Even in the hell of war, there are pinpoints of light and nobility. During World War II, one German soldier, Private Joseph Schultz, was one of those pinpoints.
Schultz was sent to Yugoslavia shortly after the Germans invaded that country. One day his sergeant called out eight names, his among them. They thought they were going on a routine patrol. As they hitched up their rifles, they came over a hill, still not knowing anything about their mission. Once over the hill they encountered eight Yugoslavians, standing on the brow of a hill, five men and three women. It was only when they were in firing range of the group that the soldiers realized what their mission was.
The soldiers were lined up. The sergeant barked out, “Ready!” and they lifted their rifles. “Aim” and the soldiers got their sights set. Then suddenly there was the thud of a rifle butt on the ground. The sergeant, the seven soldiers, and those eight Yugoslavians stopped and looked. Private Joseph Schultz walked toward the Yugoslavians. His sergeant ordered him to come back, but he pretended not to hear him. Instead, Schultz walked to the mound of the hill and he joined hands with the eight Yugoslavians.
There was a moment of silence, and then the sergeant yelled, “Fire!” Private Schultz died that day, his blood mingled with those of the innocent men and women he would not kill. Found on his body was an excerpt from Saint Paul: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Isn’t it interesting that in our lesson today St. Paul should emphasize not faith but love? He tells the Corinthians: “Faith, hope and love, abide these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
St. Paul is quite adamant that at the heart of being a Christian is love. You can know the right doctrine, quote every verse of the Bible, boast of being a cradle Anglican, obey every law of the Church, and still not be an authentic Christian. Paul makes this clear when he says: “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. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If 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.”
Paul’s words are an urgent appeal to focus on what is essential to the Christian life. Love, he tells us, is the foundation of everything we do as Christians. Without love nothing else matters. Without love Christians have no credible witness to the world. Without love we might as well pack it all up and call it quits. Love is at the heart of being a Christian.
God knows, we need more love in our world today. Terrorism, the killing of innocents, the living conditions of our own aboriginal people, the poverty in our cities, the refugees by the millions, and the insensitivity in how we treat one another – I could go on. Yes, we need a great deal more love in our world.
Recently you may have read about the conflict occurring in Alberta between the NDP government and the Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Calgary Fred Hill has equated a set of guidelines for schools intended to protect gay, lesbian and transgendered students with a Nazi-like state ideology that’s on par with eugenics or racial purity. That rhetoric goes too far for some of us, even if we recognize that the underlying issues are quite complex. Whatever happened to teaching children that God loves everybody no matter how they look, or what gender pronouns they prefer, or what washrooms they want to use? Whatever happened to tolerance toward other people, caring for the marginalized and ostracized, and showing humility, grace and mercy? I thought the gospel had to do with loving yourself as God made you, but also loving everyone else as God made them. (1)
About the same time that the news broke on the controversy in Alberta, the Episcopal Church in the United States was suspended from full participation in the Anglican Communion because of that Church’s intention to move forward with marrying same-sex couples. I understand there is a legitimate disagreement about how the Church should respond to same-sex couples. I appreciate that Christians can read the Bible in different ways and come to different conclusions about the same passages. I have friends and colleagues on all sides of the issue, and I respect both them and their positions. And yet, if we believe that love is at the heart of being a Christian, then why can’t we Anglicans still live together in common mission, affirming the same faith and serving the same Lord? Haven’t enough people been hurt already, some driven to suicide and others driven out of the Church? Where’s the love that Christians are supposed to have for one another?
Whether in the church or in the world, we need more love. Hate, prejudice, discrimination, and condemning others because they are different from us have no place in the life of any Christian. The alternative to love is a loveless world too horrid to contemplate. We need love, because love is life-giving and life-affirming. Without love we die – as individuals, as a society and as inhabitants on this planet.
I am showing my age here, but some of us may remember Janice Joplin – the famous rock singer. Night after night she stood before screaming, applauding crowds who adored her rebellious style of singing. She was one of the greatest rock singers in the world, and I still remember her singing, “Do you want somebody to love? Don’t you need somebody to love?” One night she was singing that song to twenty-five thousand people, and she then spontaneously asked herself, “Janice, have you ever been loved?” And she answered her own question, “No, I have never been loved, except by twenty-five thousand people at a concert. Someday, I am going to write a song about making love to twenty-five thousand people and then going home to my room alone.”
Janice Joplin died at age 27, from an overdose of heroin. If we have not love, we die. Love is the hope of the world. Love is the basis for life. Love is what motivates us to sacrifice more, give more and work harder for the causes we believe in. Love is what builds a kinder, gentler civilization, where people live in freedom and dignity as human beings fully alive to God and one another.
And one other thing about love… it has the power to transform us… to help see ourselves as God sees us. In the musical Man of La Mancha, the last scenes in the play are some of the most heartwarming in all of theater. Don Quixote is a man who lives with many illusions, most especially his idea that he is a knight errant who battles dragons in the form of windmills.
At the end of the play, as he lays dying, Don Quixote has at his side a prostitute, Aldonza, whom he has called throughout the play Dulcinea – Sweet One – much to the laughter of the local townspeople. But Don Quixote has loved her in a way unlike she has ever experienced.
When Don Quixote breathes his last, Aldonza begins to sing “The Impossible Dream.” As the echo of the song dies away, someone shouts to her, “Aldonza!” But she pulls away proudly and responds, “My name is Dulcinea.” The crazy knight’s love had transformed her.
That’s the Gospel, isn’t it? God’s love covers a multitude of sins. We sometimes fail miserably, but God loves us anyway. We are loved simply because God loves us, and there is nothing we can do to change that love. God loves you and me – and the whole world and everyone in it – and there are no exceptions and no outcasts. We try to place limits on that love, but God never does.
I know… there are many complex moral issues that defy simple solutions. Good people can and do disagree with one another. However, any time we need to make a moral judgment, it is always safer to err on the side of too much love than too little. There is a role for law in the Christian life, but the greatest law is this: to love God and to love people. St. Paul puts it succinctly: “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
So let’s draw the circle wide in the Anglican Church of Canada, in the Anglican Communion and in every church around the world. Let’s offer a hearty embrace to every human being, because every human being is a child of God, and God loves everyone – no exceptions and no outcasts.
Draw the circle wide. Draw it wider still. Let this be our song, no one stands alone, standing side by side, draw the circle wide. (2)
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
January 31, 2016
I Corinthians 13:1-13
Epiphany 4, C
1. Jen Gerson, “God loves everybody,” National Post, January 22, 2016, A8
2. Common Praise: Anglican Church of Canada, Hymn 418