1 Corinthians 13
“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 people who aren’t very familiar with the Bible often know this passage of scripture – 1 Corinthians 13 – the “love” chapter – even if they can’t identify exactly where in the Bible it’s 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 pastoral ministry, probably close to fifty percent of the ceremonies included this passage as the couples’ scripture of choice, and I will admit, sometimes, on realizing I would have to give another reflection on 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding, I felt a little less than 100% enthusiastic. Still, I would always take the opportunity to tell the couple - and the wedding guests - that 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t about romantic love, although the words can certainly apply. Rather, Paul is writing to a community, and his focus is on helping the community learn to build one another up in the body of Christ. Love builds up, and when we love one another well, we build good community together. 1 Corinthians 13 is really just a meditation on what Jesus says are the greatest commandments: first, to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and second, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Paul is just giving us some details.
And yet, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves is kind of complicated. And I think it is so complicated not because it is so difficult to do, but because we take it to heart in some unintended ways! When I was a first year college student, taking my first religion class, my professor said something that shocked me. He said, “What Jesus got wrong with “Love your neighbor as yourself” is that most of us don’t actually love ourselves very much.” I was shocked on the one hand because I’d never heard someone suggest Jesus might have said something wrong before. But once I got beyond that, I was shocked because my professor’s critique seemed so apt. Often, we are loving others as we love ourselves - poorly, incompletely, inconsistently. What good is it to seek to love others as ourselves if we don’t love ourselves?
That’s why I actually love 1 Corinthians 13 - just not the part that usually gets read at weddings. I love the last part of the chapter. Paul writes in verse 12, “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.” Mirrors in Paul’s day weren’t like they are today. They were often made out of polished metals or other materials that would at best offer blurry, muddled reflections to the viewer, not crisp images like we are used to. People couldn’t often see their physical selves clearly like we can today. But Paul’s writing suggests that it’s more than our physical bodies that we don’t perceive clearly, although we can include our faulty impressions of our physical selves still.
When you take stock of yourself, your life, how do you perceive yourself? Do you think you have a clear picture of who you are? And do you find that person to be worthy of love? Part of the reason I’m here at Drew Theological School for a second time, working on another degree, is because I treasure the community here. I feel valued. I feel connected to my peers. I feel nurtured by faculty and staff. I feel a sense of shared ethical commitments that are important to me. But being in an academic community again these last couple of years has also heightened my sense of imposter syndrome. That’s when we feel like we’re frauds, not really measuring up to the impressions people have of us, waiting to be outed as not really smart enough to do the work we’re being asked to do. I especially struggle with those feelings at the beginning of each semester when I get my syllabi and feel temporarily overwhelmed by all that professors are expecting for the semester. Maybe you feel that too: the vulnerability of being assessed, your thoughts evaluated, translated into grades. Maybe it feels like you are being evaluated, and you aren’t measuring up. Maybe you feel the vulnerability that comes with being in a season of discernment, the hard process of answering God’s call and finding a path that you might wrestle with during seminary. Or maybe you’re pretty confident in your academic life, but you’re struggling with what you find in the rest of your life, in your relationships, in your work. Are you succeeding with the goals you’re setting? Are you well-liked? Does your life have meaning and purpose? How do you perceive yourself?
Like my professor once suggested, I suspect that our self-reflections will reveal that we don’t, in fact, always love ourselves well. I think Paul knew this too - but he believed something else was possible. “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.” Oh, how I long for that, even as it sounds terrifying - to be fully known, and, we can conclude from Paul’s theme, loved. Fully known, fully loved. Paul anticipates that we’ll be able to know love fully in an eschatological telos that is “by and by” - a future event, when we are united with God. But - but being fully known and loved? Paul speaks of that as our already-present reality. We are already fully known by God, in whose image we have been created, by God, who knows, perceives, and loves us entirely. Is there a way, though, for us to have a better mirror now? To know more fully who we are now? Can we learn to love ourselves more fully now?
Paul obviously believed that striving for the more excellent way of love was a worthy endeavor - a necessary endeavor for the communities of faith in the here and now. And Jesus, certainly, preaches a message of God’s very-present reign here and now. However it works, whatever the order of loving is, Jesus tells us that our love for ourselves and love for one another are bound up in each other. We need both, we need to do both. I think Paul gives us practices that cultivate love. They often get translated passively, but the words of verses 4-7 are action words. We might read it as “Love waits patiently; love acts kindly” and so forth. (1) And we might try applying Paul’s love verbs not only to one another, but also to ourselves. What might it mean, for example, to rejoice in the truth of who you are? And how might that rejoicing fill you up to love others well? How can waiting patiently on someone with love remind you to be patient with yourself, too?
As we practice love - and oh, it takes practice! - for ourselves and for each other, we’re polishing each other’s imperfect mirrors. Maybe we can’t yet fully know, as God fully knows. But in community, in love, we can begin to perceive more clearly. “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.” May our striving for love shape the “then” of Paul’s promise into our “now.” Amen.
Melanie A. Howard, The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-1-corinthians-131-13-7