1 Corinthians 13
Church Happens … When Love Is a Verb
“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.”
Even if you don’t think you know your Bible very well, chances are, you know this passage of scripture – 1 Corinthians13 – the love chapter – even if you couldn’t have told me exactly where in the Bible it was from. You’ve probably heard this passage of scripture read at many, many weddings. I would guess, that out of all of the weddings I’ve officiated in my years of ministry, probably close to fifty percent of them include this passage as their scripture of choice. It’s hardly surprising. Although the scriptures teach us that the greatest commandments are grounded in love – love of God and love of one another – rarely does a biblical author spend any time talking about what love is, how we go about fulfilling these greatest commandments. Paul’s words about love, then, are some of if not the most direct and prolonged writings about love in all of the Bible. Of course it is popular for weddings!
The downside of this, other than for the pastor, who has more fun putting together a wedding message if you choose some obscure text that no one else ever uses, is first: Sometimes when we know a passage too well, we stop listening to it, and second: If you only ever hear anyone talk about this passage while at a wedding, you’re probably not going to get the same in depth look at the text as you would during a regular sermon or Bible Study. So we miss out on some of the context that helps us really dig into what Paul is saying. Lucky for you though – we’re going to try to change that today!
Remember, Paul is writing this letter not to two people, not to a couple preparing to start a life together. Paul is writing to a whole group of people – a new congregation – a new church trying to figure out how to exist together, function together, grow together, serve together. So when Paul is talking about love here, he’s not talking about romantic love, although what he says certainly applies. He’s talking about something both broader and deeper. It’s the deep love God has for us. The love of a parent for a child. And the love we’re called to have for one another.
This passage comes just after the passage we looked at a couple weeks ago, where Paul was talking about how we’re all parts of the body of Christ, and yet one as Christ’s body. Paul had been talking about this because the Corinthians had been arguing over who had the better gifts – that is, who had the talents and skills that were more useful in the congregation. Paul puts a stop to that line of thinking, reminding the Corinthians that all of the gifts God gives are necessary in the body – they’re just different parts of the one body of Christ. But Paul concludes by saying, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” The more excellent way, then, is love. Paul has already talked about spiritual gifts. And now, here, he speaks of another gift: love, which is doubly awesome because 1) Everyone has the gift of love. Everyone. And 2) It’s the best one. Paul says love is the a more excellent gift than all the others he’s mentioned. It is the gift that comes with power and responsibility to use it, and we all have it.
Paul’s mini-essay has three sections. In the first, Paul says that you might have great spiritual gifts – but if you don’t have the gift of love, you are just noise. He says you might be a great prophet, wise and knowing. You might have the deepest faith. But if you don’t have love – you’re nothing. He says that you might even be so devoted and committed that you give up your possessions, even give up your life in good works. And still, without love, all that you do counts for nothing. In other words, our skills, our talents, our actions, even our faithful and righteous behavior – none of it matters without love.
And then Paul goes into this list of all these things that love is, or isn’t: Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious, and so on. In our English translation, this list sounds like a bunch of adjectives – words that describe a noun, words that describe what something is like. But in the Greek, every one of these words about love is a verb. They’re all action words, doing words. Love suffers patiently, love hopes, love acts with kindness and mercy, love doesn’t boast, love endures. Paul describes love as a living thing that exists by doing. Just as none of our actions have meaning without love, the reverse is also true. We can’t truly love without action that gives love purpose and meaning. Love isn’t just a feeling. It’s not an emotion. It is a way we interact with God and others. Love must do.
Finally, Paul says that everything else, all we know, eventually comes to an end – everything except love. In fact, we experience love perfected. Paul says that even the deep love we experience now is like “looking in a mirror, dimly.” Mirrors in Paul’s time weren’t like they are today. The best mirrors offered somewhat blurry, somewhat muddled reflections. Not crisp images. So Paul says that when we are perfected in God’s love, in God’s eternity, it will be like actually seeing ourselves clearly for the first time ever, the way God always sees us, the way only God knows us. Perfect love is when we know fully, and are fully known. The greatest gift of all, Paul concludes, is love.
