Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 14, 2021
“What Love Does”
1st Corinthians 13: 1-13 – New Revised Standard Version
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. 2 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. 3 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.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 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. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
11 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. 12 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.
13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
This passage suffers from familiarity. It’s heard so often at weddings that we could easily assume that chapter 13 is about two lovers. If you want something for that, go the steamy poetry of Song of Solomon, that’s where you’ll find biblical erotica.
I didn’t choose to read this passage because it’s Valentine’s Day. Well, maybe I did a few weeks ago. But I actually think this text is a fitting response to this week’s trial of the former president.
It was a hard week. Like you, I watched again with horror the images of violent mobs, incited by their commander, smashing doors and windows; crushing law enforcement between doors and beating them with pipes and flag poles; we heard them chant death to the vice-president, a gallows built and noose hung conveniently nearby; I felt something in my throat as horrified Senators scurried through the labyrinth of hallways to avoid the mobs; and I cried while house members recounted grabbing gas masks and removing their congressional pins, listening as battering rams tried to break into the chamber. This week was traumatizing for them and for all of us, the whole country, all over again.
Or it was no big deal. Boring enough to sit doodling with your feet up. Are we really so divided that we can’t even agree on this?
Paul was so concerned about what he heard regarding the bitterly divided Corinthian church, he sat down to compose a letter to them. Perhaps we might consider his words about love.
But first, we can’t skip to the words of love in chapter 13 without first going through conflict in chapter 12. Paul received word about contention among the Corinthians, arguing about whose gifts were the greatest. He wrote to them that there are a variety of gifts that all come from the same Spirit. To one person is given wisdom, to another knowledge; to one is given faith, and to another healing. Or prophecy, or discernment of spirits, miracles, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. There are lots of gifts of the Spirit. But he kept repeating, not one of them is better than another because they all come from the same Spirit. The Spirit decides who gets what. How could one thing be better? So, stop arguing.
Paul continued by describing or comparing the church to the body of Christ. No part of the body is more important than another. He explained, the eye can’t say to the hand, I don’t need you. Furthermore, no part of the body is more honorable than another. In fact, Paul said, the less “respectable” members should be treated with greater respect.
This wasn’t meant as just metaphor or rhetoric. The early church was radically egalitarian. Men and women shared leadership, often to the amazement of outsiders. In the church, people who were slaves and people who were free were to be equals. Jews and Gentiles worshiped together, although, they were still debating such questions as whether non-Jewish believers had to first become Jewish to be Christian? That was also part of the conflict Paul addressed in 1st Corinthians.
Chapter 12 is one of the most important and consequential parts of the Bible laying out, in the midst of conflict, a beautiful description of the Christian way. No part of the body is more important than another; as Paul said, honor was to be given to the least. And, of the many wonderful gifts of the spirit, not one of them is better than another, because the same Spirit gives them all.
He then ended chapter 12 by saying, “But strive for the greater gifts.” Wait. I didn’t think any gift was better than another, but some are “greater”? And still more curiously, these are not Spirit given? We have to strive for them? That’s when he told a bitterly divided people that he would show them “a still more excellent way” and said:
“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.” Those words have a context among a divided people. They aren’t the flowery words of an imaginary world but a real challenge to living, breathing people.
“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.”
Paul explained this is the “still more excellent way.” There’s faith. And there’s hope. And there’s love. But the greatest of these is love. For which he calls us to strive.
Love is patient. Or are we to strive for love that is patient? Love is kind. Or are we to strive for love that is kind? Perhaps both. That love is and we must strive for love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Strive for love that does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth. Strive for love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Strive for love that never ends.
On the one hand, all that striving sounds exhausting. Not exactly a gift. On the other hand, I can do that. That’s hopeful because we can strive for love when we’re not feeling it. We can strive for love that never ends, although, I have to add, in my experience, and perhaps in your experience too, some love ends. Some love is asked to bear, put up with, too many things, even becoming an excuse for abuse. Maybe that’s one way we know this passage isn’t first and foremost about two lovers or a marriage. But neither do I think a community or country should simply “put up with” anything and everything. I appreciate Paul’s clarification that love that does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth.
But then there’s the Senate. We were not only traumatized by repeated images of violent mobs, pictures of gallows and noose, haunted by chants and screams and battering rams. Worse, the means for even a modicum of justice was offered but denied in monstrous and preposterous ways – to use the words of the indefensible. Truth was spoken, but to use the words of Paul, people rejoiced in wrongdoing.
Can we be honest? Love? I don’t love those people. I don’t want to love those people. They have no interest in loving back. I’m tired of striving for love from hateful people. But of course, to be clear, there are some good but misguided people in that mix – not in the sense of very fine nazis. But people with whom we simply share a different world view, some of whom are members of our families. Yet it’s the others that draw me dangerously close to hate. That is, if we dare be honest.
To which I hear Paul saying, keep striving for the more excellent way. Keep striving for love. And that will make a difference. Dr. King had a lot of personal experience with this, and he explained:
Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it.
Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.
Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.
That’s what love does.
That’s why I think 1st Corinthians 13 is just what we need today. Strive for love, love that is patient and kind and all the rest. Keep hoping for it. Praying for it. For as long as necessary. Love doesn’t give up. And because God is love, our striving for love puts us into the presence of God, and with that, we can do anything.
I know it was a hard week. But we can keep striving for love. Together.
I love being the