1 Cor. 13 So whose wedding did you think of when you heard these words? Or did you remember the Interfaith Prayer Service on New Year’s Eve, where this text is read every year as a reminder of how we are called to live with one another? It is the love chapter, a beautiful poem about love. One seminary professor even called it a slogan for marriage. It certainly has been used in the majority of weddings I have ever done. It lifts up what love is and what love is not, serving as a powerful charge to a couple as they begin their married life. Yet, this text is about more than two people who already love each other. This text is for a congregation that is having a hard time showing their love for one another. The church in Corinth. And the church anywhere.
From afar, Paul has received reports about what is going on in Corinth. Paul is concerned about this church. They are gifted, talented, and potentially a vibrant witness to what the church of Jesus Christ can be in the midst of their bustling Greek city. They are diverse in multiple ways: we know from Paul’s letter that many members are poor economically, but some are actually leading citizens and presumably well off. Many are Greeks, but there are some Jewish Christians in the mix as well. There are married and unmarried adults, there are children and widows. They make up a beautiful mosaic of a church family like we do, but they are fighting among themselves. You have never known a church like that, have you? Their different gifts have divided them. Some have superiority complexes, assuming their particular gift makes them a better, stronger Christian than those who have other kinds of gifts. Unfortunately, we still see those kinds of attitudes in our day. And we saw last week that the Corinthians are fragmented, forming cliques, following behind preachers Apollos or Peter or Paul or refusing to follow any of them, and insisting it is just “me and Jesus”. Pastor adoration cliques are still around today as well.
As their founding pastor, Paul seeks to deal with the situation in Corinth from two different angles. One, in chapter 12, he reminds the church members that all of the variety of gifts are needed, maybe especially the ones they thought could be ignored, or the gifts that seemed less valuable. He uses his famous body analogy to teach them how connected they are as a body of Christ and how essential each body part is to the health of the whole. He affirms their gifts and makes it clear that, among them, they have all the gifts they need as a community. Paul is encouraging them to value one another and to see how they need each other.
Then, in chapter 13, in an attempt to motivate them even further, he basically slams them for missing the point. He calls them on the carpet because they clearly are not loving one another, which is a basic requirement for the church. He has just spent multiple paragraphs in his letter acknowledging how gifted this church is– full of teachers, healers, miracle workers, speakers and interpreters of tongues, leaders, givers, and the list goes on. No one could say that the Spirit had not poured out gifts on these church members. But they have allowed their gifts to drive a wedge between them and love has now gone missing. It seems like Paul is yelling at them through the pages here: You think you are so gifted— your gifts have no value if you can’t love the guy across the room from you. It is no good to be a great teacher if you are rude or arrogant. It is no good to speak in tongues if you can’t be patient and kind. If all you do is brag about yourself, so what if you are a good preacher? You can be very gifted, but if you are missing love, you are missing what it means to be a Christian!
This is a baby church, remember. They are just figuring things out. They are a diverse group of people who have come together for a common purpose, but without a good pattern of how to work together yet. Paul knows what they need. All they need is love. The Beatles sang it too: all you need is love/love is all you need. The Beatles proclaimed that it was easy, and Paul would likely not say that. Simple, maybe, but not easy. If it were easy we would be a lot better at it. Love takes work. Love takes commitment. The list in Paul’s poem is long– love is patient, kind, not jealous, not bragging, not arrogant or rude, not looking out for oneself, not irritable, not keeping score, not happy with injustice, but happy with the truth. Love takes work. You ask any parent, any spouse, any grandparent. We know love takes work in our own family.
Love takes work in the church family as well. Clearly the ability to love comes from God, but love also requires a human intention. A church has to choose to love. This is not the mushy kind of love in Valentine’s cards. It is not even the adoring kind of love in a Mother’s Day card. It is the challenging kind of love that calls us to put others first, to be patient, to be committed to speaking the truth. It is the kind of love which takes into account how the other will react, or what the other thinks, or what the other’s gifts are. Actually, at the end of this letter, Paul brings it up again: “Everything should be done in love.” If it is not, we begin to be resentful, we begin to expect something in return, we begin to find fault and place blame and favor some people over others.
Love means listening to the same story again and again. Love means giving someone else a chance to try out his skills instead of doing it all for him. Love means following through on your commitments and trusting that others will do the same. A church guided by love is a place where hurt feelings can be shared openly, where we can confront one another instead of grumbling behind someone’s back. Where we can invite others to share their gifts instead of complaining that there is no one to help.
Now, Hunting Ridge is not a baby church. We have been around a few years. We are actually a granddaughter church. Our grandmother was First and Franklin Presbyterian downtown. Our mother was Lafayette Square Presbyterian in West Baltimore. Now you might say that we have some younger siblings, Baltimore Falam Baptist Church and Berea Centro de Oracion, both of whom see this place as their home. As old as we are….we still need the reminder from Paul, because as the human beings who form a church family, we always run the risk of missing the point. We always run the risk of letting love slip through the cracks, of ignoring the gifts offered by our members, of forgetting the needs of those who are hurting as we focus on our own busy lives. We still need the challenge to be a place where diverse ages, genders, sexual preferences, cultures, skin colors and languages, economic status, educational levels really do not make a difference.
I am going to stop right here for a few moments. Find a couple of people who are sitting near you and take a minute to list some ways that you would define love in action in our church family. How can you see love at Hunting Ridge Presbyterian? Where do you see it is missing?
Paul holds on to the top three– faith, hope and love, but not always in that order. In his letter to the Thessalonian church, he lists them faith, love and hope, with an emphasis on the hope they were lacking at the time. For the Christians in Corinth, it was love. Faith, hope and love, the top three, but the greatest of these is love. Don’t ever forget it. Without it, we are just a bunch of noise. Amen.