Love: Not Just for Weddings
Lesson: First Corinthians 13:1-13
A couple of weeks ago we looked at the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. That just may have been one of the last weddings at which the bride and groom did not ask to have First Corinthians 13 read. This passage, perhaps some of the most beautiful poetry in Scripture and even in all literature, has indeed been read at nearly every wedding I’ve been to or participated in – David and I had it read at our wedding. I always begin my wedding homily by pointing out that Paul wasn’t thinking about weddings when he wrote it. This passage is not about marriage or couples or romance. It’s imbedded in Paul’s long letter to the fledgling Christian community at Corinth, a church split by factions and rivalries, a church arguing about food, worship, pretty much everything.
Among other things, the Corinthians were fighting about religious practices. The Corinthians saw these practices as gifts, and three of them are listed in the first three verses of today’s passage: speaking in tongues,[i] prophesying or receiving special revealed knowledge,[ii] and asceticism – that is, self-deprivation.[iii] The Corinthians were acting as though some of these practices or gifts were better than others. The people who could speak in tongues, for example, saw themselves as super Christians, deserving of special privileges and attention. In the previous chapter, Chapter 12, Paul says each gift and each person is important and necessary. He explains that in the same way that the different parts of the body work together, all the different people with their different gifts need to work together to form the church, the body of Christ. But here in Chapter 13, Paul affirms that without love, the greatest and most important gift, the other gifts mean nothing. Paul then goes on to describe what love does and does not do.
Now, although the original context for this passage is a church conflict, I’m not saying, not at all, that it’s inappropriate to use it in a wedding. After all, a marriage, too, is an attempt by people to live harmoniously over a long period of time, to everyone’s mutual benefit. And after all, love is love, regardless of the context. As Frederick Buechner writes, “The first stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them. The last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love.”[iv]
Paul tells us three very important things about love, regardless of whether we’re talking about love within a Christian community, between spouses, parent and child, brother and sister, friends – or enemies. The first is that love is the ground of our meaning. If we fail at love, we fail at all else. William Sloane Coffin wrote that he doubted that any other scriptures of the world contain a more radical statement of ethics.[v] Think of it. If we fail at love, we fail at everything else. This means that we as Christians are to make love our aim, not biblical inerrancy, not purity, not obedience to holiness codes or doctrine or dogma. Love, not drawing boundaries around who is in and who is out, who is saved, who is not. Love, not heaven, not even faith. We are to make love our aim, for, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels” – that’s a message for musicians, poets, preachers, great orators – “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge” – that sweeps in professors, doctors, lawyers, computer gurus – “and I give away all my possessions” – radicals, take note – “and if I hand over my body” – the very stuff of heroism – “and have not love, I gain nothing.”[vi] Nothing. Nada. If we do not love, it is all worthless. It is one of the most stunning statements of our faith.
The second important thing Paul raises is that love is not a cozy feeling, a sentiment, but an act of will. Love abides, says Paul, love endures, because it is not a matter of feelings, which come and go. I used to teach a class for engaged couples twice a year at the church I served in San Francisco – the course was the subject of my doctor of ministry dissertation project. When a couple in the class hadn’t known each other very long, I’d worry a little. For most people, that heady, romantic, endorphin-flooded “falling in love” feeling lasts about a year and a half.[vii] Unfortunately, our culture isn’t very good at teaching people that loving a person is not the same as being in love. And so when the romance fades, if it has not been replaced by a deep and abiding friendship,[viii] the couple experiences crashing disappointment. In our Career Transition Support Group we’re working through Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In his chapter on being proactive, Covey tells a story about an encounter at one of his seminars. A man came up and said, “Stephen, I like what you’re saying [about being proactive]. But every situation is different. Look at my marriage. I’m really worried. My wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other that we used to have. I guess I just don’t love her anymore and she doesn’t love me. What can I do?”
“The feeling isn’t there anymore?” Covey asked.
“That’s right,” he reaffirmed. “And we have three children we’re really concerned about. What do you suggest?”
“Love her,” Covey replied.
“I told you, the feeling just isn’t there anymore,” said the man.
“Love her,” insisted Covey.
“You don’t understand. The feeling of love just isn’t there,” pressed the man.
“Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.”
“But how do you love when you don’t love?”
“My friend, love is a verb,” said Covey. “Love – the feeling – is the fruit of love, the verb. So love her. Serve her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”[ix] Covey does not tell us what the man replied.
