in Detroit who needed to heat her house with a space heater attached to an extension cord that ran through a window from her neighbor’s house isn’t fortunate. The man who spent Michigan winters in a window well in downtown Detroit with newspapers for a blanket wasn’t fortunate. The mother who lost her son to suicide wasn’t fortunate. The young couple who lost their newborn to an asymptomatic ruptured appendix wasn’t fortunate. And the six-year-old girl who stole food from church to feed her grandmother and two younger siblings because her mother was a crackhead wasn’t fortunate.

There is nothing lucky about being poor or powerless. This word translated as “blessed” is speaking about honor. The poor and powerless are honored in God’s sight. The hungry and grieving are the recipients of God’s mercy.

And they are honorable because they receive and embrace the reign of God. They embrace the kingdom. They embrace the vision of shared bread. They do not steal what belongs to others. They do not reject those who are poor. They do not regard those who are sick as unclean. They embrace this dawning world of faithfulness to God and one another.

When the Bible talks about the rich and poor, these words are not fundamentally about material wealth. Honor is more important than money in the world of the scripture. Your reputation, your place in society, your family land and your family name, these are things that matter.

And in the Biblical world people understood all these things as fixed commodities. As I have said before, these are like land. There is a finite amount of land, so if someone is going to get more land then others are going to lose theirs. If someone is going to get more honor, then others are going to lose it. The most important thing in that society was for a family to protect what was theirs, whether it was their land or reputation. A person who lost their place or position or land was called ‘poor’. You could lose your position because you got sick and became an outcast, or because you were lame and couldn’t work, or because you lost your land and had to work as a tax gatherer, or because you were childless, or became a widow, or because you were a foreigner.

And what do we see Jesus doing? He is restoring people to their place in the community. He made Levi a disciple. He forgave a paralyzed man and returned him to his family. He touched and healed a leper, bringing him back inside the community. And he called Peter and his companions to help in this work.

The poor are honored in God’s sight. God’s mercy, God’s deliverance, has come to them. And they have embraced this kingdom where all are welcome, where all are cared for, where all are reconciled.

But how shameful are those who take instead of give, who do not embrace God’s way of grace, who take people’s lands, who take advantage of the powerless, who plunder the widow and ignore the orphan. How shameful those who do not share their food. How shameful those who live for the praise of others rather than the praise of God.

Amen

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This message was from Sunday, February 17, 2019, based on the assigned Gospel reading for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany in year C. The other readings on that Sunday helping to shape the message were Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, and 1 Corinthians 15:12-20.

© David K Bonde, 2019. All rights reserved.

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Like a shrub in the desert

File:Tree trunk at Deadvlei, Namibia (2017).jpgWatching for the Morning of February 17, 2019

Year C

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

From the mountain where he has prayed and appointed twelve apostolic witnesses, Jesus now descends to the plain to speak to the crowds who have come in search of healing. We know these words as “Blessed are you…” and “Woe to you…” but their meaning is better expressed by something like “How honored are you…” and “How shameful are you…”

It is about wealth and poverty – but wealth and poverty in a very specific context that concerns far more than money. It is a society that thinks about all things as a limited and fixed supply. It is like land: for someone to gain more someone else must lose. The ‘poor’ are those who have been unable to protect what was theirs, whether possessions or lands or family name. The ‘rich’ are those who have used their power to acquire what belonged to others. They are inherently regarded as thieves. (This is different, however, from those who prosper by natural means such as an exceptional harvest or fruitful flock – though such gifts from God require sharing with those not so fortunate.)

We understand something of this. We regard the auto mechanic who takes advantage of a traveler on the road as a thief, as are the pharmaceutical companies that jack up the price of life-saving medications – or those who pushed the sale of opiates. It is shameful to take advantage of the weak or vulnerable. It is shameful to steal from the elderly. It is shameful to abuse children. “Woe to you who are rich…Woe to you who are full now… Woe to you who are laughing now…” It is not a threat of punishment so much as a declaration that such people are shameful in God’s eyes and have no place in God’s reign.

No one is lucky to be poor. No one is fortunate to be powerless. There is no inherent good in being a victim (though good can come if it incites us not to victimize others, if it creates allegiance to the reign of God). The vulnerable are favored in God’s eyes because God has always been their advocate and defender, and now the reign of God has drawn near in Jesus the anointed. But what is expected of the poor – as also of the powerful, though they tend to refuse – is that they embrace this reign where bread is shared and sins forgiven and the human community made whole.

Jesus’ words on Sunday are full of grace to the beaten down, but they challenge the privileged – even as Jeremiah and the psalm contrast the tree drawing life from a stream with the dry shrub in the desert.

The Prayer for February 17, 2019

God of Mercy,
Redeemer of the world,
bring your healing to us and to all
that, transformed by your Grace,
all may know your justice and mercy.

The Texts for February 17, 2019

First Reading: Jeremiah 17:5-10
“Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.” – The prophet condemns the king whose confidence in power politics has led him to an alliance with the king of Egypt to rebel against Babylon, a course of action that will lead to the destruction of the nation. The timelessness of the wisdom saying is pointedly applied to the nation’s leadership.

