Sunday, February 14, 2010

Not Just Another Love Song

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Tranfiguration (C)
February 14, 2010
William G. Carter

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.

In a culture that once knew a lot more scripture than it seems to know now, here is a passage that most of us know pretty well. It’s familiar to a lot of us, probably one of the top five favorite Bible texts. If the 23rd Psalm has been read at many funerals, 1 Corinthians 13 has been invited to a great number of weddings.

Some of you may have seen the movie, “The Wedding Crashers,” even if you don’t want to admit it in church. John and Jeremy are two guys in their 30’s. Professionally speaking, they are divorce mediators, partners in the business. Socially, their summer fun consists of crashing weddings. They go uninvited and try to pick up available bridesmaids or female guests. John and Jeremy go to a lot of weddings each year.

At one wedding, they place a wager. The priest says, “And now for our next reading, I’d like to ask the bride’s sister Gloria up to the lectern.” John whispers to Jeremy, “20 bucks, First Corinthians.” Jeremy murmurs back, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.” Gloria announced, “And now a reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.” Jeremy groans and hands over the money.

He shouldn’t have taken the bet. Everybody likes this text. When I plan each wedding with the bride and groom, they often want to personalize the service. Maybe they will add some special touches. For instance, last summer I did a wedding on-stage at the Scranton Jazz Festival! That was a first; and the groom is playing bass at today’s jazz service. But one point where every non-conventional couple slides into conformity is when they choose the Bible readings. “We want 1 Corinthians 13,” they say. Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

For Valentine’s Day, I have struggled to see if there is something new that I can say about this old love poem. And I think I can find at least three different things.

The first is this: 1 Corinthians 13 is a Valentine sent to the wrong person. Can you imagine that? Imagine that you sit down at an expensive romantic dinner. The candles have been lit, the wine has been poured. Across the table is your beloved. There is a pink card upon your plate – and somebody else’s name is written on the envelope. “Go ahead,” she says, “open it!” As you open the card, you try not to show any embarrassment or confusion. And then you discover to you dismay that it has been addressed to somebody else.

In the same way, this scripture passage is not addressed to us. It’s taken from a letter written to somebody else. Paul wrote these words to a Christian congregation of some fifty or sixty souls. Corinth was an ancient port city in southern Greece. Word had reached the apostle Paul that the church was split into factions. They were, in turn, envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude. Each little group was insisting on its own way.

Those of us who are parents can remember those moments. Picture a couple of kids fighting in the back seat. Each is tugging and pulling on the same toy. Tempers flare. Voices rise. You might have to yell, “Hey! Cut that out!”

That’s how it was in that church. Yet Paul does not address them as children. He points their gaze above the dispute. He speaks to the greatest human virtue. Paul sings this ode about love – and there isn’t anything else like in all of scripture, in all of classical literature. “Love is patient, love is kind . . . Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, believes all things . . . Love never ends.” He declares its attributes, as if it is a person.

The kind of love he celebrates has a name: “agape.” That’s the Greek word. “Agape” is the kind of love that swirls around in the atmosphere. It’s up there, heavenly – but in the Christian story, it does not stay there. Agape Love forgets about any presumed superiority. It comes down. It forgets itself. It gives itself for the benefit of another. Agape forgets itself, in service to the one who is loved. It does not puff up; it gives away.

So let’s put this in context. There was Paul, sitting in the city of Ephesus, troubled by what he is hearing. He scratches his head, and wonders how this group of Christ-followers could have turned against one another. After all, Jesus has come to the world from above. He has given himself to people in need. He has healed the sick, fed the hungry, preached good news to the poor. How can those people who follow Jesus turn on one another?

There were a lot of problems in the little church of Corinth. Perhaps the biggest problem, the umbrella above it all, was arrogance. Some of those folks fashioned themselves to be better than the rest – more spiritual, more knowledgeable, more closely informed on what the Invisible Spirit of God is doing. Paul was in favor of spirituality, knowledge, and information – but there was precious little love in how those people were living.

