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I Corinthians 12.31 - 13(4-7).13

King James Version

New Revised Standard Version

The Message

New English Bible

Love in the Trenches

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Although Alfred Lord Tennyson famously wrote, “In the Spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” it is in the deep cold of winter that the no-longer-young minister’s fancy turns to thoughts of weddings.  Since many couples get engaged around the holidays, the early part of the year is often filled with initial pre-marital meetings, and in just the past two weeks I’ve had two requests for weddings, one a young man I’ve known for more than 30 years and another from a local couple who knew they could reach out to our church for a service.

I’ve always considered it privilege and a fringe benefit of pastoral ministry that we clergy get to officiate at weddings.  A wedding is a wonderful celebration:  everybody there is already in a great mood, and we don’t have to work at cheering anyone up; it gives us the opportunity to get to know families we already know more intimately, or it gives us entrée with families we may not know very well at all; it opens the doors of the church to potential members, whether they are family or friends of the couple; and it is often a chance to help people become acquainted or reacquainted with the church.  Of course, the passage of time carries a downside as well for the no-longer-young minister:  I began my career marrying my peers, then I began marrying the children of my peers, and now… well, you get the general drift.

But I continue to enjoy marrying couples because it also provides the opportunity to hold forth on the noble topic of love.  This morning’s New Testament lesson, the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, is far and away the most requested biblical passage for weddings.  Even if couples know little else about the Bible, many of them still know they’d like the “love chapter” to be read at their wedding.  And it’s easy to see why the apostle makes such a favorable impression on people: 

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals or of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… if I give my very body as a sacrifice but do not have love, I gain nothing… for faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of them all is love.” 

It is one of those exalted passages you and I can turn to time and time again, and never have too much of it.

But there is also a downside to the church’s affection for this passage:  we become so familiar with it that sometimes we miss what it is trying to say to us.  In this way it can become like the Lord’s Prayer, which we say by rote on a weekly basis; how often do we really pay attention to the words, the turns of phrase, the ideas we are praying when we say it, and to what degree are we just reciting it from memory?  I Corinthians 13 makes such a delightful impression on us, we are simultaneously so inspired and humbled by its impressive and lofty description of love that we are tempted to idealize it to such an extent as to render it unattainable.  For example, verses 4 through 7 read, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, bur rejoices in the truth.  Love bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  If we were really listening closely to these words as they were read, our most candid response would have to be, “Can I ever live up to that?”  But usually we just sit back and let the sentimentality of it wash over us, and the words remain a paean to the apotheosis of a distant vision of love in an ideal world, and we haven’t any handle to grab hold of to bring it back to earth.

But I suspect that Paul never intended to inscribe an inapproachable sonnet to the sublime generality of love.  The plain truth of it all is that the Corinthians needed help, and Paul knew it, so he tried to offer some very practical advice to them about how to live together in the love of Christ.  Far from being an idealized caricature of the notion of love, I Corinthians 13 represents love in the trenches; it deals with everyday relationships.  Paul is describing love as a practicable possibility, and it is the concrete application of his message that is at the heart of this chapter.

In fact, one of the drawbacks of encountering this passage primarily at weddings is that we are tempted to think Paul is writing about matrimonial love.  And while the words certainly apply, there is a much deeper intent:  to plumb the very depths of human love, to wrestle with it, to get down and dirty with it, to wrestle seriously with what the apostle is saying about love.  And you’ll notice that I didn’t ask Deb Calamari to start at the beginning of I Corinthians 13, I asked her to begin with the last verse of the preceding chapter, because I love the way Paul’s sets the next chapter  up:  “I will show you a still more excellent way:” 

“Love is patient and kind.”  Funny thing about patience – it is a very practical virtue.  The words Paul uses are always used to describe patience with people, not just with situations in general.  That is, it is not simply to advocate for a general tolerance for the people in our neighborhoods and communities, but for a conscious, deliberate patience and kindness to my neighbor, for the specific other, a person with a name, a face, and a soul.  For Paul, this kind of practical patience represents love in particular.

