Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
I can never read this passage from Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians without being reminded of a bit of graffiti I saw sprayed across the back wall of a grocery store at the corner of Main and Inkster, close to where I was then living. It was certainly not a gang tag, for sprayed on that wall in big sprawling letters was the phrase “KJV Only!” and underneath in only slightly smaller letters were the words “faith, hope, love.” Each morning as I walked to work I’d pass by that message, and would always wonder who would have put it there. I mean seriously, who would be both that committed to the exclusive use of the King James Version of the Bible and at the same time given to an act of what amounted to vandalism? And what’s more, it seems that whoever left that graffiti mark wasn’t actually all that familiar with the translation he was so valiantly defending, for in the King James Version the closing verse of this chapter from 1st Corinthians doesn’t use the words “faith, hope, love,” but rather “faith, hope, charity”: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
- To listen to the sermon press play:
Now that was about twenty years ago, and for all I know that guy has redirected his fervor and maybe even gone off to Bible college or seminary, and is now pastoring a church somewhere. I hope, though, that he has moderated his “KJV Only!” views, for in spite of the beauty and poetic grip of that version, “love” really is a better translation than “charity” for the Greek word agape. 1 Corinthians 13 is Paul’s great poetic proclamation of agape/love; of its centrality in the life of the Christian body.
It is also a passage often read at weddings, and you can see why. With the congregation gathered and the couple dressed in their wedding finery, someone reads these words:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 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. Love never ends.
Who could hope for more than this for a marriage? Who would wish for less? Though because it has so often been selected as one of the wedding readings, sometimes when I meet with a couple to talk about their plans for their own ceremony they’ll roll their eyes at the very thought of reading 1 Corinthians 13… it seems almost a cliché.
And of course as Paul wrote these words, it was not weddings, marriage, or romantic love that he had in view; it is the church, the Christian community, the body of Christ. Not that it is wrong to use this text at the sealing of a marriage covenant, for our marriages are also a part of the Christian body. There is actually a tradition of identifying our individual households as “domestic churches,” and there is something very right in that.
Yet in reading this oh-so-familiar passage aloud in worship, we’re really being invited to consider Paul’s full vision for the community of faith. As Jaylene made clear in her sermon last week, in the section just prior to the beginning of this reading Paul has been really pressing the young Corinthian church to get past its divisions and its privileging of some people over others; its allowing some spiritual gifts—specifically the speaking in tongues—to define a pecking order or spiritual hierarchy within the community. It is where his language of the Body of Christ really comes from: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” This is language Paul will return to again in other contexts, because it is such a vivid way of rejecting the divisions.
And as Jaylene noted last week, his final sentence before launching into this poetic proclamation is, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” “Can you see them all leaning in a bit more closely,” Jaylene asked; “after all, the pursuit of excellence is important if one wants to matter and be noticed in Corinth…”
If I speak in the tongues of mortals (which probably points to Paul’s own gift of teaching and knowledge) and of angels (which clearly points to the experience of speaking in tongues) but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, 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, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
“I gain nothing,” he writes. “I am nothing.” If it isn’t rooted and characterized by love, it is worthless. Not only that, but he goes on to say that the things that they have so exalted in the structuring of their common life—things like the speaking in tongues, but also the uttering of the prophetic word and even the mastering of knowledge—are ultimately fleeting. “But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” Love, on the other hand… “Love never ends.”
We need to watch, though, for any sign of sentimentality in how we hear this message. Paul is not standing in as a 1st century version of Lennon and McCartney, singing (as they do…),
All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.
Paul knows, in fact, that it is not easy, which is why he so insistently ties his writings on the primacy of love directly to his teaching on the Body of Christ.
As summarized by N.T. Wright,
1 Corinthians as a whole portrays the Church, corporately and individually, as the temple of the living God, and chapter 13 is the letter’s artistic and theological climax. The busy, bustling arguments of the earlier chapters, hammering out Christian practice on wisdom, personality cults, sex and marriage, compromise with paganism, and so forth, subside. Rising above them, drawing their many melodies into a majestic chorale, is Paul’s poem about love: a love that he can only have learnt from the revelation of God in Jesus, a love that can only be lived by the Spirit of Jesus, a love that is as compelling to contemplate as it is difficult to practice.
“A love that is as compelling as it is difficult to practice.” In our marriages we do choose our partners, but even then the wedding liturgy asks, “Will you give yourself” to the other, to love, comfort, honour and protect? “I will,” is the answer, and the force of that statement is to say, “as a choice, I will love this person, even on the days when I don’t feel like it.”
In an analogous way, the baptismal liturgy asks the candidate, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?” to which the answer is, “I will, with God’s help.” And as Jesus made abundantly clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the “neighbour” is ultimately everyone… and everyone includes those Christians in the church community who you might find really irritating, frustrating, even unlovable. Tough, Paul would say. The mandate is to continue to meet them with agape, with love, apart from which this is all hollow; it is all nothing.
In this great text, and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been shown “a still more excellent way.” May we have the vision and courage to keep that ever before us.