13: 1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8Love never fails.
If you can almost repeat this passage word for word, its either because you memorized it—in which case, good for you!–or because you’ve been to a lot of weddings over the years. Which is also great. This passage is read at so many wedding ceremonies precisely because what Paul says about love applies so well to a marriage and a family.
But it was a church that Paul had in mind when he penned these words, not a couple about to be married. If he was thinking of them, he might have written, “Love does not leave dirty socks on the floor; love does not leave the toilet lid up; love does not start out a question with the words, ‘Why do you always….?’ and love does not give your spouse the silent treatment; love always helps with the dishes and the diapers and takes initiative to arrange dates and please the other, and yet also knows when to give each other some space.”
Instead, when Paul says that “Love is patient, love is kind. ..it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud,” and so forth, we can safely assume that he is writing to a church in which people have not been patient nor kind to each other, in which, in fact, they have been quite rude, self-seeking, easily angered, keeping record of wrongs, and delighting in evil–” each other’s evil. That fits with everything else we find in the letter.
Its not that these Corinthian Christians weren’t great and gifted people. In fact, quite the opposite. These words on love come in the middle of Paul’s lengthy words to the Corinthians about their spiritual gifts, which were quite impressive. The words we’ve heard about tongues and prophecy and special knowledge make sense only if some of those Corinthian Christians could indeed speak in the many tongues of people and even of angels, perhaps. Some of them must indeed have had the gift of prophecy and could fathom all mysteries and knowledge. Some of them must have had mountain-moving faith and were brave enough to give everything to the poor and even face a martyr’s death in the flames. So these Corinthian Christians were superbly gifted people in every way.
Except in one particular way. The most important one. The one without which all the other gifts are no longer gifts but dangers and liabilities: Love. Love is “the most excellent way” that Paul embarks upon showing them. It is the most excellent of the Holy Spirit’s gifts that they are to seek.
I say the word “love” with some reluctance, fear and trembling this morning. Because in our culture and our language, the word “love” is filled with so many meanings that it has almost become meaningless. If you love your country, we’re told, you’ll willingly kill people from another country. The ancient Greek king Midas loved gold above all things. So when the gods in the ancient Greek story gave him the power to turn everything he touched into gold, he inadvertantly turned his beloved daughter into a lifeless statue. Kind of like what’s happening to the Gulf of Mexico, only for love of oil. So the mere feeling of love, of desire and delight, does not justify everything. But that’s most often what we mean by the word “love.”
In today’s reading, Paul defines love in a way that is active and behavioral, not just abstract or emotional. Its about what we choose to do, and not do, and not just what we feel or want. Twenty centuries later, we are like the Greeks, in that we prefer verbal and abstract definitions of things like love. So here’s an attempt: If we desire anything, love is when we desire God’s best for someone, whether that is someone else, or the person in the mirror.
But Paul, good Jew that he is, understands love in terms of choices and actions, in flesh and blood. So he describes not just our desire for God’s best for someone, but our actions toward God’s best for someone. This may involve active demonstrations of love, as in “Love is patient, love is kind….. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” It may also require of us the negative, our restraint and refusal to do something, as in, “Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”
Which is not to say that no feelings or desires are involved. But in Paul’s vision of us as the promised people of God under formation, in the process of becoming, feelings and desires are just as likely to follow actions, as vice versa.
A pastor once told me of a couple who came to him for marriage counseling. The husband wanted a divorce. He said, several times, “I just don’t love her anymore.” As depressed and neglected as she appeared, she didn’t look all that loved either. The counselor gave them this assignment, addressing the man: “Before I see you again to help you work out your divorce, I want you, Sir, to plan a date for both of you, one that includes doing something with your wife that she is most interested in.”
Two weeks later they returned, having completed the assignment. The husband said, “I’m reconsidering this divorce thing. I’m willing to give this marriage another try.” The counselor chalked up the change in the man’s feelings to the change in his actions, not vice versa. And that’s one part of the message that Paul is trying to get across to his Corinthian friends: love is a choice, love is an action. Even if it begins with feelings of interest, desire and attraction, it can only continue with choices and action.
