Most people know these words from wedding ceremonies, celebrating the spiritual bond of love between two people. They are often spoken to unify two individuals for a lifelong journey of faithful marriage. Except this chapter, considered to be one of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible and other literature, was not written with the intent that a couple would choose these words to be read at their wedding. When Paul talks about love, his words sound poetic, idealistic, almost perfection. Which is odd because he’s talking to a church in the midst of conflict. The Corinthian church was arguing over seemingly important spiritual matters: About prophetic powers, the ability to speak in tongues, about possessing certain knowledge available only to them. Paul asserts that such gifts as these are nothing if those who possess them do not also have love. Some began thinking their beliefs and ideas were better than others; some voices got a little louder, saying, ‘Some of us are more equal, more superior than others.’ They are also arguing about food, about worship, about sex.
I’m sure no church today would argue about such trivial things. Except we do. If you’re following what’s happening in the UMC over how inclusive the church will be regarding sexuality, about the possibility for this denomination to experience a schism, the words of I Corinthians 13 become more relevant.
Sadly, we are no strangers to the kind of division in communities of which Paul speaks — racial, political, denominational. And we need to figure out better strategies for navigating these conflicts. Paul has had enough of their arguing, and writes words about love in idealistic terms. The practical part of me would say things like: Love is complicated like the FB status; Love is messy; Love feels impossible; Love is hard.
There is a Musical comedy on Broadway by Joe DiPietro with music by Jimmy Roberts bearing a title that is so profoundly, but sadly true: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”. We fall in love with somebody because of their charm, their wit, their humor, their intelligence, their smile – time passes and we realize how much they would benefit from our wisdom about who they ought to be, what they should believe, how they should act – especially in public. This is not exclusive to romantic relationships – it happens in friendships and church communities as well, places that bring together different people with different gifts and ideas. As wonderful as community can be, sometimes it may drive us crazy, or it becomes so fraught and messy and complicated that we might say to ourselves, “I’m going to find a little hut in the woods to hole up and not have to deal with people like that any more”, or “I’m going to find a different mate, or friend, or community of faith who think more like me. That will solve all my problems.” Except it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s a common denominator, “Wherever you go, there you are.” It might not be about you for the most part, but we all bring our history and woundedness and personalities and bump up against each other. Sometimes it gels, other times it’s like loggerheads. I remember one Bishop, I think Bishop Elias Galvin saying something like, “The grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side. Don’t think about asking for an appointment in another church because you’re experiencing conflict in your current appointment . Work on helping the church you serve a place you want to serve.” That is true in most relationships.
But Choosing love over hate or apathy, peace over conflict, harmony over fractiousness, is not as easy as it sounds – not as simple as we wish it could be or pray it would be. Why is it that we find it so difficult to live into these words – to make what seems to be an obvious choice? A choice for love. A choice for our well-being, for the well-being & wholeness & healing of others. What stands in our way?
This is too reductionistic of an analogy, but I think about other areas of health that are good for us, for our bodies, for longevity – like exercise & eating healthy. We know it’s good for us, but….what gets in the way? I have a goal of getting at least 10k steps a week, but last month I reached that goal only 50% of the time. Although I may have made up for some of it with yesterdays Viaduct 8k. Last Sunday, Angie made some really delicious vegetable soup for us to eat throughout the week. If you got inside my brain, you would notice that this delicious, super healthy for my body soup, was not the first food I thought of that I could eat when I got hungry. Welcome to one of the disconnects in my life.
What is it that gets in our way of making the most healthy, loving choice for ourselves and for others? A choice for love? What is at stake for us that we are reluctant to admit or to say out loud?
What if this thing called love goes awry in what we expect from love, from relationship, friendship, from loving communities of faith? Paul NEVER says that love feels good. We think that churches are places where it should be easy to love or to “feel the love.” But the truth of it is: True love is not measured by how good it makes us feel. In the context of 1 Cor, we could say that the measure of love is its capacity for faithfulness and for tension & disagreement without division.
In English translations, love is described by static adjectives -“love is patient, love is kind”. In the original Greek, “patient” and “kind” were verbs. Love “shows patience, Love acts with kindness. Love is not arrogant, resentful, rude. In V. 4-8, Love is the subject of 16 verbs in a row. Love is an active thing. Always finding ways to express itself for the good of others. It is what love does, not how love feels. Christian Love, agape love is something we CHOOSE to do, not something we FEEL to do. We don’t necessarily always choose or control our feelings but we can choose loving actions and responses. To be motivated into acts of kindness. Are we prepared to go a second mile for another? Or give someone the benefit of the doubt? To assume good intent?
There is a hymn “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” One of the verses has these words – “Lord, I want to be more loving in my heart”. That is a great desire and prayer, but it doesn’t JUST happen by wanting it or praying it into being. It requires choosing it as well. Listen to how powerful these words are when we sing them – “Lord I choose to be more loving in my heart and in my actions.”
When I was a child, I understood as a child. Growing in faith and spiritual maturity, the starting posture of love is understanding and deep listening. And we are equipped for this because we have been fully known by the One who holds compassion and love for us. Jer 1:4 – Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. I Cor. 12: Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
We are not left to our own capacity for love. We can love because God has already fully known us and loved us, and is working to make our lives and our communities mirror this active, tireless love with the promise that it will not end – God’s love will not fail or falter. Paul names three things of central value to the church: faith, hope, and love forming our vision for the life of the church. We are drawn into the love of God, transformed by that love so that we become lovers of God, of ourselves, of the world.
Love is always risky, because we cannot enter into it without being changed. Altered. Transformed. We might well ask, Do I really want this? Do I really desire to be so undone? Love is a willingness to have our heart become larger as we make room for people and stories and experiences we never imagined holding. It is a willingness to move beyond the surface layers of assumptions, prejudices, or habits in order to receive what—and who—is before us. It is a willingness to have our heart continually broken and restored as we take in the brokenness and the beauty of humanity. We have what we need to be God’s partners in healing the world. We can do small things with great love!
Eugene Peterson. “We do not yet see things clearly. We are squinting in a fog, peering through the mist, but it will not be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright. We will see it all then, see as clearly as God sees us, knowing God as directly as God knows us. But for right now, until that completeness comes, we have three things to do. Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly.”
4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.
I Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing
4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For 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. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.