So there is this one time in the book of Acts, where Paul is in the middle of this kind of sham trial. He’s in front of the Sanhedrein, the Jewish religious leaders of his day, and he’s facing the death penalty. It’s got to be a stressful situation to say the least. And to make the situation even worst, at one point, Paul gets unfairly slapped in the face.
Now Paul, like most of us, doesn’t like that. Now he’s got a fire in his belly, and a red hand print on his face, and he’s going to say something about it. He was unjustly stricken, and so he lets these guys know that God sees what is going on and will one day strike them back.
And then Paul finds out that was the High Priest.
Now that doesn’t change the fact that this guy had just acted like a jerk. He was acting out of fear and a narrow-minded, myopic view of what God might be up to. He was misusing his power. But out of respect for the office that he held, Paul does something amazing.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a ministry situation which was pretty hopeless. A family had what seemed to be an irreparable tear in it. Sides had been taken, and lines had been drawn and crossed. What was interesting, is that neither side could see their own faults in the matter, and both sides saw the only way out of the situation being the “others” apologizing. So I did what probably most ministers would do in this situation. I tried to get them to see their own culpability in this situation, and get them to own up to it. It didn’t work.
But, and here’s what I thought was fascinating, the only thing that both groups did agree on, was what they thought apologizing would do. They said it would make them look weak and vulnerable. And in many ways they were right. That’s the thing about apologizing…it leaves you exposed. Everything hinges on what the other party does. They could really turn your honesty against you. Their position might not change at all. The relationship might not be healed, and everyone would now know it’s all your fault.
But the alternative is worse.
One of the most famous chapters in the Bible is 1st Corinthians 13. It’s all about Love. But did you ever notice how exactly Paul talks about it? He says Love is long-suffering, enduring, believing…and never failing. This is more than an emotion cooked up by Hallmark, Paul is talking about a tough, virtuous brand of love. And Paul says this Love never Fails.
Now this is the same guy who had been slapped by the chief priest and apologized…and now we get a glimpse into why. Because Paul is writing more than just a good idea to read at Weddings. He’s tapping into the very nature of what following Jesus is all about.
One of my favorite books over the past year has been, Tattoo’s on the Heart by Gregory Boyle. Boyle is a Jesuit priest, and his book is written out of decades of ministry with gangs in South Central L.A. For a while, Boyle was a chaplain in Folsom Prison, and he noticed that the relationship between the guards and inmates was hostile at best. After digging around, he discovered that this was because neither party could be anything but harsh toward the other. The phrase he heard repeatedly was, “I don’t want them to mistake my kindness for weakness.” But the truth that Boyle came to discover was that, “kindness is really the only strength there is.”
At one point in his stint there, Boyle was in a prison service, just going through the motions, when one of the inmates stood up to read 1st Corinthians 13. But he read it like he believed it. He read it like it mattered, like it was true.
He looked out over the small crowd of inmates and read, “Love…Never…Fails.”
I wonder how much of our lives, ministry, marriages and families might change if we lived as though we believed just that. Without attempting to guard our ego’s or hedge our relational bets. This kind of love is more than we’ve made it out to be. Love is not just a emotion for Jr. High girls or newly-weds. It’s not for the faint of heart, or the selfish. It’s a love that risks looking weak and vulnerable for the sake of the relationship.
N.T. makes a point about the context of Paul’s famous chapter in 1st Corinthians. This letter, Wright argues, is in a book that is about things that that will not last and things that will. The resurrection, which is what the entire book is leading up to, is going to one day set the world right. And so everything we do should be done in light of that day. And part of the point of this chapter, is that if all else fails, love won’t. It is the stuff that will last forever. In the words of N.T. Wright:
“It [Love] is the supreme example of what Paul articulates two chapters later, ‘ that what we do in the present, in the Lord, is not wasted. Love is the language they speak in God’s world, and we are summoned to learn it against the day when God’s world and ours will be brought together forever. It is the music they make in God’s courts, and we are invited to learn it and practice it in advance. Love is not a ‘duty,’ even our highest duty. It is our destiny.”
Because in the Age to Come our ego’s will no longer matter. In that day, the pride that prevents us being vulnerable will have passed away. We will put childish things away.
But Love never fails.