And now I’m going to say something quite opposite and sound like I’m contradicting myself. Maybe I am. Its happened before. But if I am, then so is Paul. Just before he talks about our choices and actions of love, Paul also calls love a gift. “Desire the best gifts,” he says. And then he adds, “And now I’ll show you the most excellent way,” that is, the most excellent of all gifts. And then he talks about love. That permits me to say that while love is a choice, it is also a gift. The most excellent of all spiritual gifts. The most important of them. Its so important that this gift of love is the difference between whether our other gifts, like tongues or prophecy or faith, are banes or blessings, whether they are helpful or harmful, whether they build up community, or whether they divide it and destroy it. So important is this gift of love that, no matter how gifted we are, no matter how heroic and sacrificial and right and intelligent we may be, Paul says, “Without love, I am nothing” and “without love, I have nothing.”
So what is love, a gift or a choice? Ultimately, love is our choice to accept God’s gift of love. God’s love for us, and God’s love through us. Because not only does God want to love us, God wants to love others through us. And to love us through others. Which brings me to the most important definition in the Bible for love: “God is love (I John 4:8).” At heart, then, love is a person. This person is the source and fountain of all love between persons. When we give and receive love, God is giving us himself, and nothing short of himself. Love is how we receive and share God. Love is the only capacity we even have for knowing and experiencing God.
I read a letter in the New York Times this week, in which someone wrote and said something to the effect that, “I don’t need any faith, any church, any religion or any God because I have people like my five-year old son to love me. And he’s just woken up this morning and come in to hug me even as I write this.”
Blessed are he and that child. Good for them.
But as a Christian, I have to believe that the writer is missing the most important evidence of God literally right under his nose: the love between himself and that child, and his good morning hug. Such love is so much more extravagant than what we need for the mere survival of our species and our genes. It has to be God.
These signs and presences of God are nothing if not surprising and persistent, even in the face of tremendous odds. Well into the late 1970’s, two men had long become such good and close friends that they and their families regularly visited each other, even though the trip was costly, involving air fare and the crossing of at least two international borders, and hundreds of miles, or kilometers, in their case, so deep was their friendship. It all began when both of them had actually been trying to kill each other, in April of 1945, in the last days of World War II. A young German soldier saw an attacking British soldier crumple up and fall to the ground in front of him, wounded and immobilized, in the line of fire. So the young German man crawled out of his trench, with bullets and shrapnel flying all around him, and dragged his wounded enemy to safety. As the medics carried the man away to an army field hospital, both soldiers had the other one’s name and address in their wallets. Leaving aside the question of whether either of them should have been there shooting at the other, you have to marvel at the care and mercy that suddenly overwhelmed the one soldier’s fear and hatred of the other. How to explain their enduring friendship in spite of the hatred and violence that had previously separated them? I believe that the power and tenacity of love to emerge even in situations like that is nothing short of God giving himself to the world, and showing himself to the world, as he did most clearly through Jesus. It can happen anywhere, to anyone, in or out of the church. The advantage of being a Christian includes knowing where such love comes from, and that we can therefore trust such love to assert itself in even the most unlikely of places. Like our graves.
We love because God first loved us. And God won’t stop loving us, no matter how hard we might try to make him stop. One day eleven years ago, we were shocked and disheartened by the tragic and stunning news of the shootings at the Columbine high school in Colorado. The next morning, still sick at heart and fearful, I was parking the car at a shopping mall near a Brueggers Bagel Restaurant, when I saw a young teenage man just a little under the age of the high school killers. I found myself wondering, “Could he too be so alienated and violence-prone that he might be led to violence and vengeance like those two high school seniors?” He did have a certain slouch and slump to his shoulders that made me wonder about him. How many hours has he logged on shoot-em-up video games, or listening to head-banging screaming death metal music with hopeless, violent and women-hating lyrics? I wondered. Then I and my fear-based stereo-typing were put to shame as I saw his sister and his father get out of the same car he had left, as they took their places together, with Dad in the middle, putting his arms around both son and daughter, as they walked into Brueggers’ Bagels for breakfast together before school. Oh me of little faith, I thought. I was ready to despair and write this young man off. But God was not, as we could see through his father.
Love: Nothing can keep it down or out of our world. It is the most important of God’s gifts, without which all other gifts can do more harm than good. Through the gift of love, God gives us nothing less than himself.