The Greatest of These Is Love

SERMON: February 3, 2019

I Corinthians 13:1-13

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

 

How many of you hear this scripture passage and immediately think of weddings? I won’t ask for a show of hands, but Paul’s advice to the church at Corinth is a wedding ceremony standard. When I meet with an engaged couple for pre-marital counseling I almost expect them to choose this scripture for the wedding ceremony.

There is no harm in this. Paul’s letter is beautiful – it resembles a poem or a hymn more than advice to a church, and personally, I can’t hear it often enough.

The problem is the way we are used to hearing these verses. What we most often hear is advice on love within a relationship between two people – or maybe within a family. But that is not what Paul is saying here. If we think about it, it does seem odd that the old saint would want to address a congregation on the subject of romantic love. Paul himself never married, and because he believed Christ’s return was near, he cautioned those who were single to remain that way.

Members of the Corinthian church are an enthusiastic bunch, but their enthusiasm is pointed in the wrong direction. If we think back to earlier verses, the congregation is actively pursuing what Paul commends to them concerning spiritual gifts. Speaking in tongues, knowing what he calls “the mysteries.” All well and good, Paul says, but if in the process people forget to love their brothers and sisters in Christ, these things are worthless.

Paul has already reminded the congregation that one spiritual gift is no better than another and that true spiritual gifts come from God alone. But these folks are becoming vain and competitive. Paul worries that this congregation does not understand the true meaning of the gifts they have received. God grants spiritual gifts to enable a better life with God and others, not to stroke the egos of those who possess them.

Without love, budgets and buildings, mission or worship cease to matter very much. These things were of concern to the Corinthian church, and are certainly important to us today. All of it goes into making a church a church, but love is what gives church the shape God intends. We may pursue different forms of spirituality, try new liturgy or work for social justice – all wonderful things and strongly commended to us, but we should practice them in the context of love. Love is patient and kind, generous, able to bear anything. Love never stops believing – both in God and in others, and can endure whatever happens and still not lose hope. Paul writes of a love that is busy and active, something that never ceases working and striving to love as God loves. This love is not abstract but always seeks what is best for others. In other words, love is not just a feeling, love is a state of being – an active state of being.

Notice that Paul never makes the claim that love is easy, or even that it makes us feel good all the time. Remember when you first felt the stirrings of love? I recall floating on a sea of emotions, certain the object of my love was perfect…and if not exactly perfect had downright adorable imperfections. Of course, we all know how unrealistic expectations create trouble in personal relationships, but the day-to-day realities of church life can suffer as well. We might believe the foremost mission of the church is to gather like-minded and agreeable people together so we can “feel the love.” Yet Paul reminds the Corinthian church that a better measure of love is its capacity to hold tension and disagreement together without becoming divided.

Today, few people are strangers to division. You name it: racial divisions, income disparity, denominational splits, and of course, political division – we can hardly escape it. Not only that, our ways of negotiating these things leave a lot to be desired. Often we settle for taking sides. Even that is problematic because once we choose sides we then try to convince ourselves the other side should be demonized, made somehow less human. It’s a lot easier that way to create a faceless “other” so we can feel superior and self-righteously outraged.

Sometimes I wonder if our country will ever reach the place where something bad can happen and we do not immediately look around for someone to blame. Someone that is not us, but is instead that “other.” Father Elias Chacour, former Archbishop of the Melkite Catholic Church in Nazareth and all of Galilee, works to reconcile Arabs and Jews. Father Chacour says, “The one who is wrong is the one who says ‘I am right.’”

If you have ever spent time around small children you know their second favorite word is “no.” A child’s most beloved word is “mine.” Mine, mine, mine. As grown-up Christians we must get our heads around the fact that for us, there is no such thing as “mine.”  There is only what God has graciously shared with us.

This is not the most popular of ideas, not even in the church. Many Americans view this idea with suspicion – “Gosh, isn’t that socialism?” “I got mine, so you just toddle off and get yours.” Mine, mine, mine. But our Christian life is supposed to be different. Paul says that when he was a child, he thought like a child, but when he became an adult, he put away childish behavior. Where are the adults in the room today?

We should not view Paul’s requirements as an enormous burden. Paul understands the difficulty of loving so selflessly.  He expects this kind of love in the church, but there is good news for those who struggle. God does not leave us to our own capacity of love. We can love because God already fully knows and loves us despite ourselves. God works with us to make our communities look more and more like the active love Paul describes.

Love in our worshipping communities is more than simply being nice, and it is not about only loving those who love us back. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he didn’t skip Judas. Jesus knew Judas would betray him that very night, but he tenderly washed his feet anyway. And Jesus shows us how much we are loved by God by dying for those who definitely did not love him at all.

The good news is that we can and do love one another – and God loves us for trying. It can be challenging. We may not love perfectly, but we do try, and Paul does his best to affirm our ability to carry it off. He reminds us not just of what love is, but what love is supposed to be. Yes, love is a state of being. Love wants the best for the other.

Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” God asks us to love one another to the best of our human ability, knowing that even the saints among us are only capable of just so much. God fully understands and loves us despite our faults and fragile humanity. Love – especially God’s love – is patient.

Paul is not suggesting that love is like a project we must complete, but rather love is a vision of a new reality, the kind of divine love awaiting us in a world we will someday know fully. Gifts will pass away, prophesies will be silent, knowledge will fade, but faith, hope, and love abide forever and ever, and the greatest of these is love.

Amen.