Agents of Love
Faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. These words are famous, known not only in the world of committed Christians but also to those with little or no acquaintance with Scripture. With the exception of days like today, 1 Corinthians 13 is read almost exclusively at weddings, a thing which gives pause to lovers of the Bible, for St. Paul did not write these words in the context of a wedding but of a vicious fight between supposed disciples of Jesus Christ in the church in Corinth.
St. Paul’s description of love is interesting, if only because it is so very basic. His description is not unlike the way we would describe music to those who cannot hear, or blue skies to those who cannot see. St. Paul describes love to those who do not love, and though his language is quite arresting, it is also clear, reading the whole of the letter, that at times he is near consumed with rage at these Christians who are not like Christ.
They are not in the least bit like their Lord and Savior for they screech incomprehensible noises at the sound of His holy name in church, get drunk on the wine that is to be a shared Sacrament, and treat fellow members of the church more like servants than their brothers and sisters in Christ. For love of God our Father and our Father’s creation, Jesus gave up His life on the cross, dying to give us life abundant and eternal. By its very nature, His love was sacrificial, for He gave all of Himself to save each of us. The sacrificial nature of that love is hinted at as the magi gather to worship the infant king under the light of the singular star that led them to Bethlehem. Frankincense and myrrh were, and still are, used in prayer and burials, and the giving of them identified young Jesus as both high priest and sacrificial lamb. Though disciples of Jesus Christ, at least some of the members of the congregation in Corinth preferred to sacrifice their brothers and sisters in Christ on the altar of their own self-adoration. They were takers not givers. It was not love that motivated them but a particular form of self-obsession.
We know them to be self-obsessed by Paul’s critique of their behavior. That is how he begins his letter, and this section of it. From the beginning he sets the tone of the argument: they are quarrelling; they are divisive; they are immoral. For the last two weeks Paul has spoken to the Church about spiritual gifts, beginning with the spiritual gifts of individual believers, that he might lead us all to the understanding that those gifts are not given only to benefit that individual but most especially to build up the body of Christ, the Church. St. Paul begins this way because the besetting sin of the congregation in Corinth is spiritual pride. A group of individuals have claimed to be prophets, throwing themselves about the sanctuary and shouting incomprehensible nonsense during worship. They believe themselves to be holier than anyone else in the congregation, and better than their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ, who cannot come to worship until their morning work for their masters has been completed. So, the “prophets,” thinking themselves superior to their non-prophetic and poorer colleagues, get to church early, knock back and drink the Communion wine, and treat their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ like servants. It was a monstrous perversion of Christianity, and Paul’s anger was well deserved.
Paul attacks this corruption of Christian belief and practice by way of metaphor. We call the Church the body of Christ, so Paul compares the Church to a real human body. The human body is composed of many parts, eyes, ears, feet, and so on, each of which is important to the body. For if the ears were missing the body could not hear, and if the eyes were not there the body could not find its way in the world in any easy way. So, all parts of the body are important, and all must function together. No one part of the body is more important than any other part of the body.
Yet the Corinthians at which Paul directed both his anger and his instruction believed themselves better, more important Christians than those others with whom they worshipped on a Sunday morning, and they acted on those beliefs. There was no love shared among between them. There was no giving of their gifts for the building up of the whole congregation or the good of another. Even that self-love which seems at work to us was no love at all, for none of us can truly love ourselves or understand God’s love of us individually when we do not see our brokenness, our unrighteousness, our own sin. Eventually, the little clay idol we have made of ourselves will hit the wall of terrible circumstance, illness, or oncoming death, and it shatters.
Paul likely shattered a bit, too, hearing as he did of this shipwreck of a congregation from the letters other members sent him. He spent years bringing this congregation to life, preaching from his tentmaker’s stall in the market, cherishing new believers, teaching them to know Jesus Christ and His way and truth. So, he was angry, angry and heartbroken like a father who watches a beloved teen-ager get himself into the kind of trouble that will harm him or even kill him. Paul wanted for this “child” of his what he wanted for himself and all other followers of Jesus Christ, a life lived in alignment with our Savior Jesus Christ, in charity with the world, and looking to the kingdom of God.
