1 Corinthians 13
Billy Collins, a professor and a nationally-recognized poet, wrote a poem called “Introduction to Poetry” about teaching poetry. He wrote that he wanted students to enter the poem, immerse themselves into it, but instead
“All they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I often feel that preachers, myself included, do this with scripture. We need to know what it means. So we study the original context and the original language and we employ all the techniques we learned in seminary—literary criticism and form criticism and redaction criticism and the list goes on. We need to find within its words a message that is relevant to our lives today. All that is important, but sometimes I think we evaluate all the life out of it.
I don’t want to do that with what we call the Love Chapter in First Corinthians. It is familiar and beautiful and many of you probably had it read at your wedding. It certainly is appropriate for a wedding, but it is so much more because of its original intent. And for that we do need to look at the context.
First Corinthians was written by Paul to the church in Corinth. The first nine verses are a salutation or greeting, and an expression of thanksgiving. But starting at the tenth verse of chapter 1 and continuing through chapter 4, it’s all about division in the church: the facts of division, the causes of division, and the cure for division. In chapter five we move on to . . . immorality in the church. We get two chapters on immorality and then whew, chapter seven moves us to . . . other difficulties in the church, around issues of marriage, Christian liberty, and worship.
In the chapter directly preceding our passage, Paul talked about spiritual gifts. Some have the gift of prophecy, some have the gift of wisdom, faith, or healing. That sounds lovely, but they were apparently fighting over which gift was the best. Paul had to go into a lengthy metaphor about the church as a body, and one part of the body can’t say to the other “I don’t need you,” and all of the parts of the body are important. Paul wrote all this because they really needed to hear it!
So now we get to chapter 13, the Love Chapter. And now we know why Paul wrote this beautiful passage—because they really needed to hear it! And so do we. I don’t say that we need it because there is some great undercurrent of conflict in the church. I’m a bit afraid to say it, but things are pretty smooth. I say we need the message because all humans need the message. We all need to be reminded of love and our responsibility to live in love with one another.
I have heard it said that it is impossible to be a Christian in isolation. I don’t know that I would take it that far, but there is some truth in the idea that our Christian faith must be lived out in relation to others if we are to truly live in the ways of Christ. After all, it would be much easier to be kind and forgiving and to refrain from jealousy and anger if we didn’t actually have to relate to, you know, people. People bring with them complications and extenuating circumstances and traumas past and present.
“Lonni Collins Pratt is the co-author of a book . . . called Radical Hospitality, and she talks about the time that she and her husband lived across the road from a small log cabin. It was empty for much of the time, but then someone moved in. A man moved in to start to fix up the cabin, and, while Lonni was quite an introvert, her husband wasn’t, and was quick to go over and introduce himself and talk with the man who lived there. Lonni’s husband came back and said, ‘You really ought to get to know this guy. He’s fascinating. He’s fixing up this place. It’s going to be wonderful.’
A few weeks passed and then, in the middle of the night, when everyone was asleep, Lonni heard a scream — a scream of an adult that came from across the road. She knew it was coming from that cabin. She bolted straight up in her bed because it was the kind of scream that wakes you up in the middle of the night and makes you want to just hide in a corner. And she went to the window, and she listened until that scream began to fade. And she went back to bed, but she could hardly sleep. And the next night the same thing happened: a scream coming from the cabin.
The next day was a cool October day, and she had made some chili. So she took a big bowl of the chili and a thermos of coffee and a couple slices of pie, and she went over, and she knocked on the door. And she met Les, the man who lived there. Les, she said, looks a little bit like Willie Nelson. And he was very gracious and let her in, and they sat down, and they ate the chili and the pie, and as they were finishing up drinking coffee, Les was talking about his life, how he liked to fix up little houses and fix them up in such a way that eventually some young family would come in and take it over and improve the neighborhood. He never stayed in one place very long, Les said. He had moved to a lot of places, didn’t have a lot of family and friends, but that was OK. He got to know people as he moved around. And then he said he had been in Vietnam, a place he said that was pretty hard to get out of; in fact, most of the time he feels like he’s still living there.
