(1 Corinthians 13: 1-13)
It happens every now and then when I meet with an engaged couple as we plan the details of their wedding. At some point they mention how they’d like someone to read the “Love Chapter” – or they say – Pastor, could you use that thing from the Bible that talks about, you know, love and stuff – or – Let’s read that thing that everyone reads at weddings.
I smile and nod my head, because I know exactly what they mean. And the fact that they don’t refer to it as the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth isn’t that big of a deal. I know what they’re talking about. It’s the “Love Chapter,” after all – lots of wonderful, beautiful, poetic words. It’s read at weddings because one hopes the two people making this kind of commitment to each other are doing so out of love.
And Lord knows those words strike a chord on the big day, don’t they? Love is patient and kind – the young couple look wistfully at each other, knowing full well these are virtues they’ll need to make good use of in their life together. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude – how about that argument last week, huh? Love does not insist on its own way – they chuckle, as they know that individuals agendas must now be somewhat merged into a new unified one. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things – love never ends. Aaah!
As long as I have the pleasure of officiating weddings I will always welcome the “Love Chapter” in the service. But if I’m honest, I really hope they will do so with a broader understanding of its meaning beyond marriage.
Because what we’ve done to 1 Corinthians 13 is, in a way, unfair to it. We’ve relegated these thirteen verses to almost pop culture status, like some sweet slogan you find etched in a Hallmark card. We’ve enshrined the words themselves in such a way that any variation on them doesn’t sound “right” – like the time I read a different translation at a wedding, as I will do later in this sermon, and was questioned by someone afterwards as to why I didn’t read the assigned verses. How ironic, that we have actually fallen in love with the very words of the Love Chapter, more than the message they intend to convey.
Because I’ll tell you this – when the apostle Paul sat down to write these thirteen verses, I can promise you the last thing he had on his mind were weddings. In fact, if you want to know the truth, Paul was a little angry when he wrote this. Angry and frustrated at a particular gathering of Christians in the Greek seaport town of Corinth. It didn’t help that this church was his baby – a fellowship he had founded and was heavily invested in. Like a loving parent he guided them through infancy and childhood; but now the church was approaching adolescence, and you know how that goes. He saw great potential for this faith community in this thriving port town – lots of diversity and resources, a strong economy. But he also watched in agony as those same things became the source of conflict in the church.
Yes, I know – conflict. In a church, can you imagine?! It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that a group of people united by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, gathering together to worship and serve God, could ever get entangled in the messy web of conflict. Here’s just a smattering of the conflict that was taking place in the Corinthian church:
- There were people in the church caught up in power struggles
- There were people who weren’t following proper order and polity
- There were people – actual church members! – engaging in inappropriate behavior outside of church
- And here’s the kicker – there were people whose hair had grown too long for proper worship!
These are actual things Paul writes about in his letter. In some ways, it doesn’t sound a whole lot different from the conflict in the church today, does it?
You know, I can’t help but remember a PBS show I saw a few years ago. It was about two groups whose members work tirelessly for the good of the community, above and beyond all individual needs. Conflict is nonexistent. Division is an afterthought. Everyone works together in perfect harmony. You might wonder what two groups these are – some undiscovered pair of clans in some far-off corner of the planet? No. The PBS program highlighting radical community was about ants and cockroaches. Ants and cockroaches, people!
What does it say about us that, in their quest to find individuals that are by nature selfless, PBS had to look outside the human species?
We live in a terribly divided and divisive world. Ours is a world that struggles to create and cultivate real, lasting community. We struggle creating community when it comes to politics – which always is exasperated in an election season, but none quite like this. We struggle with creating community when it comes to race, with tensions between black and white and law enforcement boiling over into violence as it has time and time again in cities across our country; as it did in profound ways right here in our city this past week.
And things have gotten to the point when I honestly cannot figure out if we as people, as Americans, as North Carolinians, as Charlotteans and as Christians have simply lost the ability to love one another with open, honest dialogue and a listening ear, or if we just don’t care anymore. All we apparently know how to do, it appears, is react – react with rage when a black brother is shot, react with disdain when people protest in our streets, react with condescension when someone voices an opinion that is not like ours. React by talking to and over instead of talking with.