In this morning’s epistle reading, Paul has finished, for the moment, anyway, chastising the flock he once shepherded and he has now begun to teach. He will show them “a more excellent way.” Since they did not get it before, he will instruct them on the nature of a love like that of Jesus Christ, a love that gives all for the benefit of the beloved. Now we come close to those famous words, known not only by Christians but also by secularists, pagans, Hindus and Buddhists.
He begins where it hurts, by addressing head on their overweening pride in their prophetic “gift.” Whether St. Paul actually believed that the Corinthians were prophets or not, he begins with the way they act out at worship, loudly, assuming they have a secret knowledge to impart. So what, says Paul, if I could speak as God’s messengers the angels speak, or prophesy as loudly as clanging cymbals? No prophecy matters, even if it is the second most important gift of the Holy Spirit, if it is not done in love for love’s sake. We could be the smartest man in the world, the wisest woman, the most faithful or the most generous individual ever, but none of it would matter if we were not also filled with love for Christ and His people. Love is more important than any other gift, and is, truly, the only right foundation on which to build our lives and our relationships with ourselves and our Lord and one another.
A body could admit as much, and still wonder what this love really is. Let’s think of those wayward souls in long ago Corinth as more confused than evil. It could simply be that they just do not understand love. Certainly they do not understand that they are called to love like Jesus does, with a love that does not seek benefit for Himself but seeks rather to benefit others. Like Jesus Himself, love is sacrificial in nature. Love is patient, not demanding that others think or act like I do on my say so. Love cherishes the other. Love lifts the other up, not ourselves, so there is no call for boosting my own esteem at the cost of another’s. Love seeks not command but cooperation, not bitterness but mercy, not lies but truth.
Clearly, the orientation of a Christlike love points away from oneself and towards the good of others. We do not go into relationships thinking what we get out of it for ourselves, but rather what we can give to those we love. It seems doable, or at least it seems doable until we read what comes next, for here the word, “all” comes much into play. “Love,” says Paul, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This is not just Christlike love, our prayer that we be more like Jesus and less like our sinful selves when it comes to how we treat our neighbor. This is the love of Him Who was sent from heaven to earth to give His holy and sinless life as a ransom for the many, that we might have life and not the death we deserve. This love we may receive, but it is not the kind of love we can give, at least not without the help of the Holy Spirit.
Which we must have. “Love does not end,” says St. Paul, but we do, as do prophecies, human intelligence and wisdom. There is not one thing we do that is eternal in its nature, and if nothing else, growing up is knowing that all we do is so much dust in the wind except that it be done in the name of divine love and for love. At the end, then, says St. Paul the pastor to his wandering lambs, grow up. Let go of your childish, selfish ways, and give in, to a love that does not fade with time nor falter at human selfishness but seeks to follow its Lord as an agent of love in the world.
I’m not going to tell you that we’re like those long-ago Christians because we are not. I will remind you that we are not is God’s doing and not ours so we cannot boast in any way of ourselves. But spiritual maturity is much to be praised, and we ought to chase after it, even if we know that we can do nothing in that way without the Holy Spirit. Even so, we do fail in love, and we see it when we do. Worse yet, so do our neighbors, and we look like hypocrites to our neighbors because we are hypocrites when we acknowledge Christ as the Lord of love and then act in loveless ways. Let’s leave this Sanctuary today, and watch for those times when love fails, when we lift ourselves up by putting another down, when we acquiesce in a lie rather than telling the truth, when affection for another becomes a way to seek self-gain, and not the neighbor’s good. And then let us repent, secure in the knowledge that we have the love of God, and give that love to those around us.