And because Lonni listened deeply, she heard the things that he said though he never really used the words. What he really said to her was that I hope you’ll tolerate this season of screaming from a man who’ll eventually move on. Share this season of suffering, and then, one day, a nice young family will come in across the street and it will be much better. But, for now, I appreciate the fact that you’d be willing to smile at a man in the morning after you’ve probably heard him scream at night.
She says when you really listen to someone scream against the darkness you’re never the same anymore.”
This is what true authentic agape love, divine love, can do. It can love even after you’ve seen or heard the worst pain that someone carries. It might even sit with you and confront the night demons that cause the screams. It might help you put an end to them.
This love is not to be confused with a warm, fuzzy feeling or with a fondness for a special few people. Love finds its definition in concrete, self-giving action. In other words, love looks like, acts like, and sounds like Christ. Love looks like the one who sat at table with sinners. Love acts like the one who crossed serious social boundaries to heal people and set them free.
I belong to a Facebook group called “Things they didn’t teach us in seminary.” It’s an ecumenical group so there is often fascinating conversation about how things are in different denominations. But occasionally there is a question that crosses all denominational lines. This week there was a question that may have topped all previous discussions. Someone posted “Please share stories of REAL but FUNNY reasons that people have left a church.” Within two hours, over 100 people have responded. Within 24 hours, more than 600 had responded. I didn’t take the time to read through them all, but some of them were hilarious.
There were the usual ones of fights about the color of the carpet or the new paint in the Sunday school classrooms. Then there was the person who left because she didn’t like the ties that one of the deacons wore, another who left because the pastor had a beard, another who left because the married female minister preached while pregnant (and you know how she got that way!). My favorite was the man in his eighties who wanted to find a younger woman—meaning under fifty—and every time he asked out a woman in the church, she told him she was a lesbian. He decided he needed to go to a church with more single straight women. The pastor was pretty sure that not all the women he asked out were actually lesbians!
But then there were two that broke my heart. Two different pastors said that people had left their churches because they didn’t want to hear prayer requests. Their complaint wasn’t the way prayer requests were handled, but that they didn’t want to hear them at all! It was too sad and depressing to hear one another’s concerns. My first thought was: They have no idea what church is about. Sharing our hurts and pains is a huge part of what makes us church. You can go to Rotary and hear an inspirational message. You can join a community choir and sing. You can go to a political rally and hear about justice. In the church we preach Christ—Christ crucified—and we accept one other, all of one another, not just the pretty parts. We are the body of Christ, but as the communion liturgy reminds us, the body of Christ was broken. We are broken—some of us more than others, perhaps, or maybe just some of our brokenness is more recent or obvious. But here, we love one another through our brokenness.
Although this passage is about the church, the love cannot stay here. We must love one another but cannot only love one another. This love is what informs our justice work. Not our politics, but our faith. Our belief in loving those with night terrors. Loving those with day terrors. Loving those who are held in prisons without heat and light in New York City. Loving those parents who have been separated from their children for the crime of seeking a better life. Loving those children—thousands of them still being held by walls instead of arms, with little hope of reconciliation. We care and we act and we do what we can, whatever we can, to be love.
Sometimes we succeed and often we fail but always the only way we can even attempt love is because we are claimed by the One whose name is Love. The only way we can begin to do the hard, demanding work of love is because we are loved. The only way we can hope to know love fully is because we are fully known by Love.
And that, according to Paul, will last. Our knowledge won’t last. Our interpretations of the Bible won’t last. Our fancy churches won’t last. Our pianos, our parking lots, our diplomas our degrees, our hymnals or our Robert’s rules of order. Not a thing we are or a thing we have will last. It will all die and remain here on earth. Paul says that only love will last. It will never end. It will go with us into the next world…with God…where there is nothing but love.