I apologize for bursting any Valentine Bubble, but this famous scripture text was not given to cultivate romance. If we want romance, we should read the Song of Solomon! Rather, this is addressed to a group of grouchy, contentious Christians. It’s not really addressed to us – unless we are grouchy and contentious.

That brings me to the second thing that I want to say. The thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians may be a Valentine sent to the wrong person. But if you look over the shoulder of whoever is receiving it, there is something here for us as well. We are reading somebody else’s mail when we read this passage – but as we read it, it can enrich us as well.

I remember going to a greeting card store one February. Amid the scented candles and flavored chocolates, there were three long racks of Valentine cards. Two people that I knew were working their way through the racks. I don’t know if they knew one another. One was a widow. The other was a divorced man.

The fact that they were both there, thumbing through the cards, may stir up all kinds of speculation. Each one was smiling, so I’m guessing this was a pleasant experience for them. Either one may have been discovering love in some new way. Or perhaps they were enjoying the moment of reading cards that they were not ready to send or receive. It is a striking sight; not wanting to embarrass either one, I slipped out unseen, that they might enjoy the moment without having to explain it.

When we hear Paul speak so eloquently of love, we hear him sing of the greatest human experience. We don’t have to be married to admire two people who are committed to one another. Neither must we be married, nor in a relationship, to know how it feels to love and be loved. The apostle Paul himself was probably unmarried; truth be told, I’m not sure who would have wanted him. But he had tasted a thousand times the experience of giving one’s self for the benefit of another. That is the heart of Agape Love – and it is central to what we believe about Jesus.

Like I said, Paul describes Love as if it is a person. It always is. The people we love may be imperfect; God knows the people who love them are imperfect. But there is something still here for us. Here’s what I like to do – try inserting the Lord’s name in this love poem, and hear how it sounds: “Jesus is patient, he is kind. Jesus does not insist on his own way. Jesus is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. He bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. He does not end.”

This is the way of God among us. Agape Love is embodied in Christ, who pours himself out for the benefit of the world. The apostle Paul wrote to remind that first-century gathering of Christians in a far-away city that there is more to this life than bickering. Pain, no matter how brutal, does not need to define us. We have seen and heard of God’s love in the self-giving grace of Jesus Christ. Everything he did - and still does - is for the benefit of others. In the power of his Spirit, he acts to improve the welfare of those around him. He comes to heal our common brokenness. He works to make us new.

So that takes us to the third thing that needs to be said. The Valentine may have been first addressed to somebody else, yet there’s something here that is valuable and life-giving for us. Love has the power to change us, to make us new; for love is the very power of God, and it is working to redeem the whole universe.

Paul gives us a big text in 1 Corinthians 13. The apostle is talking about matters so enormous that we cannot quite take them in. He points to the ways we treat one another as he points to nothing less than the transformation of the whole universe. It’s hard to understand that, especially if it is Valentine’s Day and the mailbox is empty. Some days all we can see is a dim glimpse. But there are moments – we know there are moments – when something startling and new can happen.

The writer C.S. Lewis had a book about love. In it, he writes,

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will ... not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable." (The Four Loves)

To love is to be vulnerable. Like all wise sayings, it was rooted in human experience. C. S. Lewis was quite content in his quiet life as a college professor. He was satisfied talking about matters of the heart from a distance until one day he was surprised by joy. Quite literally, her name was Joy. She was as brash as he was bashful. They fell in love. They married. He took in her two sons. Joy got sick, and he cared for her. Then came the moment when only God could care for her, and she went completely into the arms of God, as all of us someday will.

Single for most of his adult life, Lewis found himself changed. Joy had sneaked past his defenses, and he had come to welcome love’s intrusion. And once you love somebody like that, once you feel in your bones what it's like to love and be loved, that love can change you.

"Anybody who loves is vulnerable," says C. S. Lewis, and we can presume that includes God, too. Nobody loves us as much as God loves us. Frequently we ignore that love, or shrug it off, or say, "Thanks, but I really don't think I deserve it." And yet God keeps loving us, with a love that never ends. God’s love is the power that holds together the universe. Love is the power God wants to put to work within us, until the day comes, finally, when all of us become completely lovable and the whole world is redeemed.

In the words of our hymn, “Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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