Psalmody: Psalm 1
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”
– The psalm, written in the singular (“Blessed is the one”) opens the Hebrew psalter with an affirmation of the importance of individual fidelity to God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” – Paul challenges those in Corinth who deny bodily resurrection.

Gospel: Luke 6:17-26
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.’” – Having ascended a mountain to pray and then chosen his twelve apostolic witnesses, Jesus comes down to teach a great crowd of his followers, beginning with these declarations of those who are honored and shameful in God’s sight.

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Riches

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Watching for the Morning of October 11, 2015

Year B

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

The Pharisees’ question to Jesus about divorce turned into an invitation by him to live the kingdom. Now a rich man comes asking how to enter the kingdom, but he turns away, unable to live the life Jesus is bringing.

We know this story as the story of the rich, young ruler, but Mark doesn’t tell us that he is any of these, until it comes out at the end that the man cannot give up his wealth. Every adjective we add to describe this person who comes to Jesus seeking the kingdom of God, every detail with which he is embellished, pushes him further and further into a comfortable distance from ourselves. Bit by bit we define him as someone specific rather than an everyman. He becomes someone else, not me.

But he is me – me with different issues, maybe, but me. What is Jesus asking of us? What is he promising? What do I have to walk away from in order to walk into the realm of the Spirit? My wealth? My anger? My bitterness? My sorrow?

The subject under discussion here is wealth – but much more than wealth. Even as last week’s conversation was about much more than divorce. We are still on the journey towards Jerusalem. Jesus is still headed to the cross and resurrection. He is still talking about what it means to take up the cross, what it means to be citizens of the dawning reign of light and life, what it means to show allegiance to Jesus and Jesus only.

The prophet Amos tills the soil for the seeds Jesus is sowing. He cries out against the economic injustice of his day, the loss of compassion, the abuse of the poor, and declares the coming catastrophe when Assyria will come trample those who trampled the poor:

“You have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.”

The psalmist calls us to be wise, to recognize that

“The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

Pain and struggle and mortality are the heritage of a world turned away from God – but the poet prays for God to soften the burden of life’s sorrows.

What is unspoken in the psalm – but present nonetheless – is the recognition that our brief and fragile life should be spent in “fear” of the eternal God (respect and honor of God’s ways).

As he warns us to show trust and allegiance to God, the author of Hebrews states boldly that the Word of God will reveal the heart of each of us. But he also declares that in Christ we may “approach the throne of grace with boldness.”

In this mix of warning and promise, judgment and grace, there is an abiding promise that God’s reign is dawning. It requires our full allegiance, but it abounds with riches – just not the ones taken from our neighbors.

The Prayer for October 11, 2015

In your kingdom, O God, all find shelter and all are fed.
May your Spirit reign among us
that, abiding in your goodness,
we may live with joyful and generous hearts;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 11, 2015

First Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
“Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them.” – In the 8th century BCE, during the reign of Jereboam II, the northern kingdom of Israel grew rich but failed to live God’s justice and mercy. As Assyria rises to power, the prophet Amos cries out against the nation’s failure, warning them of the coming catastrophe, and urging them to turn and live.

Psalmody: Psalm 90 (appointed 90:12-17)
“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
– The poet meditates on the brevity and sorrows of human life, rooted as they are in humanity’s sinfulness. The poet bids God grant them a proper humility, but also asks God to have mercy and deal with us according to his faithfulness and love.

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
– God knows and will reveal the heart, but the author also declares that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” and urges his hearers to “approach the throne of grace with boldness.”

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – A man comes up to Jesus asking how he can inherit the kingdom of God (be among those to enjoy the age to come when God rules over all). But when Jesus summons him to sell his possessions, give to the poor and come, follow Jesus, he turns away. And Jesus comments on how difficult it is for the wealthy to start living the kingdom. Fortunately, “for God all things are possible.”

 

Photo: By Jeff Belmonte from Cuiabá, Brazil (Contando Dinheiro) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Scandal and praise

Watching for the Morning of September 6, 2015

Year B

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

File:Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib - Jesus and the Canaanite Woman - Walters W59243A - Full Page.jpgThey have no right to the gifts of God. They are not deserving. They are not God’s people. And when the woman asks for healing, Jesus speaks what everyone is thinking: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But the woman will not be dissuaded: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

It is so hard for us to understand the grace of God, so difficult to accept the magnitude of God’s mercy. Jesus has come to be the savior of the world – the whole world, not just us and people like us, not just believers, not just Christians, not just the baptized or the born again or the born again and really living it. The world. People in burkas and tattoos and unwashed jeans and unwashed lives. He sends rain on the just and the unjust(righteous and unrighteous). “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’”

And Jesus is touching people, sick people, “unclean” people.

It is a visible illustration of the previous text where Jesus says that what makes a person unclean isn’t anything on the outside, but what comes from within: the way we treat others.

So the disciples might cheer when they hear Jesus speak harshly to the Gentile woman. But they do not understand the character of God – nor the scriptures like Sunday’s psalm that sings of God’s care of the vulnerable and poor, or the prophet who rejoices in God’s deliverance of exiles, or, for that matter, the reading from James that excoriates the Christian community for treating some people (elite members of society, people with money) differently than the peasant poor.

