There are twelve chapters of context before we get to the pinnacle of the Apostle Paul’s writing, 1 Corinthians 13. Paul, along with Priscilla and Aquila, worked in Corinth for at least 18 months planting the church that he writes to. The larger church did not save the Corinthians’ letters to Paul, but Paul’s letters reveal a church with rivalries, divisions, misunderstandings and questions. Chapter one tells us the church holds four named factions: Cloe’s people, Cephas’ people, Apollo’s faction, and Paul’s contingent. The first four chapters deal with church authority and clergy credentialing. The next eight chapters discuss an embarrassing church scandal, lawsuits between church members, definitions of sexual morality, how to deal with interfaith marriages, issues of celibacy, the permissibility of food bought in pagan temples, fair clergy compensation, congregational grumbling, different understandings of morality, appropriate dress in worship, understandings of gender, fighting at the church council lunch, who really is a Christian, and petty jealousy over spiritual giftedness. Chapter 12 calls for order and unity within the body of Christ. Does the contentious Corinthian context make us feel better about church divisions’ today?
We usually skip over these 12 chapters of muddy old fights. We pluck I Corinthians 13 from the muck, like a rose growing in a cow pasture. Few Christians today expect women to cover their hair in church or care if the local burger at Fido was offered to Athena or Aphrodite. We have made progress and settled these once divisive issues. Our isolation of Paul’s Agape Poem proof-texts an entire chapter and perhaps miss the larger point. Before penning Chapter 13, Paul grew pretty frustrated with the pious fighting in the Corinthian church, smugly entering the fray, “I couldn’t care less if I am judged by you… and who says that you are better than anyone else?” I want to suggest that the Corinth’s rivalries, lawsuits, and misunderstandings make up the kind of stinking compost that fills up everyday life. Indeed, leading us towards the heights of love, while standing inside the Corinthian hog barn or the stink of Calvary, reminds us that love changes our world. To practice “a more excellent way (of being present)” amid a context of grumbling, rivalries and completing ideas may be the best test of divine love. It is easy to preach love at a wedding or baptism, but to practice love during a real stink-aroo of church or family fight demands holiness of heart and life. Jesus said, “If you only love those who love you, what is special about that?” (Matthew 5) But love in the context of disagreement, division, descent, and stink… well that is divine.
After offering some solutions and insights on the issues of the first 12 chapters, Paul proclaims, “Now, after all that, but let me point you to the more excellent way.” I think what Paul is saying is “I have given you some little ideas about hats in church, ranking church officials, and the value of celibacy, but that stuff is not the heart of faith. Please, read these letters remembering ‘we only know in part’, something greater lies beyond our ‘dimly lit mirror’ teaching. Consider, what really matters is that God ‘will show you a more excellent way’.”
Love is that most excellent way, not teaching, not knowing, not being right. Christianity is not so much a set of right beliefs, but a deep practice of God’s love. Love is our way of treating each other. Love measures our lives; love God, know you are loved, love neighbor, love strangers, and love your opponents.
If I do not love, my words are just noise.
If I do not practice love, no matter my talents, gifts and calling: I am nothing.
If I do not love, no matter what I might give to others, my soul acquires no lasting benefit.
Listen dear friends, preaching, theological books, and religious knowledge will not endure. (In heaven, do you think we will care about hats in church, food offered to idols, or who kissed who?) In humility, Paul confesses “We know only in part,” so why do we 2,000 years later turn Paul’s words into ridgid rules that may divide Christ’s church? Paul says our religious knowledge is kind of cloudy and distorted, smudged like images in a dim funhouse mirror. Perfect love will set everything right some day. That face to face revelation will it not be about whose book was right! In the end only love matters- love seen in actions (Matthew 25).Only faith, hope, and love outlast this life. Preaching, teaching, and knowledge will be engulfed by love’s embrace. So lighten up and remember love is the most excellent way.
But what is love? The great NT Greek scholar, AT Robertson, thought that Paul used the little used word “agape” instead of more familiar words for love- like eros or phileo, to set apart God’s love from other associations we might make with “love”. The problem with “love” is we think it is a state we enter or something we fall into. The smell of garlic, caramelized onions, fresh bread and perfectly browned cheese waifs over our olfactory glands and we declare “I love pizza”. They extend a hand and give us a raise and we say “I love working here”. They touch their hair, our eyes meet, and we hold the gaze, our hearts dance, and we say: “I think I am falling in love.”
