This sermon was given by Mark Rupp, candidate for Pastor of Christian Formation at Columbus Mennonite Church.
Twelve Scriptures project
Text #5: 1 Corinithians 13
What is love?
For the last few weeks we have been exploring this question. As a congregation we have named three scriptures into our top twelve that attempt to dive into the heart of this question. Yet, in many ways, it could also be argued that we have named 12 scriptures that get at this question. Perhaps instead of “The Primacy of Love” we should have named this section “The Indefinability of Love.” Is it any wonder that we have and need so many resources to help us answer the question, “What is love?” when one of our primary ways of understanding love is simply, “God is love.” That settles it, right?
But thankfully we also have any number of other resources for helping us to answer this question. Maybe it’s helpful for us to have Jesus boil everything down to “love God and love neighbor,” but we see in at least one of the scriptural versions of this account that even this answer invites further questions. “But who is my neighbor?”
Before we get to Paul, maybe we want to consider some other resources for helping us understand what love is, because society gives us no shortage of answers. Perhaps we should first consult one of the greatest philosophers of our time. According to Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang, “Love is walking hand-in-hand. Love is a letter on pink stationary. Love is letting him win even when you know you could slaughter him.”
But it seems like everyone has a different answer to this question. If we turn on the radio, we get a diverse array of answers. There we hear things like, “love is all you need,” or “I can’t help falling in love.” We learn that the opposite of love is indifference, not hate. We learn that love is what you call to say when you really mean it from the bottom of your heart. We learn that sometimes love is what lifts us up but other times love is a bit like a wrecking ball.
Or maybe we should let the innocence of children take the lead in teaching us about love. There is an often-quoted story about a group of children who were asked to define love. According to this anonymous source, Billy, age 4, tells us that “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” Chrissy, age 6, knows that “Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs.” Noelle, age 7, teaches us that “Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday.”
What is love?
We don’t give all of these resources the same amount of authority in helping us answer this question, but I think their diversity teaches us something important. In part, they teach us that love is really, really big. God is love. God is greater than that which we can think or imagine. Therefore, love is greater than that which we can think or imagine. But at the same time, love is really, really small. Love is being a neighbor. Love is the way you say someone’s name. Love is “hey, I like your shirt.”
It is with this tension in mind that I want to approach Paul’s attempt at answering one of life’s deepest question. For many of us, 1st Corinthians 13 is love at its biggest. Love is patient and kind, and it believes all things, and it never fails, and it never ends, and it is greater than all the other spiritual values like faith and hope. The list goes on, and we should understand that when Paul starts making lists, he doesn’t typically intend for them to be exhaustive. So, perhaps we could continue Paul’s list with our own thoughts on love, because this is the big sort of love that can’t ever be contained by any one list. It is the kind of love that gets at the heart of what it means to be, to be known, and to know.
It is no wonder that we turn this sort of love into the “I do” sort of love. We hear 1st Corinthians 13 at countless weddings because we want to remind ourselves that the love that is expressed in the commitment between two people is one of the many ways that we connect with something really big.
But love is also really small. Love is the note on the refrigerator even after 50 years of marriage. Love is a reassuring touch on a friend’s arm or a single word that someone needs to hear. Love is sometimes just a smile, or maybe even a smiley-face emoticon. If things are really serious, then maybe it’s even a winky emoticon. And sometimes love is even surprising and might not fit into any kind of list we might try to make. When we only let ourselves think of love in big ways, we can sometimes miss these small loves and everything in between.
When we only think of love in big ways, we are likely to turn Paul’s treatise on love into a beautiful piece of poetry that we only really think about at weddings. We tend to forget that this chapter comes toward the end of a letter addressing a multitude of problems within the church at Corinth. These problems included things like divisions in the Church over questions of authority, questions about sexual immorality, and questions about sex and marriage and celibacy. I’m sure glad the modern Church has figured out how to move past such things…
In reality, some of the problems addressed by Paul in 1st Corinthians do seem so very distant from our experience, such as the question Paul addresses about food sacrificed to idols. Yet, at the same time, we are still today wrestling with how to live with differing views about how food and justice are inter-connected. Or perhaps, unlike the church in Corinth, we do not regularly experience members of the congregation asserting that their ability to speak in tongues makes them more spiritual and holier than others, but I think we know very well the reality of subtle spiritual hierarchies that become ingrained, however unintentionally, in the life of the Church. When we divorce chapter 13 from the rest of Paul’s letter, we are likely to forget that love is more than just this big thing that we can spend hours pondering over and making lists about. Love is also the work we do every single day figuring out how to live together in ways that reflect the blessed community in which God is both calling and equipping us to participate.
