I Corinthians 13:1-13

when love means nothing

February 3, 2013 Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

I’m convinced love is the most misused and least understood word in our vocabulary. When someone begins talking about love I listen very carefully for what they mean because it’s not clear anymore; at least not to me. It’s not because I’m a cynic or cold hearted. How can anyone know what love means when it refers to cars, cigars and jellybean filled jars? We speak of loving our country, our spouse or partner, children, grandchildren, pets and favorite sports teams – all in the same sentence. I don’t think you would die for your team, at least I hope not, though many die for their country. I haven’t mentioned the references to love that are so confused with flaming hot sexual desire that it’s impossible to distinguish the desire from the object of that desire. And when the desire cools, the object of this so-called love is discarded with all the details displayed in the people section of the paper. Or relationships are wrapped in so much sentimentality that makes the heart leap and the tears flow that one believes that such visions are real, which can lead to breathtaking affairs of the heart that rarely ever end well. In the end, adultery still brings shattering pain.

I’m trying to say that we have to sweep away all the false notions of love before we can approach how wonderful love really is. And it is wonder-full; after all, scripture says: God is love. C.S. Lewis once said that the closest we ever come to experiencing God in this mortal life is by experiencing Love for one another.

But what is love?

Let’s start with Saint Paul. When he wrote his first century letter to the struggling congregation at Corinth, he knew of their failings: the more affluent members were arriving early for communion so they could eat and drink to excess while the poor were unable to get there in time for anything; leaders fought over nearly everything, jockeying for positions; chaos was the norm. He begins to shift their attention by reminding them that they belong to one another as intricately as a body, and each has Spiritual gifts for the common good. When he finally gets to the 13th chapter of his letter, he focuses their attention on what matters most – Love – and he does it in the most concrete way possible.

This is not about a wedding.

Every couple wants this chapter read at their wedding which is fine, but we need to remember that Paul’s counsel on love is actually for a community of faith; one often fighting with each other and rarely able to channel their Spiritual gifts for the common good. He is pointing them toward a more excellent way.

Love is the more excellent way.

What’s makes Paul’s counsel about love extraordinary is the specificity he gives to the word. Love is embodied in concrete practices that can’t be misunderstood or misused.

Love may be in the thoughts you think. Love may be in the feelings you feel.

But love is actually expressed in the acts you do, in the life you live with others.

With the notion of the common good always in the background, love becomes the practices that sustain our life together as God’s people. The old song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”, may be worn out, but it’s actually true; and by no other way. Here is where things get tricky. It is tempting simply to repeat the virtues Paul describes and say just do it. Love is patient: just do it. Love is kind: just do it. Love is never boastful, or arrogant, or self-serving, or jealous or envious or rude or irritable: just do it. Love is a checklist for being a good person. Hearing that, most of us secretly roll our eyes or fall into despair with the knowledge that we can never attain such virtues. Others grit our teeth and try harder to do the impossible. It’s the moral equivalent to row harder, run faster. Just do it. I know that life. But what if all of that rowing, and running and gritting is nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal?

I believe the reason Saint Paul waits until the 13th chapter of his letter to speak about the more excellent way of love is so that we might understand that the Holy Spirit who binds us together in one Body is the One who enables us to practice the love Paul describes. It is not by our own moral strength alone that we can love another, but by the power of the Spirit that enables such love in our lives over time. The Spirit enables us to do what is otherwise impossible: love one another. We depend wholly upon this One as we step into the very concrete practices of kindness and mercy, patience and humility.

A stranger came to our congregation years ago needing a community to call home and family. And you welcomed her, supporting her and nurturing her children. Now she will move from us much stronger. That is love in practice. When a man suffering cancer needed someone to drive him to Johns Hopkins for treatment several times a week, you drove him. That is love in practice. I greet men and women with Parkinson’s disease wobbling up to this building each week for physical therapy and their caregivers stop in to say thank you, often with tears. That is love in practice. It is the Spirit made manifest in real acts of kindness. It’s the parent who awakes at 3 in the morning for weeks on end. It’s moment you turn the other cheek and forgive the wrong done. That is love in practice. It’s the moment you truly listen to the Other before you, fully present. That is love in practice. It’s when you turn away from violence in all its myriad forms. That is love in practice

This is love and this is how they will know we are Christians.