Agape love is the active choosing to do the right thing for another person (an act of the will not driven by sentiment or attraction). In the New Testament, God is almost always considered the ultimate source of agape. ‘This is my commandment, that you love (agape) one another as I have loved (agaped) you.No one has greater love (agape) than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12) Martin Luther King wrote: “I am very happy that Jesus did not say ‘like your enemies”, because it is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental, an affectionate emotion. I can’t like anyone who would bomb my home… exploit me… trample over me… threaten to kill me. But Jesus reminds us, love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill towards all people.” (Love, Law and Civil Disobedience & A Christmas Sermon for Peace)
Love is not fallen into or a deep feeling. Love is created by loving actions. The Apostle Paul being Paul gives us a list of behaviors that define and create love. Verses 4-7 are filled action verbs. Love is a way of doing things in the world. The behaviors of love changes us and the world. It is the loving action of taking up our cross that really makes us disciples. Jesus did not feel good about the cross. He asked for an alternative. The way of love is revealed by loving behavior more than any beliefs. God so loved the world, that God entered into the world, to show us a more excellent way of being present with each other.
“Love is patient”, is not so much a passive description of love, but a call to action: “Love acts patiently”. We could say “the Popsicle is red” passively describing it. Or we might say: “The Popsicle reddens your teeth” describing the active effect of the Popsicle’s redness. We might describe the drink saying: “That drink is refreshing” but better yet “That drink refreshes me”. We might declare: “Water is wet” or more correctly state “the effect of water is to make you wet”. Love is created by patience, kindness, compassion, consideration, humility, grace, generosity, pleasantness, forgiveness, check-turning, uplifting, trusting, hoping, enduring and steadfastness. The acts of love will change you, your day, and maybe the world.
Once upon a time, I was standing at the DMV. Seventeen citizens stood before three clerks, now no just two, as one took a break! That means some 8.5 transactions at 4-5 minutes each transaction or a 35-45 minute wait. In fairness to the DMV, I disregarded their web-based advice: “come during the middle of the month, in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day.” It was 3:45pm on a Friday, just before the month ended. I tried one of Heather’s breath prayers, my exhale came out like a snort. In front of me stood a disheveled parent fidgeting with their phone and paperwork. They offered a litany of audible groans to no one in particular. In better times, we might have shared mutual misery, but my forced smile was rebuffed with a back-off smirk. To complicate matters, the parent engaged in incessant gum snapping: Bubble, pop, snap, bubble, snap. Surely, already a world champion gum chewer, they added to the symphony a nervous flip flop toe tap, especially after sending off a furious text storm. Their impatience amplified my impatience. Fresh from final sermon prep, I tried to love my neighbor as myself, by not adding to their misery unwelcomed smirks. Their phone rang, and the gum-smacker asked if I would save their spot. I nodded. They stepped a few meters away, keeping an eye on the line. They wrapped up a long call just as their spot neared the line’s summit. The gum smacker finished out the call whispering, “yes, bring swimsuits for the kids and dress clothes …just in case we need to stay for a funeral… I love you too, I hope we can get on the road soon.” Now looking right at me they said, “It’s a hard time.” I replied “I am sorry” leaving space for silence but the clerk called “next!” Reflexively, I sent a minor benediction as they moved the counter, “blessings.” For the next few minutes I prayed, imagining that families journey. My impatience with the gum-smacker was undone by an overheard story. The hint of their story changed my countenance. I felt relief in having practised a smidgen of patience which made the tiniest space for them to name their much harder time. So amid the lawsuits, petty jealousies, controversies, cow patties of this life: consider what will be your way of being with others? What will characterize your behavior? How will the practise of love change you and your world?
Love practices patience. Kind actions accompany love. Jealousy has no place inside love. Love does not brag. Arrogance obscures love. Love is not rude. Love does not seek its own advantage. Love rejects transactional relationships. Love is not irritable. Love does not keep a record of old wounds, complaints, and wrongs. (Rehearsing those old slights keep us stuck. We may need deeper counselling or forgiveness work to heal, but the rehearsal of old wounds alone leaves us stuck in death.) Love never rejoices in payback or bad karma. Love rejoices in the truth. Love puts up with the stink. (How is it possible that parents can sometimes sing happy little songs while changing a diaper?) Love risks trusting. Love believes in people. Love hopes all things. Love endures all things. (Researchers are learning hope and endurance come as a bundle deal. People who value hard work and patient endurance tend to be more hopeful. Hope is not some hocus- pocus emotion, but the patient application of love to life).
Love never fails. Now, we will fail to be as patient, kind, compassionate, considerate, humble, gracious, generous, pleasant, forgiving, check-turning, uplifting, trusting, hope-filled, and enduring as we could be… but Love never fails to change the world. Amen.