I Corinthians 13
Click here for the video: Partial
I had something of a minor spiritual crisis this week. It had to do with football, but only slightly, so bear with me. You see, I was scrolling through social media and came across a video that ESPN had shared from the Super Bowl media day. This is the day set aside for players from both teams to answer questions from the press. Only this particular question wasn’t from the press, it was from a kid. And it was directed at none other than Tom Brady, the quarterback for the New England Patriots. Even people who don’t follow sports may have heard of Tom Brady. He’s the winningest post-season quarterback in NFL history. Brady and his Patriots have played in eight of the last seventeen Super Bowl contests, winning 5 of them. When the video popped up, I confess that I rolled my eyes. I mean I am so over the New England Patriots and their quarterback, Tom Brady. Enough already. But my curiosity was piqued by the caption that said the question had to do with how he handles the haters. That’s me, I thought. So I clicked on the video. The kid asks, “how are you able to focus despite the negative fanbase, AKA the haters?” “I don’t know,” says Brady to the kid, “how do we handle the haters?” The kid shrugs. “We love ‘em,” Brady tells him. “We love ‘em back, because we don’t hate back. We appreciate it and we love ‘em, and we wish them the best in their life.” I think you can see my crisis. Schooled by an NFL quarterback, which kind of makes me want to hate him all the more, but of course that’s only because he’s right. And not just when it comes to football.
Today we get a gift from the lectionary- that cycle of prescribed readings used by Catholics and historic Protestant traditions alike for Sunday worship. What I mean by that is that in this particular part of the cycle, the suggested Epistle readings following Epiphany are from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Because we only do two of the three readings in worship, we don’t always get to hear from that text, but trust me on this. So today, we have before us in Sunday worship the 13th chapter of this letter. People who don’t know chapter and verse just know it as the “love” passage. It may be one of the most popular readings used at weddings because it’s all about love. How appropriate, we might think, to kick off the first Sunday in February, a month fairly defined by the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day, with this particular scripture passage. Only I didn’t pick it. Well, I did, but only because it was offered as one of the three readings for the day, and because for as lovely as these words are, they really have far less to do weddings and valentines than we’ve been led to believe by their use. The gift before us is the opportunity to hear these words outside of a matrimonial setting.
You see, the truth is that the church in Corinth was a hot mess; rife with divisions, and struggles. There were divisions over sex, divisions over food, divisions over leadership, divisions due to social class and money. You know, the usual. Depending on how you look at it, Paul’s first letter to this church is either terribly disheartening, or incredibly hopeful. Disheartening to discover that when it comes to the people of God, and specifically the church of Jesus Christ, there never really was a golden age when everyone got along and agreed with each other and lived together in complete peace and harmony. But also hopeful, because even though life in the church has always vacillated somewhere between a little rocky and highly contentious, we are still here two thousand years later. Granted, not a whole lot has changed (technology excluded), but we haven’t given up either. And that’s gotta count for something. Or rather, despite everything, God has not given up on us.
So Paul spends the better part of the letter walking through the minefield of disputes that are stressing this nascent Christian community in Corinth. And this thirteenth chapter is really just an extension of a point Paul began to make in chapter 12, about the variety of gifts that make up Christ’s body in the world, this thing we call church. Nobody has all the gifts in and of themselves. Nobody can do on their own all the things that Christ’s body does collectively as a whole. We all have a part of it. It is our own part, but it is only a part. Then he encourages them to strive for the greater gifts and promises to show them a still more excellent way. Which brings us to love. Not love as a romantic sonnet between two who are betrothed. Not love as a jingle, or banner to sell more chocolate. Not love as the hook of a pop song, or a rom com meet-cute. But love as the integral gift to holding together a fractious and divided people that calls them to a more excellent way of being in the world.
In fact, says Paul, without love, nothing else of note that we may do or accomplish is worth a whole lot. Nothing we say, no matter how Spirit-filled it may sound. Nothing we think we might know, no matter how deep or profound. Nothing we profess, no matter how sincere it may be expressed. None of it amounts to anything if it isn’t in the service of love. And here is where it might be a good time to clarify what Paul is talking about. As you may know, the Greek language has four distinct words that offer nuance when it comes to what we are talking about when we talk about love. There is the passionate attraction of Eros love, as well as the natural affection of storgē that one might feel for a child, or a pet. There is the love found in friendship expressed as phileō and made famous by the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. And then there is the word used for love more than any other in Christian scripture, agapē. This is the kind of love that is defined less by how the one who loves feels in themselves, and more by the longing such a one has for the well-being of the other, the beloved. It desires goodness for the beloved above all else. The more excellent way that Paul invites us to consider is one in which the words we say, the things we understand, and what we believe are all in service of someone other than ourselves. And if they are not. If we’re just talking to have something to say or to hear ourselves talk. If our deep thoughts are meant to impress others and make us sound smart. If our faith is a badge or a jersey we wear to signal to the right people that we belong and are acceptable, and our giving is done to burnish our image as truly upstanding and outstanding folks, then, says Paul, we are doing it all wrong.
All these things that Paul says love is, and isn’t, things love does and doesn’t, are pretty daunting really. I cringe at how I fall so short of it so much of the time. I don’t know about you, but I’m not very patient. I try to be kind, but I know I am prone to envy and arrogance. I would much rather get my own way. And it just feels like irritability and resentment are the order of the day anymore- at least when I’m in heavy traffic. This list makes far more sense if instead of the word love, we substitute the name Christ. Because this is his way, his more excellent way. To be one of his disciples, one of his students in his school of love means that we are trying to walk in this way, trying to follow him in what it means to truly love.
And here’s the thing, most of the stuff that we tend to concern ourselves with. Most of the things that we argue about and are divided over; the things that keep us apart- those are the things that obscure rather than enlighten. For the most part they are all half-baked attempts, partial attempts to see and know and experience something that can only even be glimpsed when we love in the way that Christ loves us. When we say, “not what I want, but what you want, God.” When, instead of deflecting, and blame-shifting, and tearing people down in order to protect ourselves, we lay down our lives, our positions, our agendas to hear what it is that those people (whoever that is for us) want and need. When we take the gift of love that God has given to us in Christ, and in turn give it away ourselves. Because the truth is that the person that we think we know, whether it is the person we’ve been married to for 50 years or more, or the one lurking behind a pseudonym on the internet, is like everything else: we know them only in part. That person who you’ve known since your were kids? That person who just cut you off in traffic, or expressed an opinion that challenges all the things you value? Our knowledge of them- what they love and why, who they love and why- is partial at best.
To put an end to childish ways, means putting an end to the endless tit-for-tat that dominates our culture. It means putting away the idea that I’ve got mine, now you get yours. It means putting away the need to get the last word, or knowing that we’re right, or thinking we have all the answers, so that we can listen, and learn, and love. To put an end to childish ways means recognizing that all the things and people that we know in part are only made complete when there is love.
It’s become something of a cliché, that moment in the movie Jerry Maguire where the title character played by Tom Cruise has his epiphany and says to his love interest, “you complete me. That isn’t really how it works. What it suggests is that we need another person to make us whole. Which might make for a great line in a movie, but isn’t how things work in real life. In real life, what completes me, what completes you, what completes any of us and makes us whole is when we recognize the love God has for each of us, the kind of love that desires nothing but goodness for us, and desires the same for everyone else- even the haters. Maybe especially the haters. Because if we win the Super Bowl (or anything else in life, for that matter), but do not have love, we have already lost. But if we walk in the still more excellent way of love, then no matter the loss, we have already won.