Covey and Paul are on the same page. Whether we’re talking about marriage or friends or parents or co-workers or the cashier at Macy’s or people on the other side of the globe, love is a verb. Not a feeling. It is something we do. And so you don’t actually have to like a person to love him or her.[x] Although, as a matter of fact, loving actions usually create or recapture loving feelings. Love the feeling is the fruit of love the verb.
Paul describes the actions that are loving: patience, kindness, not being envious, or irritable, or rude; not insisting on your own way. It adds up to choosing to do what is best for another person and for the relationship rather than what is easiest or more pleasurable for us. Now, this could sound like co-dependence except for the third very important thing Paul tells us about love. Love certainly means being kind but it doesn’t always mean being “nice.” Giving people what is good for them doesn’t mean giving them whatever they want. Think of the relationship between kids and parents. Your child might think you’re mean and horrible when you insist that he eats his vegetables or does his homework or limits his screen time. And insisting on those things can be hard, no fun at all for the parent. But a loving parent teaches her child discipline, good eating habits, good work habits. And so love requires some prayerful discernment, some judgment, about what is good for all and for the relationship. Paul is saying that love requires sacrifices but he is not saying love requires us to be a doormat. Being a doormat is not loving for anyone – not for ourselves, not for the other person.
And so Paul’s love has to include justice, or it is no love at all. Paul doesn’t use this word, justice, but the point he is making with the Corinthians is that all their actions need to reflect a movement toward and not away from each other; that their actions need to build up each other and build up the body of Christ, and even build up God’s world. To love is to support and encourage but not necessarily to approve, and prophets from Amos and Isaiah to Gandhi and King have shown how frequently love demands confrontation.[xi] To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.[xii] And so, as William Sloane Coffin puts it, to love effectively, we must act collectively.[xiii]
The week before last I spent four days as a cabin leader for fifth grade outdoor ed. at Walker Creek Ranch in West Marin. In Marin County, almost all fifth graders participate in outdoor ed., a program in which the classroom is nature, its beauty and its challenges. I was responsible for a cabin of 8 fifth grade girls for 22 and a half hours a day. Being outdoors in the West Marin hills and forests was amazing – it filled me with awe. We saw foxes and salamanders and redtail hawks, and some folks saw bobcats and banana slugs. We climbed Walker Peak in the rain and wind and took a night hike. On the first day, at an outdoor assembly, the principal of Walker Creek, a man who calls himself Curious George, explained the rules. One rule was, “If it isn’t fun for all, it isn’t fun at all.” In a very simple way it expresses the kernel of Paul’s teachings on love. Paul would not have used the word “fun” – I don’t believe the word “fun” appears even once in all his letters. Fun wasn’t at the top of Paul’s list. But if we define “fun” as more than entertaining, but also as fulfilling, satisfying, enriching, rewarding, loving – as that which builds up personhood – then the rule helps us figure out how to live this passage on love. If it doesn’t build up the personhood of all, then it doesn’t build up personhood at all. If it isn’t loving for all, it isn’t loving at all.
It is not easy to figure out what this means when it comes to the economy, heath care, gun control, public schools, the other issues that plague us as individuals, families, a diverse culture. But Paul says it’s where we start. If I were writing about love, it probably wouldn’t be as poetic or idealistic as Paul’s verses. I’d probably say things like, “Love is hard; love is complicated and messy; sometimes love is almost impossible.” But Paul is wiser than I. His poetry doesn’t just make for a prettier reading at weddings. It lifts us up, so that we who are trying to live and love on the ground might remember not just what love is, but what love is supposed to be. So that we might imagine the beauty, the simplicity, of loving each other in spite of our conflicts and differences. So that we have the ideal in mind as we attempt to put love into action. And Paul gives us hope that though it’s hard now, though we see dimly now, someday it will all be clear. Then, as now, it is love that will endure.
Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
© Joanne Whitt 2013
[i] 1 Corinthians 13:1.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 13:2
[iii] 1 Corinthians 13:3.
[iv] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC’s (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1973, 1993), p. 64.
[v] William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 6.
[vi] Coffin, ibid.
[viii] John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), pp. 22-23.
[ix] Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Free Press, 1989, 2004), pp. 79-80.
[x] Buechner, ibid.
[xi] Coffin, p. 22.
[xii] Coffin, p. 23.
[xiii] Coffin, p. 23.