1 Corinthians 13 is Paul’s famous treatise on Love. He weaves together the sacrificial nature and limitless power of love. Unpacking the context in which Paul wrote this provides needed insight for today
We Are Gathered Here Today
If you’ve been to a wedding you’ve heard these words read. And, in truth, Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth contains the most beautiful and profound articulation of love. So why wouldn’t you read it–over and over again–as a bride and groom share their vows together. If you are married, recalling your wedding day is a fond trip back to where your life together began–chapter 1 (the dating and courting are the prologue). And, again, is there any better way to begin your storied life together than with Paul’s declaration of the transcendent power of love? Probably not. But, it is worth uncovering the context
The reality is, Paul didn’t pen these words for your wedding day. It was the furtherest thing from his mind. As Paul wrote chapter 13 he was in desperate need of some superglue. Or, I should say, to apply God’s super glue. You see, the church in Corinth–to whom Paul was writing–was not standing at the proverbial altar on their wedding day. This community was a little more like Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues. There was a deep divide–and it wasn’t pretty.
Corinth, We Have A Problem
As you read through the book of 1st Corinthians you get a taste for what some of the struggles were that Paul was working to iron out among the faithful. Issues like:
- Claims of spiritual superiority over one another–that sense that I’m better than you because I do X, Y, and Z.
- Civil disputes among fellow church folks were being solved in the public courts through suing one another. This was turning ugly and divided the church into factions.
- Abuses of the communal meal–both communion as we know it today as well as the community supper.
- Paul addresses various misuses and failings of a sexual nature. Fallen humans, throughout history, have struggled as we take this gift of our sexuality and misuse it in endless ways.
In short, the church (and city) of Corinth was divided. Deeply divided. And, this one letter clearly didn’t fix everything. Like a parent repeating simple instructions for the umpteenth time to disobedient children, Paul had to write a second letter to address mostly the same issues again.
It’s in this context that Paul writes:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Context matters, doesn’t it. When we read these words with our mind thinking of a bride and groom on their wedding day, our eyes glaze over and we move along quickly. However, when we pause and recognize that these words were written to a context similar to America in 2020–these words have power and bite.
A More Excellent Way
Paul knew, and wrote, that love is patient. Not just to explain the unending patience my wife has with me on account of my unending ability to miss the dirty clothes hamper. “Love is patient” because it sees the long game. Love recognizes that tolerating someone else and their differences is not nearly as powerful as seeing beyond our differences to find our similarities.
“Love is kind” is about doing the hard work of not painting in broad strokes. Love is the power (along with the Holy Spirit) that activates within us the power to live out the 8th Commandment. Here it is in case you forget it, along with Luther’s explanation:
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.
I have a love/hate relationship with the last part of Luther’s explanation. I love it because it is so true. I hate it because it is so hard. He quickly moves us from “Thou shall not” to what how we are called to love our neighbor. Defend; speak well of; and explain in the kindest of ways. Our collective score card on this one is pretty dismal.
It may be easy to point to reasons we are where we are. Certainly we have not had good examples of this “still more excellent way.”
- Our president, our politicians, our media, the talking pundits–for years have been “insisting on their own way.”
- Certainly, our current pandemic has worn out our last nerves.
- Social media, for all the good it can do, has devastating side effects–that seem to have traded places with the social good.
- The important conversation in our country on race has been pushed to the side and hijacked in unhealthy ways.
There is no shortage of excuses for why it is hard to love today. Faction lines are drawn deeper and deeper with each passing hour. Blanket statements about the other side are lobed at one another like scud missiles–no targeting system and fired without concern for the casualties. America has become a war zone of hate. And we are all guilty.
This is exactly why we are called to return to 1 Corinthians 13. Not for some romantic magic that somehow holds newlyweds captive to their fond feelings from their wedding day. No, Paul gives us a potent antidote for times such as this. Paul has painted the road map for how to get from where we are to where we want to be–where we need to be.
And, here is the thing–and it is important–love does not mean we all agree. It does not magically erase our different perspectives. I love my wife. And she loves me. But, we have different perspectives and different understandings on lots of different things. And, truly, that’s one of the things I enjoy most about our relationship. Not always, of course, but certainly when I step back from our intense moments I realize that if I were to have married someone that was a mirror image of me–dang, I’d be bored. Love doesn’t erase the things that make us different–it anchors us to one another so that we can’t escape from one another when differences arise. And differences always arise!
How do we fall in love with one another again as a country?
I don’t know that I have the answer to this important question. But, I think a good start is a calling for the return of followers of Christ from every tribe and stripe to love. Not some sentimental emotion that is best displayed in a Hallmark movie. No, true love; deep love; Christian love. A love that is patient–it waits and listens to opposing views. Truly listens with an open heart and open ears. I know when I listen, I often am spending most of my energy thinking about my next response. That isn’t too helpful. And it isn’t patient love.
We are called back to Kindness. Oh how our world needs more kindness today! Bless the socks off of somebody today by being exceedingly kind. Be generous with your compliments. Go the extra mile to be helpful. Expect nothing in return. Don’t manipulate (being kind to get something). Make connection with someone and bless them.
Knock off the envy and the boastful ways. That isn’t love. That’s care for you and yours. Love is about the other. Love is about helping; serving, recognizing the spark of Christ that rests in each person your eyes will rest on today. And love isn’t arrogant either. Entitlement and superiority complexes do not help and do not draw people together. We live into these errors when we tell half truths and partial stories that don’t recognize our own culpability in the current state of division. Arrogance is a failure to remember that “all have fallen short of the glory of God.” Just as the spark of Christ rests in each person you see (that’s the Image of God!), so too, did the Lord need to die for the redemption of each person you will see. None of us are sinless. None of us our blameless. We all play a part in the hole we find ourselves in. Thanks be to God that the Love of Christ has thrown us a ladder to get out of the hole. And to show us a way to live so that we don’t keep falling back in to it.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” The light of love can never be snuffed out. So…. love. Period. It is that simple. And, it is that hard. The reality is, the state we find ourselves is far from a quick fix. The division that exists in our country is palpable. We feel it. We sense it. We see it. And the fix is the same power that has been at work from before time began. Love.
The Greatest of These…
But here is the thing. The final point. And, really, the only point of this whole post. Sitting back and preaching and wishing for love doesn’t get the job done. Bemoaning how be things are and how divided we have become doesn’t do much. Proclaiming to others that all they need to do is love doesn’t move the needle. It starts with you. And me. This is a grassroots campaign if there ever was one. And it starts in your own head and heart. How will you take the medicine that St. Paul prescribes? What can you do to live into being a more loving you today. To become a better version of your self.
In the words of the Dr. Seuss’s the Once-ler:
“UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Love starts with Christ. It comes to us. As we ingest this great gift from God, it exudes out of us. Today, let love pour out of your pores. It’s our only hope for uniting our division. And, it starts with you.
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”