Grace Presbyterian Church
January 30, 2022, Epiphany 4C
The More Excellent Way
One of the challenges of preaching a text like this one, which has gained tremendous familiarity over time due to its popularity as a text for weddings, is that we forget that it is not a free-standing, isolated poem unrelated to anything but itself. Even in the act of preaching outside of a marriage ceremony, seldom does all of this other stuff in Paul’s letter to Corinth get looked over and considered. We might even forget, after a fashion, that Paul didn’t write his letters in chapters – these divisions were created much later, mostly for reading convenience. There are probably quite a few churches where this text is being heard today, in isolation, after weeks of sermons from Luke’s gospel, where folks switched over for today because this is such a popular text while the reading from Luke, where the people of Jesus’s hometown get so mad at his sermon that they try to kill him, is less appealing. What gets missed in that case is all the connections between this chapter and what has come before in Paul’s letter.
To take one example, the very first verse of chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians. It would seem to be a strange place to look, given that its first words are “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols…”, which doesn’t seem like the introduction to a statement on the importance of love. Nonetheless, before we can even get away from verse 1, Paul has reminded his readers and hearers that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He goes on to add that whatever anyone knows (or thinks they know), it’s not sufficient, but one who loves God is fully and completely known to God.
Additionally, a number of other passages earlier in the letter lay a foundation for this discourse on love by pointing to God and our utter reliance on God. God is “the source of your life in Christ Jesus” (1:30); God is “the one who gives the growth” no matter who planted or watered the seed of the gospel (3:7); God is the one “from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (8:6). The God who is this foundation and source and root and all is the one who is the source and direction of our living, and that is found in the love God loves for us, which we then are directed to love towards one another.
For that matter, other portions of chapter 13 are also echoes of earlier discussions in this letter. Take a look at the list of characteristics of love in verses 4-7:
- “Love is not envious” (4), but the Corinthians are apparently full of “jealousy and quarreling” (3:3);
- “Love is not … boastful” (4), but the Corinthians do (4:7, 5:6, where Paul flat-out says that their boasting “is not a good thing“);
- “Love is not … arrogant” (4), but the Corinthians are often described as arrogant or “puffed up” (4:6, 18-19; 5:2, and the aforementioned 8:1);
- “Love … does not rejoice in wrongdoing: (6), but some of the Corinthians have engaged in taking advantage of unjust courts to exploit others (6:7-8).
Paul has been building the case against the Corinthians throughout the gospel, and far from being cut off from that case, this chapter is very directly addressing their condition. All of these faults that have been noted in this letter point to a decided lack of love in the community.
There is something else to note about this list in verses 4-7. While those in verses 5-6 are more regularly translated actively – “does not insist…” “does not rejoice … but rejoices…” “bears … believes … hopes” – some get translated in such a way that we probably don’t notice that Paul is using his verbs here. If we were to diagram the phrases “love is patient” or “love is kind,” for example, we would place “love” as the subject, “is” as the verb, and “patient” or “kind” as the “object,” an adjective modifying “love.” That’s not how the Greek in which Paul writes works, though. What we translate as “is patient” or “is kind” is the verb of Paul’s statement; we might come closer to catching the force of his instruction if we rendered those clauses “love acts patiently” or “love does kindness,” representing how these traits are not passive feelings but actions, or even more ways of behavior rather than only of thought or emotion.
This brings us to perhaps the biggest challenge to our knowledge of this chapter, the part that tends to get most buried in marriage-service renderings: love is action. Love is not a thing that is felt; love is a thing that is done, no matter whether the feelings or emotions are there. That is indeed the animating principle behind this whole chapter, and again what the Corinthians seem to be sorely lacking, for all their other spiritual gifts they so liked to boast in.
I’ve no doubt that we can all come up with times and occasions in which we have witnessed the very people who talked the good game about loving turn around and engage in the most hateful and destructive actions imaginable, maybe even claiming to do so in the name of love. Paul isn’t having it; “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
It is also this understanding that makes all those other spiritual gifts marked by Paul in chapter 12 so utterly dependent on love. While addressing multiple of those gifts, it becomes clear quickly that the business of speaking in tongues was a particular source of boasting among the Corinthians when Paul takes it on first and most elaborately in verse 1. To speak in “the tongues of mortals and of angels” without love is not merely “nothing,” as later phrases will conclude; it is the equivalent of “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Here the reference seems to be to the practices of some of the temples devoted to Greek and/or Roman gods in Corinth, whose observances were sometimes marked by the regular and prominent sounding of exactly those loud percussion instruments. It’s almost as if Paul is saying when you go off on your ecstatic utterances just for your own elevation, with no care or love or concern for your fellow followers of Christ, you’re acting exactly like the lost souls you used to be – remembering that before being added to the church many of the Corinthians had been participants in those temple rituals to those Greek and Roman idols.
The point of this section, which gets elaborated in chapter 14, is not to dismiss those spiritual gifts; the point is that none of those gifts – not prophecy or knowledge or faith to do great things or those tongues – are of any use when not practiced in love, the love that forms the body of Christ and in which that body both lives together and lives toward the world around it. It’s even possible that such gifts practiced not in love are more harmful than good. If you can’t do it in love, honestly, you’re better off keeping it to yourself. Love is the reason any of those spiritual gifts have any value. Love, that divine love infused into human existence, is why any of those works matter.
All of this is part of why Paul could refer to love as “a more excellent way” back at the end of chapter 12, but we shouldn’t leave out the end of this chapter in that respect, either. Of all the gifts or behaviors or traits of the life of the body of Christ, love is the one that is eternal. Prophecies will end; when at last we live in eternal union with God, what is the need for prophecy? The gift of tongues, or ecstatic utterances believed to be given by God, seems rather superfluous when in God’s eternal presence, yes? Our partial and unfinished knowledge will, at minimum, be finished in the presence of God.
Even faith and hope, as Paul describes in this famous chapter’s final and most famous verse, are secondary to love in this way. Faith and hope are beautiful. They are amazing gifts of the Spirit. But like the others Paul describes, they are finite gifts to help sustain us through this in-between time. If faith is, as the author of Hebrews describes, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” then what is the point of faith when we are in the very presence of God, seeing God face to face? What is the point of hope, or what is the need for hope, when God is unmistakably and unshakably in the midst of us, for all to see? The partial things, as Paul says in verse 10, come to an end.
But love never ends. Love is as eternal as God is eternal.
Love. Never. Ends.
Though it is not part of today’s lectionary reading, the first verse of chapter 14 is useful, or even needful, to place chapter 13 into proper relationship with chapter 12: “Pursue love, and strive for the spiritual gifts.”
Not either/or, both/and.
Paul’s instruction does not mean that the Corinthians, or we, should somehow deny the gifts we have been given by the Spirit – and remember from back in 12:3 that anyone who truly confesses that “Jesus is Lord” is gifted by the Holy Spirit. Rather, Paul needs the Corinthians, and us, to understand that the care and feeding and usage of our spiritual gifts within the body of Christ and out in the larger world only works in the context of love – the love that God has shown us so that we might show love for one another and for all of God’s creation.
Our stories of love will not necessarily be showy or dramatic. They will be heartbreaking at times. They will try our patience or our virtue. We may stumble in grief and leap for joy at the same time because of that love. But if we dare to call ourselves followers of Christ, we will love, without reservation and without qualification.
We will love because God is love, eternal and unending. We will love because God loves. We will love because Christ loves. And we will love because that’s what the body of Christ does.
For love, eternal and unending, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #401, Here in this Place (Gather Us In); #693, Though I May Speak; #300, We Are One in the Spirit