January 10, 2021

Series: January 2021

Category: Deepening Our Understanding of Familiar Passages

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Tags: love, 1 corinthians 13


           If you know my pattern, you’ll know that I write a first draft of my sermon on Wednesday morning, which gives me time to edit the rest of the week.  This week was no different.  I sat down, completed my draft, and it was only then that I saw what was happening in our nation’s capitol building.  I do not have a fully rewritten sermon for you.  In part, I have found completely rewriting in the wake of a tragic event usually doesn’t go well, and I can’t offer the wisdom for which such a moment calls.  As an illustration of that, while I reflected on what was happening, I couldn’t get past the singular question:  “What if those people who did that had been black?”  That question, I think, is sermon in and of itself. 

           People carried signs with Jesus’ name on it, erected a cross as part of their cause, and all on Epiphany?  Lord, have mercy on us.

The reading for today is:

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

13If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For 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. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

Today's Sermon


            The love passage, even many outside the faith have heard it.  I wonder how many of you have heard it at a wedding, or, if you are married, had it read at your own.  I also wonder how many of you who grew up in the tradition that used a different translation of this Bible, King James perhaps.  If you did, you’ll recall “love” never appears in its version of this passage. 

          The word is “charity,” and actually it’s not a bad translation.  It’s a better translation when you take into consideration the rather narrow connotations of love in our culture.  We privilege romantic love.  There’s a Greek word for that in the New Testament, and it’s not the one Paul uses here.  Paul uses a word that is, in fact, closer to charity.  It’s a selfless love, a self-sacrificing love, a term used to describe the way God loves humanity.  It’s unconditional, covenantal, used to describe the essence of God, loving-kindness, concerned with and committed to the wellbeing of the other.  Mark Woods of Christianity Today writes, “Paul's ‘Love is...’ list isn't a statement of the dewy-eyed emotional state in which couples stand in front of the altar. It's a commitment to a rigorous practice of spiritual discipline in relation to other people in general – and not just to the object of amorous desire.”[1]  The love Paul is describing goes beyond the bounds of our wedding ceremonies, which isn’t to say it shouldn’t also be held in that context.

           Love has been watered down in our context.  It’s been so sentimentalized that perhaps it’s lost its teeth…to mix metaphors.  We think of it as a feeling, but we don’t hold it up as a value.  Our culture celebrates excellence – sports figures (Michael Jordan), business tycoons (Steve Jobs or Elon Musk), type-A’s who’ve been successful, with little attention to their character or wider commitments.  That’s not to speak one way or another about these individuals, simply to point out what we emphasize.  Who are those we celebrate for how they love?

           Mother Teresa perhaps.  She’s a good example in part because she models what could be rightfully called love by Paul’s definition.  Mother Teresa embodied a love with teeth.  One of you (Jim Allen) sent me this wonderful story from the storytelling show “The Moth” about a doctor who treated her.  I won’t spoil it for you, because it’s well worth the listen, but suffice it to say it shows how her kind of love got things done.[2]  Hers was a tenacious love, a kind of love dedicated making it better for others, a love that got things done.  We should reclaim that kind of love as a value, not just a feeling.  Are we as committed to that kind of love as we are to our other pursuits, our other values?

           In the tryptic, faith, hope, and love, we are told the greatest is love, charity, pure devotion, concern for the wellbeing of the other.  That’s quite a statement.  We might expect religion to elevate faith above all else.  There’s something to be learned by the preference for love at the center, this particular kind of love.  For one, it is rooted firmly in the present.  Faith is a kind of trust, in what is, yes, but we often think of it as what will be.  We have faith it will be all right; we will be all right.  Hope, too, hangs in the future.  It is a trust in the future.  Love lives firmly in the now.  It is how you embody your hope your faith.  You do it by loving in the now.

           Love is the embodiment of both your faith and your hope.  It’s an expression of your belief that your faith and your hope are well-placed.  Faith for many comes and goes.  Hope for many waxes and wanes.  Love is something we can practice regardless of how we feel at the moment.  It’s not abstract.  It’s not about conjecture.  It’s about commitment.  It’s concrete.  When I was a child, as I’ve spoken about many a time before, I went to this Christian camp and the motto was, “God is first, the other is second, and I am third.”  In our first night’s devotion each week, we talked about what that meant.  I remember I had a friend, a cabin mate, who once said, I don’t know how to put God first, so for me, putting others second, putting my concern for them above concern for myself, I am, in effect, putting God first.  That’s how you put God first.  For those of you who struggle with faith, that’s a pretty good place to start.  If you have trouble getting your head around God, loving God, worry about loving others, and watch your experience of God expand.

           Each week I pick an image for our worship preview.  That preview is posted on the web, and when we meet in person it sits in the narthex for a week leading up to next week’s service.  This week the image is of a simple drawing of a person underneath a big red heart.  I describe it that way because it’s ambiguous whether the person is holding up the heart, hold up love, which is what I first assumed, or hanging onto it for dear life, being lifted up by love.  And I suppose that is precisely the point, for in holding up love as a way of life, it holds us up, empowers us to do what we wouldn’t have previously thought possible.  Previously impossible things happen all the time when they’re empowered by love. 

           What if love became our standard, our primary commitment?  And, I don’t just mean the dewy-eyed sort way described by Mark Woods or Hallmark holiday specials.  Those have their place…maybe.  What if love became our standard, not just for our romantic relationships, but all our relationships, and not just our personal relationships, but how we want our communities to function, how we want our policies to be constructed?  If we do not have love at the center of those things, then they are but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.  You can have all the mysteries and knowledge in the world, all the power you can imagine, but if you do not have love, you have nothing.

           Love, which is patient, which is kind, which is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but love rejoices in the truth. 

           In the end it may be the perfect thing to recite at the altar, but not only there, unless you recognize the whole world is an altar. 




Quotes, Questions & Prompts for Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer

“Paul's "Love is..." list isn't a statement of the dewy-eyed emotional state in which couples stand in front of the altar. It's a commitment to a rigorous practice of spiritual discipline in relation to other people in general – and not just to the object of amorous desire.”
-Mark Woods

1. When you read 1 Corinthians 13, what comes to mind? What images does it portray?

2. For whom do you think Paul was writing?

3. Which lines or phrases are your favorite?

4. What lines stand out to you as less familiar or curious?

5. If you had to substitute a word for love in this passage, what word would you choose and why?