Let's Get Ethical
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“The first task of the interpreter of 1 Corinthians 13 is to rescue the text from the quagmire of romantic sentimentality in which propriety has embedded it. The common use of the text in weddings has linked it in the minds of many with flowers and kisses and frilly wedding dresses.”
- This seems to me to be a little overly harsh. I will admit that the point (though perhaps overly well-made) is well taken. 1 Cor 13 is a passage that is often associated with weddings, to the point where some people pointedly do not want it read at their weddings. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with romantic sentimentality (and I mean Cole Porter made a living writing about it), kisses or wedding dresses (or tuxedos or morning jackets or kilts for that matter). Nicole and I were given a cross with the text of 1 Cor 13 on it when we were married, so perhaps I am a little bit biased that way.
At the same time it is good to come to this passage after having spent several weeks in the 1Cor isn’t it? It is good to see how Paul has put this passage right in the centre of discussion about gifts of Spirit and how they should be manifested in worship. It is good to come to it as the climax of the letter, as a long look at what “Let everything you do be done in love” means. Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at this passage this morning.
For a word that’s out there as much as love, we do well to define what it is Paul is talking about here right off the start. All You Need Is Love. Love is in the Air. I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now). I love hockey/football/Coffee Crisps etc. Saying “I don’t love it” to signify that I’m not a fan of something. Here are three ways that love was described in Paul’s time (and really pretty much our time too). C.S. Lewis describes 4 in his book The Four Loves and if you want to borrow it from me feel free. So we have eros first of all – romantic love, passionate love. The second is philo – love of friends, or equals. Kinship. We hear it in Philadelphia (brotherly love) or even philosophy (love of wisdom).
Then we come to the one that Paul uses here. The word that is used to reflect the way that God loves us. Agape. Unconditional love. Love that seeks nothing but the highest good of the other. Permanent unconditional love. Someone has described it as “a decision more than a feeling, a commitment more than a relationship. Agape means loving not for one’s own benefit but for the benefit of others.”
I have to say two things here. We’ve talked about this passage being used at weddings and for wedding gifts. It’s good counsel for people who are being married of course. The thing is that it has a wider application. The widest application really. It is the very centre of the Christian life. It is the thing without which we are nothing (but we’ll come back to this in a moment). The other is that this is a challenging passage. Many of the passages that we’ve looked at over the past few weeks have been challenging, they’ve been difficult. When this sermon was coming up I thought “Oh good a fastball down the heart of the plate finally – time to hit it out of the park! A tap-in into a gaping net on a two-on-one” There is nothing easy about this passage though, it is a call to love and a challenge to us all. It is a challenge to any faith community which is tempted to make something else the centre of their community life. Someone has written this – “In short, even though the Corinthian church (or insert name of church here) had plenty of money, an enviable location, countless spiritual gifts, and a legacy of celebrity teachers (or a legacy of ministry going back years), the lacked the one thing they most needed, in fact, the greatest thing – love.”
So Paul begins and his words really need very little embellishment – 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. Paul has been writing of speaking in tongues. If I spoke in all the tongues of people and even the tongues of angels. This isn’t a reference to being able to speak eloquently, he’s talking about ecstatic speech which was very highly prized. But if I do not have love, I am a noisy gong – a noisy brass or clanging cymbal. Theatres of the day used shaped pieces of brass to amplify actors’ voices. Cymbals were used in local pagan worship. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and even angels and have not love I am nothing more than an actor speaking lines or a pagan worshipping nothing.
If I have prophetic powers – the gift of prophecy and bringing a word from God – understand all mysteries and knowledge, and if I have faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I perform great acts of charity, 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 the very ground of meaning. Without it all else is meaningless. Chaff. Wind. Whoosh. Forget it. Love looks like something and it is meant to look like something in our every action – whether we’re talking what we do as individuals, what we do as a church, what we do in our lives, our work, our education, our rest. Even our most pious actions can be done without love. With the best of intentions we can lose sight of our ground. We may become people who are so single-minded toward a ministry, so single-minded toward our spirituality, that we have lost sight of our ground, lost sight of our love for others. When we stop to consider our motives for any given thing, when we stop to say “Why am I doing this?” are we able to say that we are doing this for love? We need to have others around us to remind us and to keep us honest don’t we? You don’t love on your own. You can argue that you can do faith and hope on your own and make a case for that. You can’t love on your own. Love needs an object. Love is a verb as the saying goes. In Corinth things had descended into envy and strife and factionalism and looking out for number one and showing off and boasting. In the middle of this Paul reminds them and us that love looks like something. It also doesn’t look like something and Paul gets into this in the next section. It’s beautiful as prose and so familiar – 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. Love is patient and kind. Love is of God. Paul doesn’t spend any time here talking about God as the source of love here. Paul is completely focussed on the ethical nature of love – what love looks like as it is worked out in our lives. It bears mentioning though. Beloved. Love is of God. We love because God first loved us. God is patient. God is kind. God is Exodus 34. “The Lord, the Lord. a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation…” Yes and amen.