Now I don’t know to what extent the apostle Paul’s frustration and bewilderment mirrors our own. But I like to imagine him sitting down to write his letter, recounting all the difficulties this Corinthian church was facing – all the pettiness that had festered to toxic levels, all the divisiveness that apparently ants and cockroaches are good at working through. He’s torn between feelings of anger and sorrow, trying to think of what he can say to them; what he can write that maybe, just maybe, will plant seeds that will grow and lead them to see beyond themselves in a new way. He tries being tactful. He tries being the loving parent. He even gets all scientific with his image of the “body of Christ” thing.
And then in the very next chapter, he decides to lay it all out on the table. Just say it. And so he pens these words:
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
It doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others.
Love isn’t always “me first!” It doesn’t fly off the handle;
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel.
Love takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
It puts up with anything, trusts God always,
Always looks for the best, never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
Love doesn’t die.
So for right now, we have three things to do: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
So go after a life of love as if your life depended on it – because it does.
Not once was Paul thinking about two people getting married. Not once did he imagine that thousands of years later his words would be fallen in love with as the epitome of romantic emotion. No, Paul had something else entirely in mind. A dangerous and radical love; a love that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comforted. A love that is so much more than simple charity or being nice. A love that longs so desperately to insert itself right in the thick of the agitated political conversation or the post-shooting protest or the back-and-forth Facebook exchange. A love that, in the end, finds its home in the church, because it is the love of Jesus Christ himself.
And Paul knew he was asking a lot of those Corinthians, and us. For this love he speaks of is hard work. Exhausting. It requires an almost stubborn capacity for the endless pursuit of hope. It never lets us get discouraged, even as our hearts are crushed over and over and over again with images of families grieving or a wife screaming or police in riot gear marching down Trade Street. This love is a verb – calling us to action, and oftentimes the action that is furthest from our mind, the last thing we would ever think of doing.
Because it is love, and only love, that calls us to actively pursue healing by supporting and caring for those hurting, those seeking the truth, those experiencing deep brokenness, whether we’re talking about the color of their skin or the color of their uniform.
It is love, and only love, that, in response to a curt political jab on our Facebook page or offensive remark heard in the grocery or, worse, in this building, it is love that keeps us from lashing back in like kind and instead choose to extend compassionate words that offer healing
It is love, and only love, that can lead us to see and confess the ways in which we, knowingly or unknowingly, have been part of the human brokenness known as institutional racism; and the many ways that brokenness is played out in our society with us as unwitting participants.
It is love, and only love, that can take a church, any church, and mend wounds that have remained open for far too long; replacing discord and division with honest dialogue and active listening, building up community instead of tearing it down, refusing to get so absorbed in the minutiae and remaining fixed on the pursuit of the common good in Jesus Christ.
It is love, and only love, that, as Grace and I wrote in our letter to you this past week about the shootings and protests, a letter you can read on our website, it is love that enables us to “listen without judgment or fear to the stories of people different from us, listen with an open heart to perspectives that may challenge us. So that our listening stirs up in us a greater understanding and capacity to see things from another perspective, and to appreciate and honor those perspectives whether we agree with them or not.”
In fact, I want to challenge all of you to do something this coming week in response to the shootings and protests here in the Queen City. Well, two things, really. I’ve already asked you to sign up for our Day of Discipleship not just to support a new initiative in our church, but as a faithful response to all that’s happened the past few days.
But I also want to challenge you to do something else – in the coming week, between now and next Sunday, I want to challenge all of you – children, youth and adults – to reach out to someone who is not like you. They may look different from you. They may think different from you. Maybe they pray to another God. Maybe they’re going to vote for the other presidential candidate.
Seek them out and have a conversation with them; and ask them to share their story, their beliefs, their side of things, their experience. Listen to them and receive what they say as the gift that it is, because honestly, every time we speak our heart to another human being, we are sharing with them our most precious gift. And by listening to them and receiving their gift without judgment and without fear, we extend to them the greatest gift we have to offer in return – our love.
Because ultimately, I think that is what Paul was getting at with his “love chapter,” not weddings. Paul knew that what he was writing about could transform not just a troubled church, but transform our very world. And that is what love longs to do. It brightens even the darkest heart, comforts the deepest grief, heals the most profound brokenness.
Let love fill our hearts, then. Fill our church and churches. Fill our streets and our city. Fill this land and this world. Let us love completely, and let us love together.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13, The Message translation.