Grace Presbyterian Church
January 31, 2016, Epiphany 4C
1 Corinthians 13:1-14:1a
What It Looks Like: We Love
I feel compelled to make one thing clear: despite the scripture passage you’ve just heard, nobody is getting married today. At least not here in this service.
This chapter, probably the most famous thing the Apostle Paul ever wrote by a long shot, is a prime example of a verse that has become so associated with or attached to a particular occasion or usage, in the minds of so many church folk, that we get blinded to the fact that it wasn’t written for that particular purpose, and by so confining it in our minds or in our church life we are in fact starving ourselves of the very spiritual nutrients the passage was meant to provide for us, the “more excellent way” Paul urges upon us.
Before going further, let me make this clear: just because this passage wasn’t written as an ode to romantic love doesn’t mean it isn’t appropriate for a service of marriage. There’s nothing starry-eyed or swoony about the love Paul describes here. This love is tough, determined, and persistent, enduring even in the harshest of times. Yes, that is exactly the kind of love of which a couple needs to be reminded on the occasion of their marriage. We simply need to hear it at other times as well, and not connected to a wedding.
Though it may seem a bit of a diversion or tangent when situated in the contest of what Paul has just said before and is about to say after, in fact it is quite the opposite. Paul’s discourse on love is central to this part of his letter, and one might even argue to the whole letter as well. Indeed, the litany of love’s characteristics is more than just beautiful and poetic; it is a pointed response to those difficult Corinthians to whom Paul was writing, who had created the divisions Paul addresses in this letter.
First of all, the very gifts Paul has been discussing in chapter 12 are put in their place, in verses 1-3. Without love, none of them – none of these gifts over which the Corinthians had been in dispute, trying to one-up each other – are anything. Not the most eloquent or powerful speech, not prophecy, not even faith, not even the most extravagant generosity. Without love, these simply don’t add up to anything. If anything, as the Corinthians are experiencing, even those great gifts can become destructive.
If Paul is perhaps deflating the egos of the Corinthians in verses 1-3, he gets quite pointed in verses 4-7. For example, Paul isn’t just being lofty and poetic when he says “love is not envious” in verse 4; Paul is very specifically responding to the behavior of the Corinthians he has already chastised back in chapter 3, verse 3. Saying that love is not boastful follows very clearly after Paul’s admonition in 5:6 that “your boasting is not a good thing.” He flat-out calls them “arrogant” in 5:2, which love is not here. In short, the Corinthians are profoundly lacking in love for one another, and thus their church is fractured and difficult.
No two churches are alike. There are, though, ways that any church might want to examine itself to see just how its actions and missions and enacting of its spiritual gifts actually reflects the love of Christ for the church and the love Christ charges the church to show to the world. It’s far too easy for any given church to slip into a pattern of “going through the motions” in its missions and ministries. Conversely, such missions or ministries can fall into the trap of being ways the church flaunts itself, getting “puffed up” as the King James Version translates Paul’s description of the Corinthians, and pointing to its good works as a means of exalting itself against “those people” in other churches or denominations or religions. And that, whatever it is, isn’t love.
At this point Paul turns again to those spiritual gifts from chapter 12, and how love is “more excellent” because, as verse 8 puts it, “love never ends.” It would be easy to mis-interpret this passage as a particular kind of criticism of those gifts, but that would be to miss Paul’s point. Gifts such as prophecy, knowledge, or tongues are finite. More precisely, they are end-directed. These are gifts given by the Spirit, at the Spirit’s own initiative and the Spirit’s own choice, for this in-between time when we are in relationship with God, when we are the body of Christ but not yet in union with Christ. When we are come at last to that place where we are eternally in the company and presence of God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, there will be no need for prophecy. There will be no point to tongues. Knowledge will be fulfilled. Teaching, preaching, help, all those other gifts will be done.
But love never ends. Love is as eternal as God is eternal. That eternal union with God will be all love.
Even faith and hope, as Paul describes in the chapter’s final and most famous verse, are secondary to love in this way. Faith and hope are beautiful. They are amazing gifts of the Spirit. But like the others Paul describes, they are finite gifts to help sustain us through this in-between time. If faith is, as the author of Hebrews describes, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” then what is the point of faith when we are in the very presence of God, seeing God face to face? What is the point of hope when God is unmistakably and unshakably in the midst of us, for all to see? The partial things, as Paul says in verse 10, come to an end.
But love never ends. Love is as eternal as God is eternal.
Love. Never. Ends.
Though it is not part of today’s lectionary reading, the first verse of chapter 14 is useful, or even needful, to place chapter 13 into proper relationship with chapter 12.
“Pursue love, and strive for the spiritual gifts.”
Not either/or, both/and.
Paul’s instruction does not mean that the Corinthians, or we, should somehow deny the gifts we have been given by the Spirit – and remember from back in 12:3 that anyone who truly confesses that “Jesus is Lord” is gifted by the Holy Spirit. Rather, Paul needs the Corinthians, and us, to understand that the care and feeding and usage of our spiritual gifts within the body of Christ and out in the larger world only works in the context of love – the love that God has shown us so that we might show love for one another and for all of God’s creation.
Sometimes that love takes on dramatic forms. Social media offered up this week a story (drawn from the Today show) of a woman in Wisconsin, Cori Salchert, who after a career as a nurse has come into a unique and sometimes heartbreaking calling. Cori and her family take in infants with terminal or extremely life-limiting diagnoses. She calls them “hospice babies.”
The first such infant the family took in lived fifty days, which might have been forty-five days longer than might have been expected. Cori Salcher is a trained nurse; she has no illusions that any child they take in will be “saved” in their care. She knows they will die.
But for those fifty days, or three months or two years or however long each child may live, that child will be loved. Not for hope of any return or expectation of any miracle, and not because it will somehow make her family any “holier” than any other family. That child will be loved because God loves, eternally, and her family will be a vessel of that love.
Our stories will not be that dramatic. They will be heartbreaking at times. They will try our patience or our virtue. We may stumble in grief and leap for joy at the same time because of that love. But if we dare to call ourselves followers of Christ, we will love, without reservation and without qualification.
We will love because God is love, eternal and unending. We will love because God loves. We will love because Christ loves. And we will love because that’s what the body of Christ does.
For love, eternal and unending, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak (426); “Not For Tongues of Heaven’s Angels” (531); “Though I May Speak” (335); “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” (384).