“Love is not irritable or resentful.”  I like the way the New English Bible expresses this:  “Love keeps no score of wrongs.”  This is an accountant’s word, it brings to mind the vision of the ledger or the balance sheet.  How often in our interpersonal relationships are we tempted to play tit-for-tat:  “I think you made a mistake the way you handled that.”  “Oh yeah?  Well, last time we did this, you did such-and-so wrong.”  We insist on coming out ahead, but in a healthy relationship we realize there are no winners and we are not playing a game.  Love keeps no score of wrongs; it does not hold on to resentment; when somebody says to me, “I can forgive then I can’t forget,” my mental response to them is, “Well then, you can’t really forgive either.”

“Love does not rejoice at the wrong, but rejoices in the truth.”  And yet how often are we tempted to do just this in ways that we think are so innocuous as to be nearly innocent.  For example, we seldom think twice about gossip, about passing along that juicy little morsel we just heard.  It may appear harmless enough, but all this does is to indulge in someone else’s wrong, or mistake, or predicament, and we believe we can mask it in the guise of genuine concern.  And it’s even worse when this happens in church, where we should all know better.  It is the whisper in the kitchen, the rump session in the parking lot.  But if Paul’s words are true, then the church member who is genuinely concerned about another not only would refuse to pass along any gossip or hearsay, but she or he would stop it right there, in its tracks.  Love never rejoices in the wrong, but rejoices in the right, in the true, it takes its deepest satisfaction in the triumphs and the victories of its brothers and its sisters.

Paul’s words about love in I Corinthians 13 are words of very sound and practical advice; he does not intend to humble us with a grandiose vision we could never attain, but instead provides practical tools for living.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big fan of Eugene Peterson’s biblical paraphrase, “The Message,” but his take on this passage does help us move away from whatever grandiosity we are tempted to find in Paul; here is Peterson’s version of this morning’s passage:

“Love never gives up.  Love cares more for others than for self.  Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.  Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when other grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.”

There are a few too many ‘doesn’ts’ in there for my taste; the via negativa is seldom a helpful roadmap, but you have to admit it is rather a tonic when compared to all the seekeths and thinkeths and rejoiceths of the King James.

The last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy” which the church has borrowed for “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” is based on a poem by Johann Christoph von Schiller, which articulated the desire, in the poet’s words, “to embrace millions, [to] have a kiss for the whole world.”  This is a wonderful Enlightenment sentiment, and it clearly inspired the composer, but it is not the kind of love Paul wants to lift up.  Christianity does not ask for a kiss for the whole world; it asks for the kiss for the sick man and the hurting woman, for the outcast and the stranger who passes me on the street.  Christianity demands love in the definite; it proclaims, “Do not speak of your love for humanity if there remain individual human beings you do not, or will not, love.”  It’s like that old Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy sits there thinking, “I love humanity – it’s people I can’t stand!”  Do not speak of your love for humanity if there remain individual human beings you do not, or will not, love.  Love insists, “Do not speak of your solidarity with the poor if you have not done something for this single mother of four or the homeless man you pass on the way to work every morning.  Christianity embodies a love that is not an exalted ideal, but a practical, particular obligation each of us chooses to take up.  The love described in I Corinthians 13 puts us on the spot in the way Swiss theologian Karl Barth described when he wrote, “Our fellow human being is the specific other that is to be loved by us for God’s sake, in God’s place, and in demonstration of our love for God.”

And so let me conclude by offering one more expression of Paul’s thoughts on love, this time from the New English Bible, which is the version I read most at weddings expressly because the words are different, and it is my hope that in that difference we will hear it differently and take notice:

And now I will show you the best way of all:

I may speak in tongues of mortals or of angels, but if I am without love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  I may have the gift of prophecy and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing.  I may give away all I possess, or even give my body as a sacrifice, but if I have no love, I am none the better.

Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one.  Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offence.  Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over another’s sins, but delights in the truth.  There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance.

Love will never come to an end.  Are there prophets?  Their work will be over.  Are there tongues of ecstasy?  They will cease.  Is there knowledge?  It will vanish away; for our knowledge and our prophecy alike are partial, and what is partial vanishes when wholeness comes.  When I was a child, my speech, my outlook and my thoughts were all childish.  When I grew up, I had finished with childish things.  Now we see only puzzling reflections as in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face.  My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like God’s knowledge of me.  In a word, there are three things that last forever:  faith, hope and love; and the greatest of them all is love.

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