Last week our text from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth was one that we usually only hear at funerals. This week, we’ve got one that we usually only hear at weddings – or maybe read from decorative plaques!
It’s one of the best known passages in the whole Bible – and justly so. This is Paul at his most eloquent, and his words are beautiful and powerful.
But the way we often use this text – in the context of romantic love – diminishes and arguably distorts its message. Paul himself was profoundly uninterested in marriage. He says at one point that he would prefer that everyone was like him – called to singleness – but that if people really HAVE to get married because of their urges, then it’s probably fine.
So, while it’s more than reasonable to read this passage as guidance for any loving relationship, Paul is talking about life within Christian community, and about how followers of Jesus are called to behave towards others.
We’re receiving this text out of order, so let’s put it in context. This passage follows Paul’s exploration, in chapter 12, of roles and gifts within Christian community. The church is like a body, with many different parts working together. And God gives people varied gifts and skills to contribute to the good of the whole. Nobody should act like one kind of spiritual gift is more important than others. That’s what leads right up to, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
And then Paul says, If I speak in tongues of mortals and angels… if I understand all secret and divine mysteries… if I have faith SO TREMENDOUS that I can literally MOVE MOUNTAINS… and I don’t have love? Then none of that other stuff matters at all.
These were real issues in the churches in Paul’s time. There were conflicts over which spiritual gifts mattered most or made someone truly great. There were competing leaders who went around showing off their spiritual prowess; at one point Paul snarkily calls them “super-apostles.”
Imagine a workplace where folks are jockeying to be seen as most effective or successful… or a school classroom where the kid who brings the best Valentine candy gets their pick of friends at recess… and you’ve got some sense of the dynamic.
Paul is saying, All that stuff that people are wrangling over is meaningless. All that really matters, ultimately, is love.
That brings us to this beautiful, powerful paragraph.
Love is patient. Love is kind.
Love is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way.
Love is not irritable or resentful.
Love does not rejoice in injustice, but rejoices in the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
There are three things I notice about this passage.
First: Love is a commitment, a choice about how to be a human among humans. Importantly, it’s not a feeling. We don’t act these ways because we feel warm and fuzzy towards someone. We act these ways because we have chosen to follow this call, this path.
This passage goes awfully well with the part of Jesus’ sermon on the plain in today’s Gospel. Jesus asks, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”
Jesus has a good point. The worst, most evil people in human history have had a parent or a partner or a friend or a pet whom they loved and treated with kindness and generosity.
Being kind to those who are kind to you, loving those who love you – that’s just being human. It is not the “more excellent way” to which we are called as God’s people, as followers of Jesus.
This passage invites us to understand Love as a commitment, an intention. And Paul’s theological poetry here maps out what that might look like – to help us recognize it and practice it.
Second: This passage is aspirational. Something to aim for. As a community, as individuals, we will not fulfill this. I fail all the time.
So did Paul. Someone reminded me recently that there’s a passage elsewhere, where Paul is addressing a situation in which some teachers are telling Christian men that they need to be circumcised. Paul emphatically disagrees. And he gets so mad about it that he says, While these false teachers are circumcising themselves, I wish they’d go ahead and CASTRATE themselves!
So, you know, we all have our moments.
But this passage still points the way. Love is the goal, the intention. For Paul, this is what makes someone great in the church. Not exceptional spiritual gifts. Not amazing leadership skills. Not a list of accomplishments. Love. Just love.
Over the years I’ve increasingly come to see my vocation as a priest – as *your* priest – as being simply to love this set of people, as well as I can. I try not to be hard on myself when I read this passage and see where I fall short. But it does renew and refocus my intentions about how I want to be with you, and for you. And how I believe we’re called to be, together, for the world.
Third: It feels important to say that this call to love doesn’t mean we tolerate harm towards ourselves or others. Walking this path of love means that we try to pray for those who hurt us, as Jesus says. But it doesn’t mean we never set boundaries or say hard things. It doesn’t mean we don’t name our enemies, and stand up for what is right and just and true. We have many, many faithful models, starting with Jesus and Paul, to show us that being loving is not the same as being “nice.”
I bet the last paragraph of this passage bothered some people! Which does Paul think is better, adult ways or childish ways? …
Okay, now, which does Jesus think is better, adult ways or childish ways?…
Paul is trying to say that stuff that seems like a big deal now, can turn out not to be a big deal, in a future chapter. That’s often true! But Paul’s use of childhood as his analogy here isn’t great.
There are lots of things that children see more clearly than adults. Adults’ minds can get really clouded and clogged up with ideas about what’s Normal and Right and Just Has To Be That Way.
I think that’s why Jesus says that grownups need to become more like little children, on the journey towards the Kingdom of Heaven.
What Paul is actually trying to say there is: There are three things that orient Christian life – faith, hope, and love. And ultimately, when we’ve moved on from this world and this life, we won’t need faith or hope anymore. We won’t need faith when we’re standing in God’s presence, and we won’t need hope when we’ve entered fully into God’s joy and peace. But love will still be at the center of whatever that life beyond this world may be. Because Love is the heart of God.
This passage, as a whole, is speaking about human love: the way we’re called to live in love, within community and towards those around us. But Paul is also talking about the character of God, here. It’s not Paul who says “God is love” – that’s in the first letter of John. But Paul does see the life and witness of Jesus Christ as revealing God’s profound love for humanity. Speaking about love IS speaking about God.
Sometime in the first half of the 20th century, a self-taught musician and poet from Oklahoma named Woody Guthrie wrote a commentary on 1 Corinthians 13. He probably didn’t think of it that way, but it seems obvious to me. Like Paul, Woody’s talking about Love as a way of talking about God, and also as a fundamental force for good in this world and in human relationships. I’d like to end this sermon by sharing some of Woody’s words. Please go read them here – scroll down to “Untitled”!