Sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
It is almost inevitable. I’ll be sitting with a couple planning their wedding liturgy, and when we come to the question of scripture readings they’ll bring up 1st Corinthians 13. Sometimes it will be “How about 1st Corinthians 13?” and sometimes, “Anything but 1st Corinthians 13.” Occasionally it will be “We know that everyone chooses 1st Corinthians 13, but we still think we want to use it…” And that’s not entirely off the mark.
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The problem is that because we do so often hear this text read at weddings we almost cease being able to hear it in its fullness. The favourite uncle stands at the lectern, adjusts his glasses, and begins. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels…” At this point a glaze seems to come over the collective eyes of the entire congregation, which only lifts when he comes to the final verse, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” The Word of the Lord. And it is. It is, and for the hopeful couple filled with that combination of nerves and giddy delight this particular Word should indeed speak powerfully into their marriage covenant.
I always tell them, of course, that Paul didn’t have their wedding in view when he wrote this poetic proclamation on love. He didn’t have anybody’s wedding in view, though that doesn’t mean that what he has to say about love doesn’t carry some real wisdom for how we might live out our marriage covenants. The Greek word that is translated here as “love” is agape, which is quite distinct from the Greek word eros. We get our English word “erotic” from the Greek eros, though maybe that makes it sound a bit more steamy than it necessarily is. Think romantic love, intimate love, that vulnerability and openness that is experienced in “falling in love.” Eros can season and mature, of course; it isn’t necessarily just the head over heels stuff of the early days of a romance. But it does start there.
In that same conversation in which we’re talking about readings for the wedding, we’ll also talk about things like the vows. If I’ve presided at your wedding, you’ll know that over the years I’ve gathered liturgical wedding texts from around the Anglican communion, and that part of what I get a couple to do is to spend some time together looking at those texts and seeing which ones resonate. There are options for the exchange of the rings and for the vows, and also for the giving and receiving of consent. That’s the point after the readings and sermon when the couple and their wedding party join me at the front, and I get them to publically declare their consent and their intention. From a legal point of view, it is ensuring that both are coming to this freely and of their own will; no shotgun weddings allowed. But from a theological point of view much more is going on than that.
N, will you give yourself to N to be her husband: to love her, comfort her, honour and protect her; and forsaking all others, to be faithful to her so long as you both shall live?
That’s the text from the Canadian church, but there’s also one from the Anglican Church of Nigeria that I have them consider; a text that begins “N, will you give yourself to N to be his wife, loving what you know of him and trusting the unknown?” Isn’t that an extraordinarily insightful question? Loving what you know, trusting the unknown; anyone who is married can tell you just how insightful that is, because what do we truly know at that point? And regardless of which version the couple selects, the response is not the “I do” of the movies, but rather I will. It is at that moment that eros begins to anticipate agape. “I will,” which means that on those days when I’m not feeling just a whole lot of reason to love my spouse, I will. It is love as an act of the will and a choice; or better, an ongoing choosing and willing to love.
Which is what Paul is pointing to as he writes to that fragmented Corinthian church community. They are marked by division, by some serious in-house disputes, and by a kind of a hierarchy based on who has what spiritual gift. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels”—the tongues of angels, by which he means speaking in tongues, which is one of the “gifts” that has been given privilege in that church—“but do not have love”—agape, chosen, willed, self-giving love—“I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” That ecstatic speech you think so important in your church pecking order, he’s saying, is just a bunch of noise if it isn’t rooted in love. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains”—prophecy, knowledge, wisdom, faith… also spiritual gifts—“but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast”—if I go right to the cross, in other words, sacrificing not only my possessions but my very life—“but do not have love, I gain nothing.” All of the things you think make you so unique and so spiritual, you men and women of Corinth, aren’t worth a plug nickel if they aren’t grounded in love. And that’s not a feeling love; not an emotional heart-felt thing. It is the ongoing choosing of the good of the other over the good of my self.
“[T]rue love,” comments the biblical scholar Brian Peterson, “is not measured by how good it makes us feel. In the context of 1 Corinthians, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.” You heard that, right? In this particular Corinthian context, “[T]he measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.” In their context, and in ours as well.
But guess what? That’s only going to work if it is lived and practiced by the whole community, the whole body. Marriage is like that too, of course. If one partner is steadily living and expressing agapic love, choosing the good of the other over the good of the self, while the other is just soaking that all up, yet never quite managing to give back… well that’s going to grind things down, isn’t it? Worse, if one partner becomes in some way abusive of the covenant—physically or emotionally or otherwise—thereby placing their spouse in an impossibly painful and heart-breaking position, how can that injured or betrayed spouse selflessly love when their very self is being damaged?
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,” Paul writes, and in offering those words he’s pushing that broken church community to imagine a future beyond fragmentation. “It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In some real sense what he’s doing here is to ask that community if their experience is anything at all like what he’s describing. If not, they need to go back to first things. And for Paul the first thing—and the last thing—is love.
He is claiming some authority here, and he clearly wants the Corinthian community to pay attention and to grow up. I believe that is the force of those lines, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” I know some things here, he’s saying to them; I’ve learned some things over the years. And I can see that you need to know and learn them too. Yet Paul also realizes that he doesn’t know everything, and so he continues, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” We are on the road, people. We’ve not yet arrived. The glimmers we see “as in a mirror, dimly” are what keep us moving forward, and one day we will know fully, completely. One day we will get there. But in the meantime? “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three”—these three things that are so central to the life of the church—and of the three, love—agapic self-giving love—is the trump card. It is the one thing that will make sense of things like spiritual gifts, and the one thing that will heal the community’s wounds and carry it through its tensions and disagreements. May it be so in our own lives, our own marriages, our own church.