a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on February 3, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
No, you have not stumbled into a wedding this morning, but you wouldn’t know that from our scripture reading this morning! As a pastor, I’ve been a part of seven weddings, and four of them included some portion of these words from First Corinthians—and I think that is actually well below average! These beautiful words from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth have become common descriptions of the kind of love that two people wish to share with each other in married life, but they actually come out of a very different context.
That original church in Corinth, you see, was more like a nasty and angry divorce court than a love-filled wedding day! They knew how to fight with each other very well and divided themselves on nearly every imaginable line. The rich people refused to sit with the poor people. Those of Jewish background refused to eat dinner with those who had been Gentiles. Members of the church took their disputes with one another to the civil courts rather than dealing with them among the people of the church. And some people tried to claim that their spiritual gifts were better than everyone else’s—and so they took advantage of the whole community in the process. In short, it was a huge mess—but into this mess Paul spoke these beautiful words about love.
These thirteen verses of the thirteen chapter of 1 Corinthians divide neatly into three parts that lift up the centrality of love, the definition of love, and the endurance of love. First, Paul suggests that love has to be a part of anything and everything that we do in the church. All the different spiritual gifts that come to us mean nothing unless they exhibit love in the end. Speaking in tongues, offering prophetic words, opening the mysteries of life, having faith, even giving up all our possessions—all these wonderful gifts actually gain their meaning only when they are accompanied by love. Without love, they are just empty acts, but with love, they take on new and deeper meaning to be enactments of something more.
But what is this something more? What is love anyway? There are plenty of ways to think about love in the world—one thesaurus suggests six different possible uses for the noun and two for the verb, and this doesn’t even count when “love” is used in tennis to note a score of zero! In the Greek of the New Testament, there are even four different words that get translated to our single English word “love.” So for his second point about love, Paul offers a definition of what it means for the life of faith. This love is not about sexual attraction, life with a spouse, or even familial bonds. No—according to Paul, love is a way of life. His beautiful words in our reading say it so well, I think:
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.
This way of life demands something more than just a basic attraction or even a lifelong commitment. At its core, it honors the inherent goodness and beauty of all members of a community and recognizes the importance of staying in relationship even when stress and strain would make it seem better to act otherwise. This way of life doesn’t seek something good for the one trying to live it but instead emphasizes the well-being and needs of others. And this way of life can handle anything that comes its way, for it is resilient, hopeful, joyful, and enduring, since it comes not from within any human being but from God.
Finally, Paul insists that love will never end. This is natural for something that finds its beginning in God, but it is no less important to remember. Plenty of other things will come to an end. So much of who we are and what we do will be different when it is completed. We grow up and change in time, and we will see differently, act differently, and live differently than we do now at some point. But love will stick around—in fact, it will only grow deeper. Because love never ends, we can always learn more about it. We can always sort out more ways for love to sink into our lives and our everyday living. And because love never ends, we can trust that we should put all our energy and effort into pursuing this way of life each and every day.
When we live out love, you see, we do our best to emulate and imitate God, for the ultimate exposition of love in the world is from God. One of the most ancient songs of the church is a beautiful and simple phrase in Latin:
Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
These words remind us of this so well, even though Paul never explicitly mentions God in this text. I can’t even begin to imagine how we might ever live out this love in our lives with others if we didn’t have it first from God.
When we live out this love, when we take on this way of life that has the good of others at heart, we mirror what we have seen as we have walked with God. We embody God’s way of love with us as we live with one another, when we show care and concern for the fullness of life, when we prioritize relationships over rules and regulations, when we emphasize grace, mercy, and kindness even as we lift up what has gone wrong, and when we embody healthy enduring love as our human relationships come to natural ends. We embody God’s way of love with us as we love ourselves, when we remember that we are beloved children of God even when we don’t necessarily see it, when we have patience with ourselves when we go wrong, and when we challenge ourselves to always pursue this more excellent way of love. And we embody God’s way of love with us as we reach out into the world, when we offer words of comfort and consolation and challenge, not condemnation, when we share with others simply because we love them, not for any benefit of our own, and when we place the gift of love at the center of everything that we do.
Thankfully I don’t think we here at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone face anything like the situation in Corinth that brought Paul to write these words. I don’t say much about love because I think we have a pretty good grasp on it. We do not sit ready to attack each other with our words or actions, nor do we let ourselves be driven apart by our different backgrounds and ways of life. Even when we disagree with one another, we do so with great respect and care and concern. But today it feels right to be reminded of these words, to remember why we live together as we do, to recenter our life together in this way of love as we place our trust in God’s love and wonder where the days ahead will lead us.
And ultimately we witness and embody this love at its greatest at this table, at this place where Paul called out the Corinthians the most for their bickering and fighting and denying hospitality, at this gathering where we come together with the saints of all the ages—even those from Corinth!—to share a meal with Jesus himself as host. You see, it is at this great feast where we see love in its fullest form—love that is not afraid to face death, love that triumphs over even the worst death has to offer, love that ultimately will join all creation in an unending song of praise, gathered at a feast of love for all the ages.
So today and always, may this love—love that is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things—may this love sustain us for our journey, guide our work and life with one another, and inspire us for our life in the world, today and always. Amen.