Inspired by First Corinthians 13
We continue with our reading selections from First Corinthians today, and we will remain in this letter of Paul’s through the end of the month. This letter is one of his most well known and beloved letters that made it into the Bible, and for good reason, today’s selection being a great example of why. As we learned last week, the church in Corinth had a great start with Paul, but as soon as he left, things went to pot pretty quickly. And that’s putting it mildly! They had a lot of issues to work through as a church, and to be fair, we all do, but things must have been particularly bad there as this letter suggests. They were bad enough that he had to write them several letters, some of which we no longer have, as well as visit them several times, all to try and get them on the straight and narrow.
Today’s reading continues this work of Paul’s with them and it may be one of the most well-known passages in the whole Bible. Even for people who are not church goers, odds are, they have heard this passage because it is one of the most requested readings for weddings. It was read it mine! In fact, we recently came across our box of home videos and the first one we popped in was our wedding and I think it was my sister who read this passage for us. It’s a beautiful passage for a lot of reasons. It is beautifully written. It is raw and down to earth. It doesn’t waste time with flowery language nor is it overly philosophical or academic. It could easily be in the running for passages that best sum up the whole Bible, and win!
However, as amazing as this passage is, as requested as this passage is, historically speaking, the church has done a poor job of actually following this simple, straightforward lesson. And simple it is! The lesson here is: love, period. How in the world do we mess that up so badly? Paul makes it very clear, without a shred of doubt, that the most important element of our religion is love. But we have made so many other things more important than love, directly thumbing our nose at Paul’s lesson here. Over the course of the last nearly two thousand years, we have made things like faith more important than love, we have made doctrines more important than love, we have made scripture more important than love, we have made gender, sexuality, race, marital status, suicide, politics, cognitive abilities, mental health, incarceration, all more important than love, just to name a few off the top of my head.
I don’t think I need to go into detail of all the ways that our religion has allowed each of these things and more to become more important than love, I’ll let you connect those dots. One of the reasons I think we’ve lost the power of this passage is because we only hear it at weddings, and even if we read it in worship on a Sunday, the preacher usually doesn’t preach on it, but instead preaches on the Gospel lesson for that day, another reason why I love the Narrative Lectionary. And weddings are generally positive experiences with atmospheres of hope and encouragement and new life. So when we hear this passage in that kind of context all we here is a sappy Bible passage about how much the couple getting married should love each other. But that’s not it’s original context at all! This was a passage of admonition and correction, even scolding!
But we don’t hear it that way do we, all we get today is a warm fuzzy feeling when we hear this passage. And our response is usually one of, “Awwwww.” Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ll forever respond with awwww every time I hear this passage. But too many people have been hurt, even died, because the church has not taken this passage seriously, that we really can’t afford to only get warm fuzzies from this passage. So, how do we put this passage back into its original context? How do we get its power back? How do we get its corrective nature back?
For those of you blessed with two loving parents, do you remember doing something bad and then having to wait for one of your parents to get home and deliver the punishment? Do you remember that feeling? That’s the feeling that you should keep in mind as you read this letter from Paul. Or how about being told to stand in the corner and “think about what you’ve done”? Remember that feeling? Oh, this one’s even worse, how about when a parent or guardian told you that they were disappointed in you, rather than handing out a punishment! Oh man, I’d taking a whipping or a grounding any day over that! This is the frame of mind we should approach this beautiful passage from Paul with. As a homework assignment, I’d encourage you to reread it with that mindset and see how different it sounds.
But not right now, let’s keep moving. One of the things that I love about this passage is how practical it is. One of the lessons I remember from my internship supervisor in Alabama was how important it is to give people practical help in a sermon, examples of what you are talking about, to help them incorporate what I’m saying into their everyday lives. And that is exactly what Paul does here. He gives us lots of verbs and adjectives that not only describe what love looks like, but also what it doesn’t look like, just in case we weren’t sure. He really drives this home for us. So, I’d like to first take a look at what love isn’t, and to do that, I’ve put all those verbs and adjectives together, both the ones he gives us for what love isn’t, but also the opposite of the ones that he gives for what love is. Here is what that list looks like, this, according to Paul, is what love is not supposed to look like: hatred, intolerance, cruelty, jealousy, boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, selfishness, irritableness, ignorance, bitterness, despair, injustice, skepticism, impermanence, and disappointment.
That’s quite a list, isn’t it! All those stem from this one passage. If Paul doesn’t get through to us with those, then he’s just not gonna get through, is he! Now, let’s take a look at what love is supposed to look like according to Paul. Let’s take a look at the opposite of each of those words. This is what that list looks like: patience, kindness, pride, humbleness, humility, politeness, generous, easygoing, wise, forgiving, hopeful, just, trusting, lasting, and trustworthy. Again, all those stem from this passage from Paul as he tries to nail down for us what exactly love is and isn’t. And for the Corinthians, they were apparently exhibiting all those words that describe what love was not supposed to look like. Now imagine visiting a church that was exhibiting all those words! I’d like to say that a church like that would never last! But sadly, we know differently. Churches have been thriving on those words for nearly two thousand years now. But for a startup religion like the Corinthian church represented, it could have been a catastrophe, which is why this letter was so important for Paul to write.
Today, it is still important for us to remain vigilant, so that we don’t fall into those old patterns, so that we don’t allow our sinful nature to get the better of us. Even though we are no longer a fledgling new startup religion, the world still takes notice of our actions. And if our actions don’t represent a God who loves unconditionally, then it’s time for a course correction. And thankfully, that is exactly who we represent, a God who loves us, no matter what, a God who does not allow anything to become more important than love, not even God’s own ego. Which is why I love this passage so much, and why it’s so important for us to recapture its power! It gives us a checklist, for those times when we want to see how we’re doing with this love business, for those times when we fear we may be straying a bit, so that we can above all, represent our God, the perfecter of love. Thanks be to God. Amen.