By Rev. Joan Kessler
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
There are passages in holy scripture that just seem to have a life of their own. The reading Adam just shared in my humble opinion, fits this description. These words are familiar…. they take you someplace in your experience and your memory. There’s a good chance, right at this moment, you are remembering a wedding you attended or perhaps your own where this scripture reading was shared. They are popular words for just such an occasion… wedding celebrations joining two people and providing a bit of a road map for life together. We romanticize this writing. Faith, Hope and Love… this is what life together is all about and don’t forget that the most important of these is Love. What is there left to say about Paul’s writing on the subject of Love that we haven’t heard before?
These words of Paul churned over and over in my mind… because I know it almost by heart. And I have my favorite bits… “if I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels and have not love, I become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”. And I can consider myself bright and witty with all the education I need to do whatever task is before me…but if I don’t do it with Love, Paul says, I am missing the point, and I will have gained nothing.
And then what comes next is Paul’s description of what this Love is… it is kind, it is patient, it’s not sarcastic. It is not irritable, nasty or rude. This Love is about truth and showing up day in and day out. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…. because if it doesn’t, it is nothing. And then he goes on to make the biggest claim of the passage: this Love never ends.
But time changes things… this we know as truth. We travel through life, we age day by day, our bodies change as do our abilities and relationships. But we stick together and trust that one day, all will be made clear. We will look in that mirror of our life and will see what we need to see - the complete will come and the partial will end. But from the very beginning until the last breath of our very end, we hang on to faith, to hope and to Love…and for further emphasis Paul says the GREATEST of these three is Love.
The community Paul was writing to at Corinth thought these things didn’t really matter. They thought they had everything they needed, with money in the bank and lots of spiritual gifts to share and a lovely building and that would just be enough. But it wasn’t. They began bickering and fighting over big things and little things.
You heard me tell last Sunday that this group was one of the most diverse and unique of Paul’s oversight, and this writing from chapter 13 is known as some of his most important work. The Corinthian church knew many things but they had forgotten how to Love one another. They became obsessed with measuring themselves, their abilities, and their status relative to one another. Paul wanted to move them to a point that was beyond measuring. Paul showed great care in his writing to celebrate what they had going for them in their variety of gifts available to them and called them to use what they have to Love one another.
Without Love, it doesn’t matter what the budget looks like, or how much money is in the account or the missional strategy you plan to implement. They had the freedom to determine for themselves what their community would look like and how it would function, but Paul reminds them that they are firstly, lastly, always called to a community that practices Love.
There are many understandings of Love that come from the Greek tradition and culture of which Paul was born into. There is the romantic love of Eros; the friendship love of Philia; the sharing and self-giving love of agape. American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner once commented that all three of these are manifestations of a single reality. He said,
“To lose yourself in another’s arms, or in another’s company, or in suffering for all who suffer, including the ones who inflict suffering upon you – to lose yourself in such ways is to find yourself. It’s what it is all about. It is what love is.”
Losing one’s self hardly sounds responsible or productive or measurable. But this is the whole point of Paul’s love letter. This is about a love that doesn’t stop at sentimentality or an emotion we feel. It is active, it is doing good for one another and holding their wellbeing in the highest esteem. W.H. Auden once said, we must either love one another or die. Those are harsh words perhaps…it is a tall order…to not participate has dire consequences. But think about it for a moment. What if that statement were the foundation of all the ways individuals come together and share a collective life? Paul speaks of a spiritual bond, a spiritual unity that will make the Corinthians a caring, Christ-centered community. They are bound to one another and need one another for their very survival.
When I sat down yesterday to write this reflection, I came to the conclusion there is nothing new to say about Love. I can’t dissect this beautiful piece and bring much by the way of new and intriguing insight. But nevertheless, we can wrestle with what Paul is saying because his words are timeless, they are as applicable to us today in this community as they were some two millennia ago at a church in Corinth. This Love is not a personal, private acquisition…the kind of Love that makes us feel safe, and secure and cherished or some kind of commodity to possess. It is more than this. It is active, it is response, it is witness, it is sacrifice. This kind of Love is a responsibility for one another. It shows up amidst tension and disagreement without breaking the community. And it can do hard things.
Paul makes no mention of Jesus or invocation of God in this chapter; but his theology about being in community and the Spirit’s role is implicit. He writes of a Love that is divine, unique, countercultural, and perhaps makes a community of faith a place unlike other social groupings. He makes his position known based on a Love that knew him first. Paul expects this will be lived out by the church. He affirms that we have already been fully known and loved by God. We are not left on our own or to our own devices.
May we have the courage, the will, and the stamina to keep practicing what our imperfect knowledge will never grasp. May we never tire of hearing this passage and continue to find within its words, our faith, our hope, and our Love. Love is the most important thing… and may it never end.