This tension between the bigness and the smallness of love presented itself to me this week as I was reflecting on how to talk about this scripture. A couple of my friends shared a blog post online that intrigued me because I saw that it happened to reference 1st Corinthians 13. It was titled, “Why It Doesn’t Matter What Christians Think About Hobby Lobby,” and for those of you who just tensed up a bit because I mentioned something controversial, don’t worry, because apparently it doesn’t actually matter what we think. The author’s argument was essentially that it doesn’t matter what Christians think about Hobby Lobby or any of the other so called “controversial topics” because the ultimate litmus test is simply how we love. They will know we are Christians by our love. Period. I want to give credit to this author because a lot of what she wrote is spot on, but part of me feels like she wants 1st Corinthians 13 without 1st Corinthians 1 through 12. Yes, like Paul we affirm that the greatest of all things is love, but with Paul we also affirm that the day-to-day decisions we make about how to love one another in both big and small ways matter just as much.
The comment sections of online articles are never good places to go for good, rational thoughts, but one of the comments on this article caught my attention because I think it is an argument we hear in a lot of different forms. One person wrote: “This is the main reason I choose not to engage in politics. Because most arguments and opinions are about things that make no difference in my relationship with Christ. And that is what is most important.” This comment stands out to me not because it’s some off-the-wall piece of rhetoric but because it is exactly the opposite; this is what I’ve heard from a number of sincere people of faith. Perhaps I’ve even said something to this effect at some point.
Make no mistake, I think it is completely understandable to be frustrated with the state of U.S. politics and the way it seems structured only to pull people further and further apart to the point where no one is listening to one another. It is something else to say that the love we experience in our relationship with Christ has nothing to do with the ways we show love to one another through the structuring of society. The big-ness of love can never be a cop-out for what is often the hard work of the smallness of love.
Immediately before chapter 13 and the discussion on love, Paul outlines his vision of the Church as one body with many members. Starting at chapter 12, verse 18, Paul writes: “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Paul wants us to see that the fundamental reality of the body is that we need one another. I realize that Paul was speaking about the context of the Church as the body of Christ, but I have to believe that this truth transcends the four walls of the church building.
We need one another. When one suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice.
I think this is actually the foundation from which Paul builds his vision of love. We can do all sorts of great things. We can have all the knowledge in the world. We can have faith that moves mountains. We can give away everything we have. But if we do all these things without the fundamental understanding that we need one another, then our greatness is for nothing.
I don’t think I ever truly understood how giving away all one’s possessions could be devoid of spiritual value until I began working in community ministry. If you don’t know, I work part-time as the supervisor of a community kitchen ministry on the south side of Columbus. In my work with people who are poor and homeless, I have come to see the many different ways that our partner churches approach their mission work. I would not want to ever give the impression that any of the things these churches do lack love, but I have seen how some churches have a deeper understanding of love as an expression of the fact that we all need one another. Yes, love is serving food to the poor, but perhaps a more complete understanding of love involves getting out from behind the counter and sharing a meal with the poor, building a relationship of mutuality.
Love is understanding that I need people who are different from me to teach me about God.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
When Paul wrote this, he was most likely alluding to the tradition of Moses as the great prophet who was said to speak with God face to face. But the divine is not just something that the select few encounter at the top of the mountain; it emanates from each one of us as the imago dei, the image of God.
Love is the life-altering and liberating encounter with the image of God.
Author and social critic James Baldwin, who wrote during the civil rights era of the 1960’s, sums up well the liberating power of love. He writes:
“A vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
For Baldwin, the liberation of the oppressed is intimately tied to the liberation of the oppressor because anything less than love, anything less than a recognition of the interconnectedness of humanity, anything less than the recognition of God in the other, is to allow ourselves to be less than we were meant to be. To be truly free means to recognize that we need one another. To be truly free is to love.
Love is hard because sometimes it exposes who we really are. Yet love is always good for the very fact that it exposes who we really are.
In the end, love will shatter our mirrors, love will tear away our masks, and love will burst open our closet doors or any other dark place we may be hiding, because in the end, when all is revealed, we will be fully known.
Until that day, however, we must recognize the limitations of our understanding of love. For now, we know only in part, we prophesy only in part, but that does not mean that our knowing and our prophesying are in vain. The more we do these little things with love, the more our understanding of love will grow.
The good news about love is that it is both big and small, that it bridges the tension between the transcendence and the immanence of God, that we understand love as both ‘God’ and “I like your shirt.” The good news is that Jesus stands in that tension as the perfect example of both big and small love. The good news is that as we are empowered to choose love in little ways, we can never begin to exhaust our understanding of the height and width and depth of God’s big love.
And so, my wish for you, my friends, is:
– That we would never stop asking “what is love?”
– That we would never use the big-ness of love as a cop-out for choosing love in small, everyday ways.
– That we would see the limitations of our understanding not as a barrier but as an opportunity to grow.
– And, finally, that above all, we would choose love.