When we look at the list of the things that love is not it should strike us. If we’ve been paying attention to Paul’s words to the church in Corinth and if the Holy Spirit has been speaking to our hearts through the last 9 weeks then they should strike us. We’ve said that love is a verb. Love is action. The opposite of love is also action and the actions that love is not are laid out by Paul here – they’re the same actions in the church that he’s been writing against. This ode to love becomes a personal challenge. He’s heard about their envy and their quarrelling. Where are we envious and where are we quarrelling? We have heard about boasting and about being puffed up. In what do we boast and what are we puffed up about? Love is not rude, and this is a very light translation of a word that means to bring shame. We’re not just talking about cutting in front of someone at the check-out line or not saying thank-you when a door is held for us. We’re talking about shameful behaviour. It does not insist on its own way. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Remember? It is not irritable or resentful. Again some pretty light terms for words that mean not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing (remember chapter 5 – sometimes we need to speak hard truths in love) but rejoices in the truth (speaking of the truth). St. Clement put it like this, reflecting the beauty of the language here – “Love beareth all things, is long-suffering in all things. There is nothing base, nothing haughty in love; love admits no schism, love makes no sedition, love does all things in concord.”
And remember that the issue here was division, schism.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things endures all things. Paul has already talked about bearing anything rather than putting an obstacle to the gospel in another’s way (9:12). Paul preaches it and he lives it. Love believes and love hopes and these are the things that remain. Love endures all things because as we said, love is patient. This is not to say that when we love we should believe everything we hear or we shouldn’t discriminate when it comes to what we believe or hope. It means when it comes to love, “there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance.”
Love never ends.
The love of God never ends. Agape never ends. This church has been entangled in controversies and haughtiness and boasting and hierarchy and exclusion. When we’re tempted to think we’re up here because of what we know or because of the spiritual gifts that have been given to us (and again what do we have that we have not received), Paul reminds us that even words given to us to speak from God will come to an end. Tongues will come to an end. Keep the long view in mind. Keep the holy city on that mountain toward which we travel in sight. Keep the day in mind when the partial will come to an end. Keep the day in mind when the complete comes.
On that day the things that divided us; the things that we argued about; the things that we got haughty about, will seem like… Remember when you were a child? The things that we didn’t know. The things that we thought we knew. Remember becoming a teenager and beginning to make your way in the world, you thought you were it. You’d arrived! Remember how that changed? When I was a child I spoke like a child and thought like a child and reasoned like a child. When I became an adult I put an end to childish ways. When the complete comes we will wonder how we ever thought we’d arrived in any way. The things we boasted about. The things we spent our time on. The things we agonized about. The things we were puffed up about. The things we became angry with one another about. I see things now as if I were looking in a mirror made of polished bronze. Dimly. Faintly. Blurrily. May that keep me humble. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. What a promise my friends! When the complete comes. In the meantime, these three things abide, faith, hope and love. Someone has described these three like this: “Faith is the trust that we direct toward the God of Israel, who has kept faith with his covenant promises by putting forward Jesus for our sake and raising him to new life; hope focuses our fervent desire to see a broken world restored by God to its rightful wholeness; and love is the foretaste of our ultimate union with God, graciously given to us now and shared with our brothers and sisters… Love is the greatest of the three because… it will endure eternally when the love of God is all in all. It is also the greatest because even in the present time it undergirds everything else and give meaning to an otherwise unintelligible world.”
And so we have these words of Jesus – “Abide in my love.” (John 15:8)
I don’t believe there is much wrong with beautiful wedding dresses or sharp suits with a flower on the lapel or romantic sentimentality, and I don’t know that I would say this passage needs to be rescued per se. It does need to be seen though, in the context of a faith community that struggles with all the things any faith community struggles with. Let all that we do be done in love. Let everything we say and do be measured in love. Let that be our measure of success. For myself, success would be people looking back on my life in ministry and being able to say of me “Look how he loved them.” Without that everything else would be nothing. Let us hear the message over and over and over again because we haven’t arrived yet. Remain in my love. Little children, love one another. One day we’ll know as we’re known. One day we will love as we are loved. May that love be an inbreaking reality for us each day. May this be true for all of us. Amen