So, we seek to love God, and love one another, and we make sure that our actions are full of love, and our love is full of action. Easy, right? Well, there are some people that are just so easy to love, aren’t there? I spent the day with my niece and nephew yesterday. Loving them is so easy! It’s easy to love them, to actively love them, to tell them I love them and show them I love them and help them learn to be loving people. I’m sure you can quickly think of people who are easy to love, easy to love in active, meaningful ways.
But I also suspect that you can quickly come up with a list of people who it is challenging to love. When Jesus commands us to love one another, when Paul writes about how without love we’re nothing, I think we sometimes start to play this mental game with ourselves, hoping God will play along. Well, I love everybody, but I don’t like everybody. “I love you, I just don’t like you very much.” Have you ever heard someone say that? Have you ever said it? I’m sure that I have! But that doesn’t sound like very powerful, deep love, does it? Jesus says that great love is love where a friend will give up life for a friend. Would you give up your life for someone you didn’t like? Someone about whom you would say, “Well, I love you, but I don’t like you?” The love Paul writes about to the Corinthians is something deep, and we tend to want to make his words shallow, stripping them of all their power. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “I love you, but I don’t like you very much?” What if God loved us like that? Loving because we’re obligated to love isn’t actually love at all.
Still, how do we love one another? Because even if “I love you, I just don’t like you” isn’t a very deep love, sometimes, it is just exactly how we feel, isn’t it? What pops into my head is that great “unrequited love” balled, Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” She sings, “I can’t make you love me if you don’t. You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.” I thought the words were very profound when I was lamenting over a boy in junior high who didn’t return my feelings. It’s true, isn’t it? You can’t make someone love someone. Love with obligation isn’t love. So what can we do?
I think, in fact, we can learn to love. We can cultivate love. We can seek to love someone. We can practice it, and get better at it. Last year, a news article from the New York Times was circulating quite a bit, showing results from a scientific study suggesting that – in completely non-scientific terms – two strangers might fall in love with each other by following a certain set of instructions: the pair answers 36 questions in a conversation with each other. The questions are increasingly more personal, beginning with “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” and ending with things like “If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?” After that, you and your conversation partner are supposed to stare into each other’s eyes – sustained eye-contact, no talking, for four minutes. The author of the article – she fell in love with the person with whom she tried this exercise. The whole experiment even became the subject of an episode of Big Bang Theory.
So, do we need to have these sit down, deep conversations with every person we find difficult to love? Maybe! The point is – love like Paul describes is intentional, not accidental. We have to mean to love people to love like Jesus loves. Jesus loved by spending time with people, by listening deeply to people, by hearing their stories and hopes and dreams. He loved by looking with compassion and forgiveness and mercy. He loved by giving himself for others. He loved with purpose.
I’ve sometimes heard folks recommend to young people in love that they should replace their significant other’s name for the word “love” in 1 Corinthians 13, to see if they are a worthy candidate for dating. I wonder what would happen if instead, we put our own names in the place of the word love. Make them “I” statements, and see if they ring true. “I am patient. I am kind.” And in fact, if you can pull up in your mind that list of people that you have a hard time loving – you can add them right in, and see if it works: I am patient with Fred. I am kind to Cindy. In some cases, maybe it is a whole group of people we need to think about: I am never rude to people who are voting for the wrong candidate this November.
To cultivate love, to stretch our hearts to become more loving, to include more people on the list of those we truly love, I think we start by practicing some of those action words that Paul lists. That’s my challenge for you this week: Read through 1 Corinthians 13, and ask yourself: Am I patient? How can I be more patient? Have I been kind? Have been envying anyone? Have I been boasting? Arrogant? Rude? When did I insist on my own way? When was I irritable? How full of hope am I? If we do this, if we are disciplined in practicing these actions, I think we will learn that love only happens accidentally once in a while – but we can cultivate it on purpose whenever we’re ready to commit to this intentional way of building each other up, and building up the gift of love that God gives to each of us.
Church can happen anywhere – anywhere that is enveloped in love, anywhere that is reaching out in love, anywhere that is growing in love. “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Amen.