1 Corinthians 13:1-13
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
In a 1983 hit song, Tina Turner once asked “What’s love got to do with it?” That was a provocative question thirty-plus years ago, and the song’s answer, as it turns out, was provocative in its own right; essentially, the lyrics said, love doesn’t have much of anything to do with anything – at least, nothing to do with the romantic relationship that was the subject of the song. We can look down our noses at this kind of cynical view of love, but the reality is that a brief glance around our society reveals that, in many places, the question “what’s love got to do with it” is still largely being answered with what might best be described as a resounding “meh”.
As depressing as that thought might be, it’s perhaps even more depressing to realize that this isn’t a new phenomenon. There’s a reason, after all, that the apostle Paul felt the need to write an entire chapter about love and its importance in the life of the Christian community, and that reason is that the church in the Greek city of Corinth seems to have looked an awful lot like many groups of people we might observe in modern society. Unlike the Thessalonian church, which as we saw a couple of weeks ago, was lauded for their work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in Christ, the Corinthians were given to rivalry and dissension and, frankly, a level of “one-upmanship” that might make some of our current presidential candidates blush. The Corinthians, you see, were a gifted lot. Their community had been blessed with a number of spiritual gifts – among which Paul names speaking in tongues (a kind of ecstatic or mystical speech that was said to communicate divine truth), the interpretation of tongues (the ability to understand that mystical speech for the benefit of others), prophecy, and knowledge. The problem was that those gifts were not being used to build up the rest of the community; they were, instead, becoming causes of disunity. Because some gifts were regarded more highly, those who possessed them were regarded as more important than others, and it appears that the “highly gifted” ones were more than willing to agree that they were special.
That’s where this passage comes in. The way the Corinthian church had been living together was a travesty, and Paul aimed to show them where they had gone astray by showing them “a still more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:31b) That “more excellent way,” of course, is the way of love – not the emotional, sentimental, shallow kind of love that Tina Turner may have been criticizing, but a deep and abiding love that is both difficult and costly. It’s a love that finds expression – or, perhaps more accurately, embodiment – in the person of Jesus Christ. In contrast to those Corinthians Christians, Jesus used his many spiritual gifts in ways that brought life and healing to others and led to his own suffering and death. In his obedience to God’s will for him and for the whole creation, Christ showed us what true love looks like, and made love the measure of our lives as his disciples in an unloving world. Paul enjoins that kind of love on the church at Corinth, directly challenging the way that they chose to live together, and inviting them to trade their childish behavior for a more mature approach to life in community.
As I mentioned earlier, the problems that faced the Corinthians are also problems that face us today. Though the conduct of those presently running for higher office would probably give us more than enough fodder for conversation, to focus on them would be too easy, and it would ignore all the ways that this kind of behavior plays out closer to home. You and I know how often we fall short of the example Christ set and Paul describes. We are all too frequently impatient and mean, envious and boastful and arrogant and rude. We want what’s coming to us, we keep score and hold grudges, and we reward cunning (or, at the very least, look the other way when injustice holds sway). Far too many of us regard love as something that’s nice when it doesn’t cost us anything but is surely too naïve to form the basis of our relationships with our neighbors or our fellow citizens or people who live across the world from us. That’s not true across the board, of course; each of us has certain relationships in which we have experienced all too deeply the cost of love, the heartbreak and sadness that comes from wanting the best for others and seeing them fail to attain it by either choice or circumstance; the pain of choosing to love people who don’t deserve it because we know that they need it; the sting of being hurt by the people who are supposed to protect us; the ache of grieving loved ones who are no longer with us. Love is hard, but it is also the highway that Christ has trod before us and which we are called to walk as his disciples. The challenge, then, is to fight the urge to close ourselves off from our brothers and sisters in the faith, or from our neighbors, or from anyone who has been created in the image of God. That we are called to live with love for all, even as we struggle with the imperfect knowledge that Paul readily acknowledges, makes that challenge even greater.
That’s where Jesus comes back into the picture. If all this sounds impossible, that’s because it is. We will never be capable of this kind of love on our own. The gift that accompanies the challenge is that we don’t have to live this way alone. We, too, have been blessed with the means of grace that make living in love possible. In the practice of regularly acknowledging our faults before God and one another, we find the freedom to live as broken people who are renewed by the forgiveness of our merciful Father. In Holy Communion, the meal that Christ sets before us at the table of grace, we are refreshed and restored to wholeness. In the fellowship we share as brothers and sisters in Christ, we find consolation and encouragement. Finally, in the waters of Holy Baptism, we are joined to the crucified and risen life of Jesus, and filled with the Spirit who inspires us to live lives of faith, hope, and love for the sake of the world.
Paul’s word to the Corinthians is also a word to us, brothers and sisters. In a society that asks, “what’s love got to do with it,” may our words and deeds make our answer clear to everyone we encounter: Love is everything, the “still more excellent way” that leads us to abundant life now and eternal life in the age to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.