David was away at an ordination service for a pastor in the Church of Uganda and asked me to fill in as teacher of the Sunday afternoon mission Bible study. This caused me no small consternation since my main experience has been in teaching junior high and high school, which is pretty much like speaking to myself. I was worried that these adults might actually be listening to what I was saying, which is always dangerous.
Against many inward protestations (what are we at a wedding?), I landed on First Corinthians chapter thirteen as our passage of choice, specifically verse seven, a passage that had been coming to mind in the odd moment of dealing with life here. The lesson seems to me broadly applicable to the church in all contexts as well as shining a light particularly on some of the conflicts we face in Karamoja.
Chapter thirteen is oddly wedged between the two famous chapters on spiritual gifts. One of the problems in Corinth was the use of spiritual gifts toward selfish ends—those with the higher gifts using them as a cudgel against those who were not spiritual enough to possess them, and those without them feeling jealousy at their seemingly trivial part in the body of Christ. In the midst of Paul’s discussion of these gifts, he is compelled to an extended parentheses on the “more excellent way” to exercise the gifts. He argues that the purpose of the gifts—all of them, lofty and lowly alike (seriously, who wouldn’t trade Administration for Prophecy)—was to build up and bring together the ecclesial body. The way that this is possible, he argues, is when the members hold love as their primary disposition in all circumstances.
This theme brings us to our particular concern with verse seven. The text is thus:
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (ESV)
It’s certainly a nice sentiment at weddings (or even the odd funeral), and it looks good crocheted and hung on a wall, if you’re into that sort of thing. But the reality of creating a habit of these words makes the passage, as one commentator has described, devastating. I have providentially been confronted with these words in difficult interactions with our staff, many of whom are church members. When one asks me for half a day off with pay to visit his sick uncle, I am reminded that love believes all things, hopes all things. When I go to pay some daily workers and they laugh at the agreed-upon wage, I know that love endures all things. When a worker comes to the door asking for sugar for his newly motherless children, love bears all things.
We, as Christians, and especially as those involved in Missions, are called to exercise a self-sacrificial love; any other motive is perilous to our faith and our work in building up the church herre.
But, as terrible and inconsistent as I am about practicing this all-demanding love, I am reminded of one who kept this rule of love perfectly. One who “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (or to the utmost),” one who “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” One who was made foolish in the eyes of the world as he was executed in weakness, an abortive would-be Messiah, whose political and spiritual aims were (seemingly) put under the boot of Rome on the cross.
We see in this foolish, prodigal love, the love of the Father made manifest. As Balthasar says:
This God is so free that he can reject the election that had apparently been definitive, breaking the sealed covenant and replacing it with a new one. The very first person to be chosen must encounter on Mount Moriah this God who is free to the point of contradiction. But this is also the God who is free only as a lover who suffers more than anyone else at the ruination of his chosen form: a God who, along with his untouchable sovereignty, does not draw back from revealing to the lascivious whore Jerusalem his form of suffering—the face of a lover who is not only humiliated, but who assents to this humiliation and even humiliates himself. He rejects her—he must reject her; that is his right as the holy God. But he cannot reject her; he must run after her, undeserving as she is, and bring her home with humiliating pledges and promises, and he is not ashamed of this humiliation. It is only when we come directly from these scenes between Israel and Yahweh that we will realise the extent of what God is determined to reveal and confide about himself in the New Testament.
The history of the Holy Fool goes, in Christianity, all the way back to the beginning. May it be our desire to continue this rich tradition and act this part in Karamoja through the power of the Holy Spirit. May we consistently love in such an unexpected way that the unbelieving world shakes its head and howls. And that, built upon the cornerstone of Christ, the Church is continually “being built into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Hey man, I was always listening.