30th January - Candlemas
1 Corinthians 13; Luke 2: 22-40
Today I want first to talk about our second reading from 1 Corinthians 13 – a rare opportunity to do so not at a wedding – before some remarks about Jesus’ presentation at the Temple.
Paul’s words about love have been top of the charts for weddings for decades. But Paul did not include these verses as a well-wishing message to a young couple.
This letter was written around 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul moved from city to city it seems that letters passed from him to the young churches in Asia Minor and back, usually carried by Christian travellers, for there was no public postal service. Only a few letters survived. 1 Corinthians is one of these, incidentally not the first in the series, but a reply to an earlier letter from them.
The letter is mainly composed of advice on issues Paul has been made aware of in the young church in Corinth. Paul is not happy, mainly because he has heard that the community is riven with quarrels. “There should be no divisions among you”, Paul writes at the start of the letter: but there are, and he is not shy in taking them to task.
As Paul often does, he sees a contrast, a choice, at the heart of the community’s problem. He expresses it in a short verse in Chapter 8, which for me is the theme of the whole letter:
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”
Today as then, we are fascinated with knowledge, a great gift of Christ to us in creation, but with the temptation once acquired to puff up into vanity. A vanity which then justifies its own worthiness, while decrying the value of others. For Paul, such vain ego is what is behind the divisions in the community in Corinth, and others besides. In the centuries since it has been the source of much tragedy in the church.
I will show you a more excellent way, says Paul. Put aside the desperate pretending to be our own mini-gods, accept and be thankful for the good gifts of Christ’s love which surround us, given freely in grace, allow ourselves to be shaped by love, by our one true God, creator, redeemer and friend.
It is love which builds up the church, which is the key to community. If this is Paul’s message, we might then paraphrase chapter 13 like this:
“Love in community is patient, kind…it does not insist on its own way…love in community does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth… Love in community bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
I thank God that this community at Holy Innocents has been built up out of love, over past generations, and as a living reality today – I know I am one of many here who feel the support of that love in times of uncertainty.
I turn now to our Gospel reading, and Jesus’ presentation at the temple, and the words of Simeon and Anna.
I choose to read these stories first as poetry rather than as history. It was an expected feature of biographical writing at the time that the story should include incidents from the subject’s early life which gave clues as to what was to come later. Omens, dreams, acts of heroism while yet children, were commonplace.
For Luke, it may be that such stories were circulating as he began to write his gospel. And in his choice of what to retell and how, he takes the opportunity to site them within the themes of his broader work.
I am struck first by this picture of the ordinary love and care of his parents, fulfilling their duties under the law, keen to give him the best preparation for life they can afford with their offering of two pigeons.
And then there are the words of Simeon and Anna. His are recorded, hers are not.
I find a beauty in the picture of Simeon, an old man who’s life’s hope has been for Israel, but who in old age is faced with a seeming endless political decline into violence and brutality – of the sort that make so many older folk today increasingly anxious. And yet for Simeon, holding this young child in his arms, fills him with a sense of peace, he glimpses a future where all will ultimately be well, that the incarnation of Christ, in this child, will redeem not just Israel, but the whole world. And yet also, he warns, the way to redemption will pass through suffering.
So these two Bible readings tell of the love which God seeded into every part of creation in Christ, offered to us in his incarnation, to build us up in community and, for all its quiet vulnerability, to bring the whole world into the fullness of heaven.
Richard Young (Rector)