(Scripture text of 1 Corinthians 13: 1-11 at end of post)
Do any of you remember the little book called “Love is Walking Hand in Hand”? It was written by Charles M. Schultz- yes, the author of Peanuts. And here it is – – , my very own copy, well-read and well worn.
I had a number of Peanuts books, and I loved them. The paperback books full of the comic strips, small and hard to read; these small hardback feature books; and even some books by others about Schultz’s Charlie Brown and friends. When reading “The Gospel According to Peanuts”, you’d think I might have figured out something about my future career, but no.
“Love is hating to say goodbye”. “Love is getting someone a glass of water in the middle of the night”. “Love is committing yourself in writing”. The book was published in 1965, reading it today, all of Schultz’s ideas are still valid, still charming.
Perhaps the more familiar “Love is” series you are more familiar with is from the text today from First Corinthians. You heard it at a wedding- it’s a classic, almost a cliche. But weddings were far from the mind of Paul when writing this passage to the church at Corinth, a church in conflict.
Paul had visited Corinth previously to this letter, in fact he had helped to establish this congregation, which was a collection of house churches. But he has heard reports about them since his departure, such as disagreements: “ For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
The Corinthians had been puffing themselves up: “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened.”
They had been treating the Lord’s Supper with disrespect: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? “
No, Paul was not writing to a bride and groom- but to a group of people bound together by their commitment to following Jesus. Paul wrote his letters in the first 50 years after Jesus’ death, when Christian churches, such as they were, were a mixture of all kinds of different people. The church of Corinth was almost all Gentiles, that is, non-Jews: some wealthy Greeks or Romans, often former followers of what were called mystery cults, the middle class of Corinth; and lower caste folk, whose religious life before Jesus may have been bound up in all the local government deities.
One of the biggest miracles of the early church is that from such congregational diversity eventually came theological commonality. Different people came to believe the same things about the God they called Jesus.
And Paul , the traveling missionary to the Gentiles- the non-Jews, was the letter-writer whose thoughts helped to form a consistent theology. But before Paul’s words were considered universal, they were meant for specific churches.
Corinth, a church of promise, yet with quarrels and disrespect; a community searching for spiritual gifts and experiences yet wanting to boast about them- needed to understand what love is. Not romantic sentimental love, but the kind of love that brings together, uplifts,- – sacrificial and enduring love. Just as the little book, “Love is a Walking Hand in Hand” helped name love for children, Paul gives concrete examples of the love he envisions for the community at Corinth.
“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. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Well, of course we read those words at weddings: they are beautiful, a blueprint for years of marital happiness as well as congregational.
So what are these words? Command? Suggestions? Guidelines?
How about promise? These words are a promise, that by our life in Christ, is love divine achieved.
When we acknowledge we cannot perfectly love by our own work, but only through Christ living and loving in us, is love achieved. Not with every self-help book on Amazon are we able to love as we want to- only with a relationship with the living God.
When we try to love well and on our own terms, basically be our own savior, we constantly fall short because of our own human limitations. Those lovely “love is” statements don’t , and can’t, come to full fruition.
The promise in these words is the promise of our baptism, and our on-going relationship with Christ. When Christ lives in us, love becomes these words of action- they aren’t passive, “wait for it” phrases. Note the way Paul frames love in such spirited terms: rejoice, believes, hopes, endures.
Weddings, congregations, families, schools, places of business, ….., anywhere and everywhere- the words of First Corinthians 13 have meaning and purpose and can change lives and conditions for people interacting with each other. The promise embedded in Paul’s words is the power of living in Christ’s love and grace- which provides the environment of love he weaves for us.
By all means, continue to use First Corinthians 13 as a love poem at weddings. But let’s not forget it’s first use, as a love poem to congregational life.
1 Corinthians 13: 1-11
13 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,[a] 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.