The Third Sunday after Pentecost (February 3, 2019)
1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have 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 do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; 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.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 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. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
In our culture, it’s hard to hear this passage and not think about weddings. I can’t help but think about that scene in the movie Wedding Crashers, that one starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. t’s a movie about two friends who routinely crash weddings to try to get dates at the receptions. They go to scores of weddings—Christian, Jewish, nonreligious, Anglo, Asian, etc.—pretending to be other people, aliases and all. The scene I’m thinking of is when they crash the wedding of the family they end up spending the rest of the plot with, the Clearys.
They’re sitting there in the church during the ceremony and the priest announces, “And now for our second reading I’d like to ask the bride’s sister Gloria up to the lectern.”
Owen Wilson whispers, “20 bucks First Corinthians.”
Vince Vaughn whispers back, “Double or nothing Colossians 3:12.”
And the sister begins, “And now a reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.”
One doesn’t have to be an active worshiper to have heard the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. You just have to have gone to at least one wedding in a church to have been exposed to it. For those of you who have been married, who had this read at their wedding?
As I studied this passage this week, it dawned on me how exceedingly unfair it is to read this to a couple beginning a lifelong partnership! How high does that set the bar?
Imagine, two begin their marriage in matrimonial bliss. They’re in love—the butterflies-in-your-stomach kind of love—and riding the good vibes from the wedding, and all is well until they have to pick out a bathroom paint color or something, and BOOM! My point is it doesn’t take long to falter from: “Love is patient; 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…”
Reason #1 that it’s unfair to read this at weddings is because it almost sets a couple up for failure. True, it’s wise to imbue the covenant of marriage with high standards (it’s a covenant, after all), you have to set the bar somewhere, but if you really slow down and let the weight of Paul’s words really sink, as you continue to read, “…it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” the sense that this is attainable for any one person or any one couple quickly decreases.
Reason #2 that it’s unfair to read this at weddings: this was written to a church. The Apostle Paul penned this letter to his nascent congregation that was aflame with conflict. The divisions in the church at Corinth, wow! A professor in this podcast I listen to suggests that this passage is best read in an angry tone because Paul is more like a parent ranting at difficult children than someone sweetly listing the characteristics of love. The Corinthians were divided along pretty much any lines you could think of: preferred leader; cultural background; social class. And Paul spilled a lot of ink trying to persuade them of their common identity in Christ, despite their very real, very significant differences. We touched on this a little last week with the “many members, one body” passage in the chapter before this one. These are admonitions for a community.
That’s why it’s situated between two chapters that mention the different spiritual gifts in the church and how they ought to be used for the edification of the whole body, not the glorification of individual members. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers,” he writes, “and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” In other words, if I’m good at everything and anything, but the gifts I’m exercising aren’t exercised from a place of love, then they’re absolutely meaningless.
The word Paul uses here that is translated as love is agape. There were different, common words in Greek for various kinds of love. Eros was one—the kind of love that had to do with attraction or passion. Storge was another, a natural affection one might feel for a child or a pet. Phileo was another, as with friendship or affinity, or in some senses enjoyment and pleasure. But agape, that’s the word Paul uses here, and it’s a word the New Testament uses hundreds of times. “This kind of love longs for the well-being of the beloved. It is love directed or willed by the nature of the lover, which means it can remain strong even when the beloved turns away.” Dr. King said about agape:
“The meaning of love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring. Love is something much deeper than emotional bosh. [Agape is an] understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for [people]. An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. At this level, we love people not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some type of divine spark; we love every [person] because God loves [them].”
That’s an even taller order and it makes having to love only one other person look easy. Agape draws and even wider circle—a circle that has no end, actually. I’m reminded of what Cornell West said: “justice is what love looks like in public.”
Paul mentions agape in the context of spiritual gifts played out within a congregation because it is other-centered. It is other-centered and therefore requires us to de-center ourselves, emptying ourselves of ego in whatever we’re doing.
Come to think of it, this passage isn’t really fair to read to a community, either…
It’s a high bar in any setting!
Try applying verses 4-7 to yourself. Insight your name where “love” is:
Bart is patient; Bart is kind; Bart is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Bart does not insist on his own way; Bart is not irritable or resentful; Bart does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Bart bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Or going even deeper, might the Apostle say today:
- “If I maintain the right opinions, but do not have love…”
- “If my resume is a mile long with accomplishments, but I do not have love…”
- “If my analysis of current events is the keenest, but I do not have love…”
- “If I wear myself out for the sake of others, but do not have not love…”
It seems impossible. Yet… and yet, although it seems impossible, Paul would point us to Christ, to the one who lived, died, and rose again in order to embody love. Paul reminds us that love too is a gift. It is a gift to be received as well as given. The Giver of love is love. It’s God’s love that makes agape possible.