1 Corinthians 13:1-13
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.
We hear this reading, this ode to love, mostly at weddings. And, because of that association, we hear it as a description of personal, intimate love. New young love. Perfect love that casts out fear. This is what we aim for, even though we fall short. And we do – fall short. It seems to be what William had in mind: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. O no; It is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wand’ring bark, Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come. Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out ev’n to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare.
Love is a beautiful thing in poetry.
However, when it’s in real lives, we would have to admit impediments now and then, and fess up to a tempest to two. As a standard of love – in marriage or between family members or friends – Paul’s words makes us squirm a little bit. Maybe a lot. It’s hard. These are such gracious, generous, all-encompassing, all-embracing words – and we want to affirm them and say, “Yes, that’s just what love is like – patient, kind, courageous, hopeful – never arrogant, irritable or rude.” But with even a little inward reflection, we know that we don’t measure up to this standard (not irritable, envious, proud or insistent? Ever? Really?) We know that, in fact, these words convict us of our human peevishness and pettiness and occasional pouts. No one can be this good – no one can sustain this kind of love.
I also use this text for funerals once in a while, and it seems more fitting there. For some couples – those who have been married upwards of 60 years – who lived through the great depression, and WW2 and married during the 1950s optimism of perfect housewives when women took tranquilizers to maintain the image of placid perfection while vacuuming in hose, heels, and lipstick with supper bubbling quietly on the sparkling stove, and men maintained the image purring along in their ramblers and crewcuts off to play a round of golf after work…
Couples who stayed married through the turbulent 60’s and groovy 70’s while their kids went roaring off on motorcycles and beads and fringes and bellbottoms and a cloud of pot smoke to celebrate free love… couples who made it through woman’s lib and the civil rights movement and Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and grieved the ones they lost and stayed married… Taken as a cumulative life effort, these – now old people – who managed to stay together and stay alive, come pretty close to the standard Paul the apostle of Christ and William Shakespeare write about.…
Because… they didn’t stay married because every day was a joy. Or because they were wildly, groovily in love, or because they had no other options, or because they didn’t wish on occasion that they had taken one of the other options.
This generation, these couples, stayed mated because they promised to, because they had a deep understanding of duty and expected to accept some degree of sacrifice for what they believed to be true even if they didn’t feel it.
They looked into eyes as scared and as earnest as theirs when they stood before the altar on their wedding day and said, “I do and I will, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, I promise”… and they meant it. That’s not to say they had perfect love, that’s not to say they always got along or demonstrated patience, kindness, and humility. They aren’t better at love than the rest of us – but as a cumulative life effort, they have come closer to what Paul was really talking about, simply because they had 65 years to practice. And they did. And that’s what it takes.
“Love is not a victory march, its cold and its a broken hallelujah.” That’s a line from a Leonard Cohen song, if it sounds familiar. I’m not sure about the cold part, but almost always love is a broken hallelujah. Life has a way of breaking us; and even our love can’t always bridge it or cure it. It’s not a victory march, it’s more a trail of tears, but that’s what Paul was getting at.
Love is our practice field for the kingdom of God. It is the patience, the enduring kindness of a long marriage. It’s not an emotion after all of those years, it’s not passion (or at least not the kind young love luxuriates in) It’s a practice, a ritual, at times an effort, but – like breathing – it’s all there is. Love is what lasts and outlives all the rest.
I could say that Paul didn’t write this poem to be used for weddings or funerals… and that would be true. But it’s not particularly wrong to take it personally, either, because that’s how we live in community. I don’t like it when people tell me not to take things personally. That’s my nature, I don’t have the option. I took it personally when a friend started parking their car in a different parking lot instead of next to mine as they had done for months. I interpreted their new, more convenient parking place to mean they were mad at me and wanted nothing to do with me, that they were shaking the dust from their tire treads, so to speak.
We can’t love in abstract terms. We can’t love humanity, it has to be located in actual people. We have to take it personally.
Paul offers this ode to love as a way of introducing into the community an ethic that is necessary if they are to survive the muddy waters of difference and disagreement in relationships with actual people. The Corinthian Church was not a homogenous body. Its members were not all of the same sort. It wasn’t a comfortable gathering where people fell into step with each other because they shared fundamentally similar lives, values, and experiences. Quite the contrary. As this week’s commentator, New Testament Professor Shivley Smith writes describing the Corinthian fellowship: “it transgressed conventional social boundaries of ethnicity, gender, age, rank, status, and life situation. There are married and unmarried men and women as well as widows and children. While most of its members are converted Gentiles, this body also includes Jews. In fact, some were rather powerful figures who served as former synagogue leaders, like Crispus and Sosthenes. Most of its members were from the lower classes, but some sat on the opposite side in rank and resources. Erastus, for example, was the city treasurer of Corinth and Gaius had enough resources to support Paul and the entire church. There were slaves and free people in the community and people with different skill sets and gifts.”
This diversity among the Corinthians dissolved into discord and rivalry. Members divided into contentious groups. They took sides with some saying they are of one party or another, followed one teacher or another. This was a community fragmented, rather than enriched, by their differences. Does that sound familiar? Like our political parties, our states, our communities, organizations, workplaces, families?
Yet, Paul is determined that this diversity is nonnegotiable. God has called this community to be diverse and to get over it. Paul’s “poetic ode to love” was not written to celebrate the unifying love enjoyed by a settled community. It was a call to action. It wasn’t a tribute to something that was; it was an intervention to instruct on what must be, but had not yet come to pass. The point was to create cognitive dissonance. This ode was meant to motivate an action plan that might hold this community together, ensure its survival in truly accepting one another – loving the neighbor – with whom they perhaps had nothing in common – as they loved themselves.
So for us: We’re a pretty like-minded group that gets along remarkably well. We work and play together very well. I’m not asking you to change that; but still there are some questions to ask. Would a tea party republican feel welcome here – really welcomed? Our welcome statement mentions differing creeds and beliefs …do we really mean that?… Would transitioning teenagers feel welcome – that means from the gender they were born, into the one they feel they actually are. What boundaries do we have and what blinders? What about people who live in places like our companion synod of Malawi who have no actual connection to us? How do we love them?
Even if we know and believe that love is at the heart of things, why do we sometimes find it so hard to love? And who do we have the hardest time loving? Is it people who are different from us? People who have hurt us? People who see things differently? Or is it those who are absolutely the closest to us, perhaps too much like us, or too close (and therefore those who know us for who we really are?) Maybe we prefer that dark glass, through which to be seen only dimly and imperfectly.
Paul never says that love feels good, and this is where the typical use and understanding of this passage leads us astray. Misrepresenting the nature of love creates trouble not only for expectations in marriages, but also for the realities of community life. Because of our mistaken assumptions about what love actually is, we gravitate toward a community that’s easy for us to love, a place where we can “feel the love.” But true love is not measured by how good it makes us feel. In the context of 1 Corinthians, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity to hold fast in tension and disagreement without fracturing apart. That’s not a very romantic or poetic description.
There was a new Cinderella movie out last summer and the line that stuck with me was one Cinderella’s mother told her as she died, “Have courage and be kind.” That became Cinderella’s mantra, and I think the Apostle Paul would approve. Love is action, not emotion, it is proven by the long-haul, not the passion expressed. Paul tells us that one day Faith will become sight, and Hope will end in fulfillment, but that Love continues on unchanged. What and who we have loved will be the measure of our lives. And Love will remain, because God’s love will not fall, fail, or falter. You are drawn into that love of God; you are remade by that love to become lovers, and through the love you live, strive for, and work within, you will be given a sense that you are basking in the pleasure of God.
“Have courage and be kind.”