But the woman knows. And the man who can neither speak nor hear but feels Jesus’ hands upon him, he knows. And they join the poet’s song of praise.

And maybe, when we hear about Jesus opening ears, we can feel his hands opening ours.

The Prayer for September 6, 2015

Father of all,
whose ears are open to the cries of every people:
drive out every power of evil,
and open every ear to hear and abide in your Word of life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 6, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 35:3-7a (appointed: 4-7a)
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” – The prophet announces God’s impending deliverance of the nation from their exile in Babylon and their joyful journey home.

Psalmody: Psalm 146
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”
– The poet praises the LORD, a God who comes to the aid of those in need.

Second Reading: James 2:1-17
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
– The author challenges the community not to show favoritism, warning them that to break any part of the law is to be accountable for all of it.

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37
“A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” – Following his teaching about what does and doesn’t render a person “unclean”, Jesus travels in foreign territory and heals two who are “unclean”, outside the covenant of Israel: the daughter of a Syrophoenician and a man from the Gentile region of the Decapolis.

 

Jesus and the Canaanite woman, folio from Walters manuscript W.592  Credit: Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are no pyramids in Judea

File:Sphinx and pyramids of Giza panorama.jpgSaturday

Psalm 123

3Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.

If we stop and pay attention to verses like this we will understand something important about Biblical faith and the scripture: it is, for the most part, written by the conquered not the conquerors. It is an exilic faith, a diaspora faith, a faith born out of human suffering rather than success. For all the glories of the kingdom of David, it was not an empire to compare with Egypt or Babylon or Assyria. There are no pyramids in Judea. No magnificent temples on the acropolis. No ancient works of art like those of Persia that ISIS is looting and destroying. What remained of Israel was a book. A book written by those who had seen their nation crushed, their temple destroyed, their king blinded and led away in chains. All the boots of tramping warriors had marched again and again through their land. They had known the contempt of the proud.

The struggle inside Israel and Judah was a struggle for its character. Some aspired to glory. Others aspired to justice and mercy. Kings built altars that matched Assyria. Prophets spoke on behalf of the poor. Moses commanded a Sabbath that they not be a nation of slaveholders and slaves. The wealthy sought to discard such archaic ideas. Moses spoke of shared bread. Isaiah excoriated the lavish feasts of the rich and promised a day when all would gather at God’s abundant banquet.

3Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.

Whether the psalm prays for relief from foreign oppressors or their own home grow elite, the truth of the prayer remains. It is the cry of the poor, a cry God hears.

 

Photo: By kallerna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The strong” and “the weak”

Sunday Evening

1 Corinthians 8

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Remains of the Temple of Apollo in Corinth

12 When you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

(Psst. It’s not about “members of your family” but brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.)

If it were me, I would add quotes around the word “weak”. It’s not at all clear to me that Paul regards this people as weak; I think he is just taking up the expression that “the strong” are using for their sisters and brothers who are not as progressive and enlightened as they imagine themselves to be. The attitude of “the strong” is typically that the weak should buck up. The “strong” don’t live in fear. The “strong” don’t struggle with doubt. The “strong” are rarely vulnerable. The “strong” have life by the gonads and think everyone else should be more like themselves. They are the “enlightened”, the “wise”, the “knowledgeable”. My bet is that “the strong” in Corinth are the people with power and wealth and “the weak” are those whose lives are circumscribed by the power of others. They are the slaves and servant class who are not used to being able to do whatever the hell they want. They are the people who know that angering your master is dangerous, that life is dangerous. They don’t want to make a misstep in something so important as might offend your God by eating meat that has been offered to other gods in sacrifice. It’s the kind of thing that gets them abused by their masters.

We know there were rich and poor in Corinth. Paul will spend some time upbraiding the congregation that when they hold their agape meals (holy communion), the rich are bringing their own food baskets and feeding themselves without waiting for the working poor to arrive. By the time such brothers and sisters have arrived these privileged are already drunk. “I don’t know what that is,” says Paul, “but it is certainly not the Lord’s supper.”

There is plenty of rhetoric in our country that suggests it’s easy to not be poor.   If they worked harder, studied harder, practiced greater discipline, weren’t bailed out by the government, etc. Those who say such things don’t have a clue about the advantages they possess and the obstacles faced by the rural and urban poor. Of course, it only takes one person who has “made it,” to convince us that everyone can “make it” if they try. It’s not so simple.

Paul certainly has an opinion about eating meat that has been offered to idols. He will get around to the fact that no one should be doing this. But first he has a bigger problem: teaching this community to be mindful of one another, teaching this community that they are members of a common household, teaching this community that they are bound together in Christ, teaching this community to show fidelity and care for one another, teaching this community that to hurt one member of the body is to hurt Christ.

That’s the more important lesson. So that’s where Paul begins. And he will keep coming back to it when he talks about worship, about spiritual gifts, about marriage and sexuality, about the divisions in the congregation – because if we don’t understand what it means to love one another, we won’t really understand what it means that God has loved us.

 

By Rabe! (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons