I want to talk a bit about love over the next two weeks, and we’re going to begin with one of the most commonly used texts in the Bible. After the 23rd psalm, I’m willing to bet that this text is the one most heard by people who have nothing to do with the church.
It has become the ultimate wedding text over the years, describing love for the hopeful couple. Now, I do think it is a good text for a wedding, but not for traditional reasons. Many people read it as praising romantic love, and creating ideals that are made famous by Disney. But that’s not what this passage is about.
No, this passage has nothing to do with romance, and everything to do with community. Paul has been teaching the Corinthians that God expects a different kind of community for his followers. That there is a better way to behave than they have been doing and it starts with love. Not with Eros, not romantic love, but with agape, with selfless communal love.
This text was first written to a community that was having a very difficult time staying together. And so the love described by Paul needs to be lived out in costly ways in the difficult realities of relationships and communities. It is in this sense, the sense of trying to help a community stay together in the midst of divisions, that this text makes an excellent wedding text.
Romantic love is an emotion, something we feel. Agape love is different. Frederick Buechner described it as, "In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion, but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as easily produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary,he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus' terms, we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them"
Agape love that is marked not by warm feelings but by rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. A decision to treat another person as though they were as important as ourselves. By this definition, we don't have to like someone to love them. And some days, even in the best possible marriage, you won’t like your spouse. But you can still love them. You can still work to be patient and kind and forgiving.
And, as Paul attests, this works with communities too. You don’t have to like all of the other people in your congregation, but you have to love them. You have to work towards this idea.
The Corinthians are inpatient with one another, jealous of other people's gifts, boasting that they have it right and others have it wrong, they are arrogant, rude, insistent they have it right, irritable, resentful, highlighting and gossiping about what is wrong with their fellow members, hopeless, and they easily give up on one another, their community, and God. In other words the Corinthians are exactly like communities throughout history. The very characteristics of the Corinthian church also characterize the modern Western way of being Church. The culture wars which have divided our church are an epidemic of this attitude.
Paul wants to move us past all of this to a way that is "beyond measuring." Love is the shape of life that has been set free from the competition that is disrupting the Corinthian church. By living in love, they are creating a community that can no only exist with differences, but thrive through them.
The Corinthians were actively pursuing some of the things that Paul mentions in the opening verses of chapter 13 such as speaking in tongues and knowing "mysteries." There may be nothing wrong with such things in themselves, but if in the process people forget about loving their brothers and sisters, such things end up being worthless. Without love, it does not matter what budgets, buildings, or missional strategies we have. Such things do not give the church the shape that God desires. We may pursue various forms of spirituality, or proper doctrine, or activism in the name of justice. However, in our pursuit of these otherwise fine things, we must not forget that the church is called to be a community that practices love.
I can imagine the Corinthians thinking, "Our problems are much more serious. Love, what a ridiculous notion. How will love help anything?" Yet it is Paul's law of love which pervades his message to the Corinthians. More importantly he reverses the nature of doing and receiving In other words Paul doesn't say to the impatient Corinthians, if you have patience then there is love. This is essential to understanding this law of Love.
Because we know that love is patient. It’s kind. It’s not envious, boastful, or rude. It does not insist on it’s own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It believes and bears all things. But we also know that we have trouble being patient. There are days when everyone is irritable which makes it very hard to be kind. Sometimes we really do want it our way. Other times we just have too much to bear.
And yet we’re not doing it on our own. Paul says to the Corinthians and to those of us today: God's love pours out and our response is love; love to God and love to one another. Paul says, if you love then patience comes. If you love jealousy and boasting fall away. If you love you will not be arrogant. If you love you will not be rude. If you love you will be a partner for the kingdom of God and not insist on your own way. If you love you will not be irritable. If you love you will not be resentful. If you love you will not rejoice in the failings of others but you will rejoice in their best nature and their successes. If you love you will be strong and have forbearance If you love belief will come, hope will happen, and you will endure.
The truth is most, or all, of us, spend our lives trying to figure out how to be patient, kind, able to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things. We are called to seek out, to strive for love, and all of the characteristics with which Paul associates with love. We’re not going to be perfect at it, but we are called to try.
Love is held up as the "still more excellent way," the gift greater than any of the things we think the church, and the world, need so much: our eloquence, our intelligence, our generosity or our faith. Because all of those things will change as people move on or pass away. As new people enter the community bringing their own ideas with them. But if they all come from the place of love in the community, the church remains the church regardless.
We know how important love is. We know that it is the key to relationships. We know that it is what gives meaning to life. And we all live in the hope that our lives will be filled with love.
But there's a problem. As much as we yearn for this, we're all fumbling our way through life trying to figure out how to do this thing called love.
Now we see through a mirror dimly. Now we only get a glimpse of what perfect love looks like, but we know it is a better way to live and continually strive for it.
God is love, and God loves us here and now, in the partialness of our efforts and our programs and our gifts, in the dimness of this mirror that nevertheless reflects, here and there, a bright, shining glimpse of our beauty now and of all that is yet to be.
So as you go out into the world, strive to love one another, for it is on that love that everything is built.