Text: 1 Corinthians 13
In the months leading up to my own wedding, which is coming up to sixteen years ago, I remember attending a handful of bridal shows with Sarah. It’s a real eye-opening experience, because I began to realize how large the wedding industry has become. Everything is designed to try to put together that fairy tale wedding, to make that special day “perfect.” Although I must admit, a great deal of what Sarah and I saw spilled over wholesale into sentimentality. It’s no wonder that wedding budgets have ballooned over the past number of years. Since Sarah and I are both licensed to conduct weddings, both of us were a bit put off with how much of these preparations overwhelm what marriage actually means. It seems as if the wedding has become divorced from marriage. Be that as it may, we still took in the displays for what they were… but then I stumbled across something that got me going off on a rant.
Among a collection of various sentimental poems done up nicely in frames as a gift was this one…
“Love is patient, love is kind, love is not boastful or arrogant or rude…” and it went on. Sound familiar? It should… except at the bottom of this text it said “Anonymous Love Poem”
Then I lost it.
There’s nothing anonymous about this! This is a text from Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians! 13th Chapter… We know who wrote it! Even the most skeptical Biblical Scholar agrees that the Apostle Paul wrote this! Anonymous Love Poem my foot!
Of course, I don’t think I really lost it out loud… I’m too much of an introvert… but I feel like doing it sometimes. The thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is perhaps the single most often read text at weddings these days. It’s words speak so fondly about love, that entirely secular wedding celebrations make use of it… to the point of labeling it as “An Anonymous Love Poem”
It has become so common, that it is like a song that has been played over and over and over and over and over again on the radio. We begin to tune it out, and really, its meaning and impact has been lost.
So there’s a couple of things about this passage that we’ve almost entirely forgotten. The first and foremost is that Paul was not talking about weddings or marriage in this passage at all. He wasn’t even making any slight allusions to it. The word “love” that he was using in Greek was something entirely different, and frankly far more profound than we realize. Secondly, by the time Paul got to writing this part of the letter, he was actually quite annoyed at the behaviour of the church in Corinth. In other words… he was RANTING. He was scolding the Corinthian church about their spiritual competition and one-upmanship, their forming into factions, and how they seemed to be completely devoid of the most important thing: love… specifically a kind of self-giving love that we have no real word for in English.
By slicing these words out of their original context, we have lost so much of what Paul is after. Maybe we need to put them back in, as a reminder of what Paul was trying to say. For those of you were here last week, today’s passage immediately follows Paul’s language about the body of Christ… that we’re all part of Christ’s body, that nobody is indispensable… that all of us have spiritual gifts to live out in the life and work of the church community. As I said last week, 1st Corinthians stands as an example of what not to do in church. We learn from what Paul writes is that the Corinthians are clearly fragmented, competing with each other as to who is better… whether it is better to be a teacher or prophet… whether the most important thing is whether or not we can speak in tongues… that unintelligible kind of ecstatic vocalizing in prayer… Pardon the crude expression, but it had become a spiritual pissing contest; trivial, pointless, and ultimately destructive to the church.
Needless to say, Paul was actually quite annoyed with it all. The thirteenth chapter is where the real fire comes out… After Paul reminds them that nobody is indispensable, that everyone matters, he then goes into an examination of everything they were fighting about, and tells them that none of it means anything if it isn’t grounded in love.
Paul begins, (read with an angry tone)
1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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. 3If 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.
He quickly covers the different factions in the church, and tells all of them that without love, it doesn’t mean anything.
4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Paul is effectively scolding the Corinthians for being rude, arrogant, boastful, stubborn an envious. He contrasts their behaviour with what he holds to be what Christian community needs to be grounded in.
8Love never ends. 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. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
This next part is priceless.
11When 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. 12 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. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
In other words… “don’t be childish! Grow up!” Don’t let these petty conflicts tear you apart… love is what holds you together as a community. Don’t ever forget that! With that, Paul’s rant comes to an end.
As I said earlier, the word that Paul uses here for love doesn’t translate all that well into English: agape. It is not an emotion, or a warm fuzzy feeling, as the wedding industry seems to think… but it is a kind of self-giving love-in-action that expects nothing in return. This is the one time when I would say that the King James translation of this passage captures the nuance a bit better. It translates it as “charity” –but even then it’s not quite accurate. Yet agape has no sense of pity or position of advantage that the word charity sometimes implies. Agape is about giving of one’s self without expecting anything in return. That’s the kind of love that Paul is talking about. None of the gifts, skills, and talents make a lick of difference if they are not first grounded in selfless love-in-action.
It’s a very different take on something that we’ve commonly associated with weddings… and yet how far the way we interpret these words have strayed from what Paul was trying to say. Love is not an emotion… it is an action that guides the way we behave towards one another, and has a willingness to believe in the best we can be. Ultimately, that’s what God is calling us to do… our best. After all, the gifts and skills that God gives each of us is not for our personal benefit, but is meant to help those people around us. That happens when agape… self-giving love is the driving force in our lives. Paul was trying to get the Corinthians to grow up and see that, and to be able to use what were clearly abundant gifts for the church community. That’s still good advice today. Amen.