Rev. Teri Peterson
1 Corinthians 12.27-13.13
29 June 2014, Faith Questions 3
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
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. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Some of us have heard these words many times, often as a prelude to either speaking or witnessing vows that create a new family. The 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians is a popular choice for weddings in part because it uses the word love so frequently, in part because it appears to mirror the usual advice given to couples at the start of their new life together, and, if we’re honest, in part because it never explicitly mentions the name of God, so it’s easier for people who don’t have much connection to church to handle.
The wedding context makes it hard for us to hear this familiar text in the way it was intended, though—which is part of why I added Paul’s original context to the beginning of the reading today. Remember that the chapters and verses were added long after Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth became scripture. When he first wrote it, he didn’t separate his teaching on spiritual gifts from his discourse on the church as the body of Christ, and he didn’t separate either of those things from his poem about love. He says “now you are the body of Christ…and I will show you a still more excellent way…love is patient, love is kind.” So often we come to the end of chapter twelve and then have conversations about what the “still more excellent way” might be. But we don’t need to wonder, we only need to keep reading, as Paul explains exactly what he means. On the one hand, we are all given gifts—of faith, of teaching, of healing, of encouraging, of communicating—and those gifts are for the purpose of being the Body of Christ in the world. And on the other hand, there is something else that matters even more than those gifts, something deeper and more foundational to who we are.
In some ways, it’s a bizarre reading for a wedding, if we think about it in context—this is not even remotely about romantic love, or about a couple building a family. This has absolutely nothing to do with the feelings we have for each other. This is entirely about God and the Body of Christ living together in the kind of relationship that the Trinity already displays—love as a verb, as part of our genetic makeup. Love as true reality even when we don’t feel anything at all, and what that means for how we act in the world.
On the other hand, it’s kind of perfect for weddings, especially in those families that choose it because it never says the name of God—because this chapter is one of the most accessible statements of truth that there is. The question that prompted this week’s sermon was “are there absolute truths that apply to all people regardless of their religion?”
And this is the answer: Love. At the core of the universe, Love. At the core of who we are: Love. At the core of how we are supposed to live in the world: Love.
Love is not a feeling, not something that comes and goes based on the actions of another person, not something that we can fall in and out of. Love is the essence of God, and because we are created in the image of God that means it is our essence as well. So this is the truth, and the command, that are for all people—because all people, regardless of their religion or culture or geography or place in history, are created in God’s image: Love is the most excellent and highest calling, the core value, the truest reality that makes all other reality possible. Without love, we are nothing.
We have gotten ourselves so wrapped up in a cultural understanding of romance that it’s hard to even use the word love, because all people think about then is hearts and chocolate and that fluttery feeling in your chest. We can’t even grasp a complete picture of what love is. So know this: whatever feeling of love you have experienced, that’s only a small fraction of the reality. Whatever we think we know is only a part of God’s whole. What we do know is this: while we only know a little, God knows us fully and completely, and one day we too will know fully. While we can only offer a child-size portion of love, God gives the full feast over and over, and keeps inviting us to a little more and a little more. And while we’re busy trying to pin down exactly what love means, God offered God’s own self, living and dying and rising to show us exactly what love is.
It might sound like a cop-out, to say that the answer to the question of absolute truth is Love. But it is the exact opposite: this is probably the hardest truth for us to accept, and even harder to live—but only because we have so limited both ourselves and Love.
So here it is, in the clearest terms I can muster:
· God is Love.
· We are not in control of this Love, because we are not God. We, who know only in part, who see only dimly as through a dark mirror, do not get to decide how God loves, or who God loves, or where or when or why. God’s being is love, period.
· We are, however, made in God’s image, which means Love is also our truest core identity. The foundation of life is Love.
· This is true of both individuals and the whole Body of Christ together.
· And we are prone to thinking our identity is found in something else—especially in our talents or in our relationships. We think that if we are well spoken, or if they have great earning potential, or if he is a faithful church-goer, or if she is successful, or if we do well in school, or if they’re big givers, then we are fulfilling our calling and building up the body. We fool ourselves into thinking these masks give us license to insist and to resent, to withhold support and to judge, all in the name of being a good Christian.
But if we do not love, we are nothing.
It’s easy to get caught up in those layers and forget the core. It’s easy to let those layers cover up the light that is trying to shine out. It is easy to think we have everything under control and forget that it’s God who gives life and breath and resources and talents, and God who has a mission that needs a church, not the other way around. It’s easy to fall into the trap of insisting our way is the right way. And it’s also easy to think we don’t have what it takes—not the right skills, the right resources, the right courage to be a saint or a hero, so we just fall into a routine of looking out for ourselves, forgetting that we love because God first loved us, and that love is more than enough equipment for our calling to love and serve others.
This week at Vacation Bible School, we heard stories of people who set aside those outer layers of success and image, of resentment and insistence, and found that the light of God’s love shone out through ordinary people and ordinary things. God could see the full picture even when we could not, through a slave girl and at a dinner table, using a little kid’s lunch and some broken bricks, and God turned the ordinary into the extraordinary, over and over. We sang songs about God’s love and grace being enough for us, and we prayed for the imagination to see God at work in every place and every time, and the courage to join in the work.
The work God has for us is to walk this still more excellent way: to love as if our life depended on it, because it does. To love with words of encouragement and actions of justice. To love through healing and sharing. To love regardless of deserving and regardless of cost. To love the way Jesus loves, as individuals and as a church. Because God loves us, we too can love. All it takes is to do it, as the quote at the top of the bulletin says, a little and a little more, until eventually we find ourselves living the truth: faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.
May it be so.