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Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” These are some of the most familiar words in Scripture, but most of us rarely hear them outside of weddings. In fact, they were not originally addressed to a young couple about to be married, but to members of a congregation who were not feeling at all romantic toward each other. They were dividing themselves into factions and trying to outdo each other with showy displays of their advanced spirituality. Paul’s famous words on love are part of a rebuke to this congregation, and behind the lyrical beauty of the words there is a sarcasm that the members of the Corinthian church couldn’t have failed to miss.
When we talk about love – as we do especially this month with our celebrations of Valentine’s Day – most of us older people are likely to think of the love of our families, the bonds between spouses, parents and children, and siblings. If you are a young person, you might think especially of romantic love, the passionate attraction to another person and the desire to be as close as possible to that one person. That’s what we’re usually thinking of when we read 1st Corinthians 13 at a wedding.
In my experience this is the single most-requested wedding Scripture, and I have preached on it numerous times in that context -- but the sermon I remember most is not one I delivered at the beginning of a marriage but at the end of one. John and Mary Williams had been married over seventy years when Mary died. This couple had weathered many storms together over their long marriage, and their last years were spent nursing each other through injuries and illnesses. Mary had been an English teacher, and they both loved poetry, especially Shakespeare’s sonnets, which they could quote to each other. I remember hearing John recite these verses from Sonnet 116 when Mary was so frail she couldn’t get out of bed after the hip fracture she’d never recover from:
“Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds;
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
…Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy cheeks and lips
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with [time’s] brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
At Mary’s funeral John stood up and recited these verses to the congregation gathered there to remember her life.
That’s the difference between romance and real love. Don’t get me wrong, romance is wonderful, and when it happens to you, it is a great gift that should not be refused – but romance has mostly to do with emotions, and emotions are notoriously unstable. Emotions go up and down, but love, Paul (and Shakespeare) tell us, is constant. It doesn’t focus on the immediate desirability of its object (those rosy lips and cheeks Shakespeare wrote about), but on the needs and concerns of that other person. That’s what the love of Christ is all about, and that is the kind of love Paul is commending to the Corinthians and to us.
The love Paul is talking about has nothing to do with having warm, fuzzy feelings toward the other person. For Paul, love is not really a feeling at all, but a set of concrete, positive actions toward those for whom Christ died, regardless of your personal feelings for them. In Paul’s view, we are obligated to show love even to people we don’t especially like.
Several years ago I was struck by what might seem a rather strange example of love in the New Testament sense, but I think it comes closer to what Paul is talking about than most of what we see presented as love in the popular media. It was a BBC film on Queen Elizabeth I, starring Anne-Marie Duff as “The Virgin Queen.” This film was very different from other productions on Elizabeth I have seen, where the Queen’s relationship to the handsome Robert Dudley is a fairly minor subplot. Here this attraction was a major part of the story, and as I became engrossed in the film I thought, “Oh, they’ve made it into a love story.”
I was only half right. It was definitely a love story, but it was really about the queen’s love for the people of England. Elizabeth renounced not only Dudley, whom she had loved since childhood, but also a later marriage proposal that she believed would not be in the best interests of the English people. For all the royal privileges she enjoyed, Elizabeth rarely got to do as she pleased during her 45-year reign. She constantly had to set aside her own desires and passions for the sake of the English people. This is not to say that she was a paragon of love – she could be ruthless and hard-hearted when she thought politics demanded it. But Elizabeth believed, as did all monarchs of her time, that she had been put on the throne by the grace of God, and she understood that she was there as a servant of God and her people.
Paul is urging something like Elizabeth’s posture of self-denial on his congregation. Many of the Corinthians were evidently very gifted – some of them had preaching skills, some were healers, some had wisdom, and some were able to speak in tongues, a kind of ecstatic speech that was considered to be the speech of angels. The problem was, they had forgotten where their gifts came from, and they were using these gifts to make invidious distinctions among themselves. The tongue-speakers thought they were superior to the ones who spoke ordinary Greek in church, the preachers thought they were superior to the teachers, and so forth. Paul says that none of the Corinthians’ spiritual gifts count for anything without love.
Love is such an essential ingredient of Christian existence that even the best things we do are worthless without it. You can be brilliant in speaking about the faith, you can give away all your stuff to the poor, you can lead a mission trip to Haiti or Honduras or Mexico, but if you’re not doing it out of love, it isn’t worth a thing. If you’re not doing these things out of love, Paul says, they’re just a sham, like the bronze gongs that were used to amplify the actors’ voices in the ancient theater, or the clanging cymbals that were used in the frenzied practices of pagan worship. Without the necessary ingredient of love, Paul says, you’re just putting on a show. Real love is not in what you do that brings you recognition for your good works. Real love is in those small, quiet actions of kindness and forbearance that might not even get noticed.
You have undoubtedly known such love somewhere in your life: the person who stayed home from work to take care of you when you had the flu; the one who did the fact-checking and proofreading on your report so you could meet the deadline; the one who remembered some special treat you liked and lugged it in a suitcase over two continents to bring it to you. Through thousands of actions like these, we learn what it is to give and receive love. At the same time, these examples aren’t quite what Paul is getting at, because these are the kinds of things couples and family members do for each other out of the natural bonds of affection they share. Paul is talking about sacrificial love that moves beyond the private sphere of family affections and into the more public sphere of the church.
The love Paul envisions for the church is each person giving up his own privileges and status for the sake of the needier members of the community, each person looking out for the other person’s needs before looking out for her own. I don’t need to say that this is a completely counter-cultural message in our context – as Americans, we have been taught that our desires and dreams come first, and that it is our birthright to pursue them. But Paul tells us to look at the model Christ has given us. To suffer pain and insult and then die for the sake of the world, as Christ has done for us – that is to “bear love out to the edge of doom.”
Listen again to Paul’s words: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It has often been said that if you substitute the word “Jesus” for the word “love” in this passage, you can begin to understand it. “Jesus bears all things. Jesus is patient and long-suffering, kind and compassionate; Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant.” When Paul personifies love, it’s not just to be poetic. He means that love isn’t some abstract ideal, but that love has found full and complete expression in the person of Jesus Christ. In affiliating with this person, we begin to realize in our own lives the quality of the love he has shown us.
“Love never ends,” Paul writes. Spiritual gifts will pass away, romance will pass away, but the love of God in Jesus Christ endures forever. The true test of our love is in clinging to him, carrying out the practices of love in a world in which such actions may look ridiculous or futile. That is the love that endures all things: persistent, relentless, never shaken, never ending.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
February 3, 2019
 Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), p. 206.