What’s love got to do with it?
One of my professors Krister Stendahl, the great new testament scholar, churchman, bishop of Stockholm, once produced a list of the ten commandments of preaching. One of them was, don’t use the word “love” in your sermon unless it’s in the text. Well, it’s in the text today, so here goes.
I Corinthians 13, the so-called “love chapter,” is among the most familiar texts in all of scripture. We hear it most often at weddings, when its language becomes at least in part, a set of instructions for the couple: Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not arrogant or boastful or rude…
But this lovely chapter was not meant to be read at weddings. Paul writes it nearly at the end of a lengthy letter to the congregation at Corinth that he had helped found. He was no longer there but he maintained a close interest in what was taking place there. There’s evidence in this letter that earlier letters had passed back and forth between Paul and Corinth. We also know that he sent messengers to Corinth, and they in turn sent people back to him. Some of this is to be expected. As the congregation’s founder, Paul would have continued to be an important figure, an authority to whom this fledgling group of Christians would turn for advice and support.
It doesn’t take a very close reading of the text to discern that the relationship between this Christian community of Corinth and Paul is strained. There have been challenges to his leadership and to his version of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This tension would grow, I Corinthians doesn’t resolve it at all, and by the time of the correspondence that would eventually become II Corinthians, the two are barely on speaking terms. In fact, Paul implies that during a visit to Corinth, he got in a shouting match with one of its members.
So there is conflict. Some of it is personal. It’s absolutely obvious from Paul’s letters that he wasn’t an easy guy to get along with. Some of the conflict has to do with matters of faith and doctrine, and it’s here that we see some of the deepest disagreements. Many of these disagreements seem strange to us in the 21st century, like the question whether it was OK to eat meat that had been sacrificed to the Greek or Roman gods. Some of the issues are downright bizarre—like Paul’s outburst at the fact that one of the members of the Corinthian congregation is living with, presumably having sexual relations, with a woman identified as his father’s wife. Some of the issues cut closer to home for us, like how to behave in worship, well, how women should behave in worship, and for today, the issue of the nature of authority in the congregation and the relationships among various spiritual gifts.
The last three weeks, we’ve been hearing how Paul tries to explain to his readers the fundamental idea of the body of Christ. All of this conflict has been tearing this little community apart, and from a distance, Paul is trying to remind them that they are all one in Christ. In chapter 12, he is addressing the particular problem of spiritual gifts. The Corinthians seemed to have seen such gifts in a hierarchy with the more spectacular, ecstatic ones, being evidence of a higher spiritual attainment. Paul denies such a hierarchy of gifts: there is a variety of gifts but one Spirit, he says.
Then he appeals to a familiar image, the human body. In 12:12, he writes, “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” He continues by pointing out the importance of each member, each body part to the body, and then concludes this section with the observation that no one body part, no one gift is more important, and that not all share in all of the gifts. And then he writes, a verse that oddly is omitted in either last week’s or this week’s reading, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” That’s Paul’s introduction to chapter 13, today’s reading. And it’s worth pointing out the significance of that little sentence. I will show you—this is the language of Epiphany, promising that God will be made manifest to us. And “the more excellent way” suggests that what will unfold before us is a journey. As we will see, that journey will culminate in seeing God, “face-to-face.”
But first, a little more about the chapter as a whole. It is pure poetry, richly cadenced and carefully constructed to build toward the climax. There are four sections, verses: the first a series of contrasts between conditions with and without love: “f I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” The second, a series of statements about the qualities of love: love is patient and kind. The third, a series of contrasts between the perfect and imperfect, the complete and the incomplete: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. And then the conclusion—the climax, the pinnacle: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Paul’s writing about life in community, life in the body of Christ. He’s writing about the love that binds the body of Christ together just as our bodies are bound together by muscle and tissue and tendons and nerves. We can’t be in community together without love; that love which binds us together in Christ, which is a gift of God in Christ. But there’s more here, too.
In the end, Paul is saying that the love we experience together in community, is like the love that we will experience in the presence of God. Our life together in community is like, it’s a foretaste, a simple, a reflection, of the full and complete life lived in God. We see that now, dimly; we experience it, in ways broken by our own fallenness, imperfections, and the fallenness of all humanity. But when we catch sight of it, we are also catching sight of the presence of God.
It was a hard message, hard words to hear in that first century community in Corinth. As I said earlier, Paul’s relations with that congregation would deteriorate after writing this letter, deteriorate so far and so fast that he didn’t dare come to Corinth for fear of what might happen.
It’s also a hard message to hear in this day and age. We know conflict all to well—we know it here at Grace and in the larger community, nation, and world in which we live. Conflict is so prevalent, so much a part of humans being in community that our tendency is too withdraw in disgust, anger, and exhaustion. That’s true of our connections with all sorts of institutions; it’s also true of our attitudes toward the church. Our anger, disgust, and exhaustion often results in us withdrawing from the body of Christ, to seek our salvation on our own, or to cultivate that relationship as individuals, silently, pursuing our private vision of the divine.
Paul understood that all too well. The beauty of his writing here points to his deep and profound dis-ease with life lived in the body of Christ—those words “But now I see in a mirror dimly, then I will see face to face.” Those words testify to the pain between the experience he lives now and the experience he hopes for in God’s presence. But at the same time, he knows that he cannot remove himself from the body of Christ, to do so would be to be cut off from life itself, and from love.
That tension is at the heart of the Christian faith, in the first century and in the twenty-first. To see the other, even in the midst of the most painful and divisive conflict, to see the other as part of Christ’s body, that is the hard work of being God’s people. To see the other—the one we’ve never seen before, the stranger, the alien, the outcast. To see them as part of Christ’s body, to welcome them in and shower them with love, that too is the hard work of being the body of Christ. And when the work becomes simply too hard, the way forward impossible, when there is only pain, or dark, or noisy gongs, at that point of spiritual emptiness, to open oneself to God’s love in Christ, to open oneself to the love of the body broken, that is, to use Paul’s words, to know that “faith hope and love abide; these three, and the greatest of these is love.”