It might seem strange to use Matthew 24 as one of the readings for World Communion Sunday. This snippet of scripture portrays wars, famines, earthquakes, torture, betrayal, people being led astray. What kind of communion is that? Actually, this might be a good description of our world!
This comes right after Jesus’ disciples are “oohing” and “ahhing” at the beauty of the temple. In his gospel, Luke adds “how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” (21:5). So how does Jesus respond to his starry-eyed friends? He asks, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 2).
What a party pooper.
"I'm the party pooper"
But he wasn’t wrong. In the year 70, fed up with the constant rebellion of the Jews, the Romans rolled in and destroyed the temple.
(Here’s a quick note. Actually, anything we humans build will eventually disappear. This building we’re in right now will eventually crumble to the ground. We are in a doomed structure! And that word “structure” has one than one meaning.)
Still, the reason I picked this passage for today comes in verse 12: “And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.” Back when I started reading the Bible in earnest—when I became a Christian while in college—that really jumped out at me. It still really speaks to me. The love of many will grow cold. Love growing cold—that’s not a very pleasant thought!
It’s not a very lovely thought for World Communion Sunday, is it? In some ways, it might be true of us today. Love is growing cold.
Having said that, it’s also true that actual witch hunts rarely happen anymore. People are not routinely burned at the stake. And then there are stories from the 1600s of Presbyterians and others in their dealings with Baptists, who do not believe in infant baptism. They decided to help the Baptists and grant their wish. Since Baptists believed they needed to be baptized again, they were bound with heavy stones and tossed into the river. Here’s your baptism! (Still, I cannot confirm the accuracy of those reports!)
A time when people were put to such a test was when the Babylonians invaded Judea. The nation was under military occupation, with hundreds and thousands sent into forced deportation—the Babylonian exile. The invaders destroyed the original temple, as the Romans did the second temple centuries later.
According to the book of Lamentations, during the siege of Jerusalem, food began to run out. Apparently, some even resorted to cannibalism.
The part of the book we usually focus on is in chapter 3, verses 19 to 24. We do see the author acknowledging the dire straits. “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me” (vv. 19-20). The grim reality is recognized. “But this I call to mind.” We’re turning a corner. There’s a light in the darkness. “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (vv. 21-22). Even in the depths of despair, hope is still alive.
In verse 23—the mercies of the Lord “are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”—we have the inspiration of that great hymn of the church. And for those who didn’t know the Biblical origin of “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” here it is. It comes from a time when civilized society has collapsed. Even when we humans screw up on a colossal scale, God is still faithful.
(Who knows? If our civilization collapses, maybe some wise person will be inspired and pen lyrics to encourage those who come after.)
Our poet proclaims, “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (v. 24). Unfortunately, the struggle continues. A few verses later, he says, “When all the prisoners in a country are crushed underfoot, when human rights are overridden in defiance of the Most High, when someone is cheated of justice, does not the Lord see it?” (vv. 34-36, New Jerusalem Bible). Lord, what are you going to do?
As the hymn says, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, / Blessings all mine and ten thousand beside!” Seizing that hope keeps our love from growing cold.
A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the spiritual disciplines of the prayer of recollection and of secrecy. (Again, that’s not the secrecy as opposed to keeping confidence. It’s the secrecy Jesus displays by telling people to not turn him into a spectacle. He heals and then tells the people to not broadcast it all over the place.) I gave as another example of secrecy the over-the-top behavior of the guy praying very loudly, confessing his sin, in a quiet time and a quiet place.
In her work Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun speaks of the discipline of celebration. It’s the discipline of abandoning oneself to joy, of giving in to the spirit of gratitude and love, of just letting go. That covers a lot of ground; it has many different aspects, but there is something she says I readily understand.
One of them is “taking yourself less seriously.” Some of us have more trouble in that than others! I’ve often thought a key quality of our bearing the image of God is a sense of humor. We humans didn’t invent humor. Where can humor come from but a source of infinite joy and good will?
“Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness. What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you. It advances the universe two inches. If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words. You and I know this is possible. It is what [Jesus] said could happen if we loved well.”
Cynicism and mockery can’t appreciate the pure, uninhibited appeal of genuine and authentic humor. There’s an easiness of spirit, without which we can become brittle. When we’re brittle, we don’t have flexibility. When we’re brittle, our sense of humor becomes twisted. We laugh at the expense of others. We sometimes give them nicknames, and they aren’t friendly nicknames. We can become vulgar. We can’t laugh at ourselves.
There’s something else that goes along with love growing cold. The discipline of celebration entails gratitude. When love grows cold, we have the “celebration” of ingratitude. In our country, we seem to have taken the celebration of ingratitude to new levels. For instance, many of our so-called “reality” TV shows extol the virtues (or should we say, the vices) of it.
The apostle Paul has his own take on love. “Love is patient,” he says, “love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
A friend of mine years ago said he sometimes would put his name in the place of “love” in this passage. It was a lesson he needed to learn again and again. Let me try.
James is patient; James is kind; James is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
James’ love has not grown cold. That can be a high bar to set!
A posture of love that is kept warm by the Holy Spirit enables the discovery and cultivation of gifts from that same Spirit.
I began with the comment that using the reading from Matthew 24 (with the “love growing cold” business) might seem to be a strange one for World Communion Sunday. But why not? If there’s one place where love is meant to be warmed, it is at the table of Holy Communion. This is where “celebration” of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and joyful, life-affirming humor is to be found. And surely the entire world is where it needs to happen.
The apostle says, “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10). That word “complete” (τελειος, teleios) is also translated as “perfect”—not perfect as in flawless, but as in finished. We are not yet complete: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).
What awaits us is awareness of the infinite bursting heart of love gazing into our very being, burning away the coldness and resounding through all the worlds with fierce, irresistible euphoria. Paul is fully known—nothing is hidden—and yet is loved all the more.
Those cold hearts, overcome and warmed with the spirit of celebration, is the foundation for all of the spiritual gifts. We are empowered by the Spirit and sent forth into a world that is dying for communion.
 “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.” (4:10)
 Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 26-28.
 Calhoun, 26.