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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Oh, God! But Love Is Hard

Election season may be either an unfortunate or perfect time to preach from Paul’s “hymn to Love” (1 Corinthians 13). Perfect because it is timely and appropriate and vital for us to let its message transform us, unfortunate in that I doubt that we (as the larger body of Christians in America) will be willing or able to hear it in these divisive and polarized times. Where Paul would describe for us unfailing, unselfish love, love that trusts, love without rancor, we are daily bombarded on the radio, the television, in the mail and on the internet by messages of sour spite and acrimony. We are told to be fearful. We are urged on in our agitation. We are riled up on all sides and love seems lost.

There is no allowance for dialogue or civil debate; the volume and the hyperbole have been ratcheted up to eleven, the temperature of the rhetoric rheostat is cranked all the way up. Our political opponents are not concerned citizens who care about the country, but are consistently characterized as malicious and intent upon perfidy and evil. Demonization and damnation are the modus operandi of the day. We do not love. Love–real love, the kind described by Paul in today’s reading- in this highly charged and radically polarized election season, is a liability, a hindrance.

We may speak of love for God, and love for country but if we are not patiently, unselfishly loving each other, we do not know anything of real love. We may make a lot of noise about our holy faith, and wave the banner of our rigorously perfected doctrine, but if there is no love, it’s pointless; it’s a victory march around an empty square.[i] Catholic social activist, Dorothy Day is quoted as saying, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love least.”[ii] If we took that as our measure, how much could we say we love God?

This chapter (not really a singable hymn with metered lines and stanzas, but capturing something like a hymn in its beauty) is part of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christian community in the city of Corinth. Paul had spent about a year and a half in that city (Acts 18:11), preaching and ministering to the people there. And though we have it described as the “First Epistle to the Corinthians,” it is actually Paul’s second letter to that church; the first has not been preserved for us.[iii]

From this epistle we can gather that the Christian church in Corinth was a fractured church; recoiling from sexual sins, squabbling in court as they sued one another for grievances and divided along party lines. Some of them rallied behind the teaching of Paul, others to the words of Apollos or Peter (1 Corinthians 1:11–12). The body of Christ (to return to Paul’s extended analogy from last week’s reading (1 Corinthians 12:12–31)) was cutting itself into pieces, bleeding and dying.

This chapter, this “hymn to Love” was written, not as an evangelistic tract to draw outsiders into the church or to convince unbelievers of the goodness of God’s love for and in us. Neither was it written to be read, as it often is today, as an all but obligatory part of wedding services (though the apostle did address the sanctity of marriage in his letter to the Corinthians…). This beautiful passage, this powerful text was written to challenge and to correct the dysfunctional behavior of the Christians in Corinth who were failing in nearly every way to live as “God’s holy people” (1 Corinthians 1:2). 

And though the letter was not written specifically or directly to us, we need to read it in the same way today – as a challenge, as a provocation. We should take it as a dare.

What good is it to anyone if I have a mellifluous tongue and can fluently speak in German, and French, and Spanish, Latin and Greek and Hebrew? What good is to you or to me if I can speak in the ethereal tongue of angels if I do not love? What good are political speeches or Sunday sermons or classroom lectures if the people giving them are not filled with love? All our beautiful words, all our polished deliveries, all our media perfected sound bites are nothing more than booming gongs or crashing, clashing cymbals. Mere noise, cacophony – which is, literally, a shitty sound[iv].

What good are the spiritual gifts-prophecy, knowledge, faith, leadership, healing, evangelism, and the like- if I don’t use them in love? They are worse than useless; they become dangerous weapons aimed against my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

Who cares if “I dole out all my property and hand over my body in order that I may boast (Orr 289)”? If I don’t have love, this doesn’t benefit me in anyway. It’s a fruitless, useless exercise. It’s hollow piety. It’s glitter and no gold.

We’ve probably heard the cliché: “Love is a verb,” so often that we nod our assent without thinking too much about it. But in the next several statements, Paul describes the dynamic quality of Love with a series of active verbs (Craig 172). Pal describes not what love is but what love does. Many translations may read “Love is patient” but translations like the King James Version provide a better rendering, even with the slightly archaic wording: “Charity suffereth long” (1 Corinthians 13:4 KJV).  The word of God is active and alive (Hebrews 4:12) and so is love. Love is action. Love endures. Love suffers. Love envies not. Love makes no self-aggrandizing boasts.

Love does not keep a storehouse of offense, storing up grievances, hoarding them like some sort of misanthropic miser. Love does not cherish resentment, burning it like fuel to warm a frozen heart. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, squealing with glee when its opponent is caught in some misdeed. There is no room for schadenfreude in love.[v]

Love is extravagant. Love is magnanimous. Love is gratuitous.[vi] “Love is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes” (1 Corinthians 13: 7 NJB).  Oh, that word “always.” It’s a killer. Always! Always ready to make allowances! Always ready to trust! Always ready to hope and to endure whatever comes. Love bears all things, covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Love is always ready to believe the best. Love hopes and keeps right on hoping for the best. We may, on our good days, be willing to make allowance for a friend who annoys, who bothers, who offends. But always? Always ready to believe the best of someone? Oh, God! but love is hard.

And love never comes to an end. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:8 KJV). There is no expiration date, no shelf life, no half-life. Love never ends. Love never ends. Love never, never ends. Buildings will crumble, mountains will tumble into the sea. All of the bright shining stars of the universe will eventually burn out but love never fails. All the things that we value, and in which we put our trust will fail, run out, or be brought to an end – everything that is, except love. Perfect love.

This is our challenge. This is the dare. Do we love? It’s easy enough (sometimes) to love kin and kith, to love our family and our friends – though even there is often a challenge as well. The bonds of blood can bind us tight to our family so that we love them with a love that approaches this perfect agape love. Shared experiences and values can foster a sense of love for those of our party, our denomination, our tribe. But do we dare push our love even further?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:43–48 NRSV)

The standard of our identification as Christians, the one true test of our religious devotion and the scrupulousness of our faith is not in the use of our spiritual gifts, or the perfection of our doctrine. The flawlessness of our faith is not proven in our strict adherence to a meticulously refined dogma. Our faith is demonstrated by our perfect love for one another.

After washing the feet of his disciples and speaking of his imminent death, Jesus gave his followers a new commandment: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34–35 NRSV)

How will the world recognize us as faithful followers of our Lord and Master? By our demonization of the members of the opposing political party? By our denigration of those who don’t hold to the same interpretation of the scripture? By our hostility? By our combative attitudes?  Is that what he said?

No.  We are to be known-as we are known-by our perfect and perfecting love, by our unselfish, sacrificial love for one another, even for those we may not like very much. This letter may not have been written specifically or directly to us, but we need to read it in the same way today – as a challenge, as a provocation. We need to take it as a dare. We need to let it propel us forward into dangerous new territory.

We need to ask the question: If “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love least,” how much do I love God? Do I love?

Graig, Clarence Tucker. “Exegesis: The First Epistle to the Corinthians” The Interpreter’s Bible Vol. X. Nashville, TN. Abingdon, 1953.

Orr, William F. and James Arthur Walther. I Corinthians: Anchor Bible Vol. 32. Garden City, NY. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1976.

[i] And, as Leonard Cohen said, “Love is not a victory march.”

[ii] Whether she actually said it / wrote it, I don’t know. I can’t find the quote sourced, but it certainly sounds like something she would have said. 

[iii] In 5:9 Paul refers to his previous letter.

[vi] See the writings of Peruvian liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez.

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