The camera pans across a beautifully decorated church, flowers and candles are in abundance, beautiful people stand in front of a minister, who is inexplicably wearing the liturgical colors for a penitential season; yet as the couple gazes into each other’s eyes we hear the familiar, “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious…”These words from Saint Paul have become so common and well known that they have entered into the cultural zeitgeist. It’s hard to imagine a wedding without it; perhaps, if you are married, it was a passage that was read in your own wedding. As a sacrament of this church, this passage certainly is appropriate for a wedding, but these words in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth was not intended for a dewy-eyed hopeful young couple, they were words of hard truth about the difficulty of staying together.
The church at Corinth was ravaged with difficulty and divisiveness; there were some who thought they were better than others, a social hierarchy quickly came into being and some people deserved to eat first, while others got scraps, if anything. Saint Paul picks up after he describes the funny looking body of Christ by addressing what is necessary for this body to stay together. When it comes down to it, there are two essential aspects for a community to stay together: love must be present and love is active and constantly working. This might be why it is so often used at weddings, because what is true in community is true in any relationship, especially those that find their ultimate goal in following Christ, that love is the foundation and the driving force. It’s the kind of love that radiates into every aspect of our life.
What Paul is putting forth, what God is calling us to, is a bizarre, funny looking love. Love that is not great because of flowers or hearts or warm fuzzy feelings, love that is great because it pushes us towards something. Love that is great because it takes our hopes and desires and turns them into action. Love that is great because without it all this world, even the good stuff, would just be a hollow shell. While the second half of this passage from Paul gets a lot of play, the beginning of our epistle passage today lays the foundation of what has become famous.
At the beginning of our passage, Paul lays out several lofty things that any community of faith at the time would desire: the gift of tongues, prophetic powers, great understanding, and radical generosity, but Paul points out that all of these are useless if they are done without love. We could, of course, make our own list: if we hear powerful sermons, or if we are well known in our community for our kindness, or if we give generously to those who have less than us, without love, Saint Paul says, it is nothing. Nothing. Even if we have the faith to move mountains, and, my word, are there mountains to move, if we do it without love, we are nothing. If we give a meal or shelter to someone who is facing homelessness, without love it is only a clanging cymbal and a noisy gong. If Christ Church is known as a beautiful space, but is does not have love, then it is nothing. If we are good stewards of our funds, but do it without love, then we gain nothing.
Just as Father Steve called us last week to know and live into the reality that the ways in which the standards of beauty aren’t true, I think the call of Saint Paul today in this very well-known passage is to know the absurdity of the idea that we can present our worth or worthiness in a form of a list in which we can tick off all the ways in which we are being Christian enough, because without love, even the greatest list of ministries and outreaches is all for naught. Love is the primary and the only foundation of what any of us are called to do.
So what does this love look like? It is patient, it is kind, it is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. This kind of love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. This kind of love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; this love never ends. One of the things that I think presents a risk when a passage of scripture becomes so well known as this one has, is that it loses a bit of the edge. This litany of adjectives for what love is can seem poetic and lofty; it can seem like it’s an idealized, Hollywood wedding version of what it means to love. But in actuality, it is a presentation of a hard truth of what Christian community, what Christian relationship, requires of us; it paints the picture of a hard won love.
Another aspect that can be overlooked in this passage is something that is lost in our English translations. Because in this passage alone, there are 16 descriptions of what love is, but what is lost is that in the Greek, these are not static adjective, but they are action words. So it is less that love IS patient, but rather that love shows or practices patience. It is not that love IS kind, but that love enacts kindness. These 16 words do not describe what love could be if it were undefiled and pure, but rather it tells the story of all the ways in which love gets to work.
There is a reason that Paul goes into a long explication of the ways in which love does and does not act with the church in Corinth. Because for a community in conflict, there is nothing more needed than a reminder of the foundation upon which we stand and all the ways in which it does or does not act. I think that Paul spends so much time talking about love in a letter to a congregation that was in conflict because they were desperate to hear some good news about the community that had become their home; they were desperate to be reminded of what Christian community can do when it’s at its best, and to remember that Christian community is never at its best without love.
In the midst of this long foray into the importance of love and how love acts, it is important to pay attention to the fact that St. Paul never says this love feels good, or easy, or that it will make our lives simpler; because love is not about how good we feel about it. Love, at its utmost is about how we hold tension and disagreement without division; love at its core holds a community together.
The love that Saint Paul talks about in this passage isn’t just a love that manifests itself when we like each other, it’s the love that shows up when we don’t. As one of your priests, it is a great joy that our congregation genuinely seems to like each other. It’s a great joy that love does not seem to be hard won most days, but on the days and weeks that it does, it’s important to remember that it is the love that Paul talks about here that binds us together. It is not our shared Episcopalianism, it is not the fact that we love this beautiful church, it is not even Sunday mornings that hold us together. What holds this funny looking body of Christ together is nothing but the bizarre, funny looking love that Paul describes here.
Let this funny looking love fill everything you do; let this love permeate through all your conversations and interactions and even through all of your social media posting. Let this love walk before you and follow behind you. Let this difficult love, which is hard won stand in the spaces in which we don’t like each other very much; let this love fill the spaces where we deeply disagree. Let this love be in everything, especially in our hope for a greater future and in our common faith, because we are called to many things in this shared life, but none is greater than this love.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 on February 3, 2019.