mark 12:28-31 | 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
The Corinthian Church was divided.
We heard about this last week, about people forming into camps, parties, within the Church, arguing amongst themselves about which group had the truest understanding, the most faithful interpretation of the message of Jesus.
They boasted, about their spirituality, about their understanding and ability to teach, about their miraculous acts, about their generosity, about their own physical suffering for the faith.
As if any or all of these things would earn them honour, respect, status, within the Church.
In last week’s reading, back at the beginning of the letter, Paul called them to unity; called them to live united by the foolishness of the cross, the foolish wisdom of the crucified God. For the bulk of the letter, he then deals in detail with particular questions that have been dividing the Corinthian Church – in particular, questions around the Holy Spirit and miraculous spiritual gifts.
And having done all that, he comes back to the start. Back to the core of the gospel message. Not, this time, talking about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but going back to the core of Jesus’ very message, the greatest commandment, as we heard it in our gospel reading.
Back to love.
To one of the best known, and surely the most popular, of Paul’s writings: the poem that is 1 Corinthians 13. One of those passages that makes it onto religious posters, the passage most read at weddings.
But as we come to this passage, I think it’s really important to remember that context that it is being written to.
It isn’t written to starry-eyed romantic couples on their wedding day, to people who believe that love (at least, their love) will be unswervingly true, all conquering, never failing.
For that matter, it’s not written about the love of a parent for their child; the love that would willingly, unquestioningly lay down even life to protect the beloved.
It’s not written of the love of friends, or family, couples, or parents.
It’s written to a fractious, argumentative, bitterly divided people who couldn’t even agree on the day of the week. Who were so busy trying to be right – or righteous – that they forgot that the people they were trying to get one over were not the enemy.
It’s written to a time and place where loving was hard. Not, as we so often use it, for when loving is easy.
For the time, perhaps, when love is most important.
And so it is that this passage begins with the whole noisy gong / clanging cymbal bit. It’s like Paul’s been listening in on their arguments, and is telling them – ‘You sound so smart, so spiritual – to yourselves, to each other. You speak the wisdom of men and words of deep theology. But all I hear I noise. Because I don’t hear love. You boast of your miracles, your faith, your knowledge, but I just see an empty shell. Because I don’t see love.’
And then it’s like there’s a pause. Perhaps, it seems to say, you think you are loving. Perhaps you think that being right, and sharing your wonderful rightness with others is love. How often have you heard “speaking the truth in love” as an excuse for criticism, self-righteousness, gossip.
So, Paul goes on, just in case that’s where you’re at, let me tell you what love really looks like.
Love, he begins, is patient. Not the patience you exhibit when you are waiting for the train, or the patience you need when you’re recovering from sickness or injury; there’s a different word for that, a word more like ‘endurance’. No, this is patience with people; the patience with which God is described in response to our rebellion – waiting, ever hopeful, for us to come around. Slow to anger, slow to fight, slow to condemn another.
Love is slow to be angry with those who are not in our camp, not in our tribe. Love recognises, as John Haldane beautifully put it on Q&A last Monday, that those who disagree with us are neither stupid nor wicked. Others can understand differently, can understand matters of faith differently, without it being a moral failing, or an intellectual failing.
Love, indeed, welcomes the different, the unexpected, the other; for it sees in graceful disagreement the opportunity to hear God speak: the eye, to pick up another of Paul’s great analogies, does not get angry with the foot because it sees the world differently (strictly speaking, of course, the foot doesn’t see the world at all, but you know what I mean); the foot and the eye each recognise that the other knows things of the world that they cannot, and that together that they are more than they could ever be apart.
Love is patient with the strangeness, the weakness, the foolishness, even the plain wrongness of others.
And in graceful disagreement, there is no place left for boasting. For what is boasting if it is not lauding over another for the superiority of our way, our skills, our place? If we truly see in our differences an opportunity for growth, a gift from God to the body that is the Church, then what place is left for boasting, or for arrogance? Or, for that matter, for envy?
Love bears all burdens – it’s own, and those of others. It endures all with the foolishness of the cross.
It believes all – not in the ‘seven impossible things before breakfast’ sense, but in the sense of the parent, or the coach, encouraging you on:
“You can do it. I believe in you.” Love believes, because love hopes. Hope – Christian hope – that sees past the immediate, past the failures and setbacks of the present day, to a future in which God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
And so love will never end. Never fail. Never be defeated. For that is where the foolishness of the cross took us; to the apparent defeat of love overturned in the glorious upset of the resurrection.
Faith, hope and love will endure. Even when knowledge becomes out-dated, when wisdom is superseded, when our knowledge of God is no longer a pale reflection but a face-to-face reality, still these will endure; faith, hope, and love.
And even, the greatest is love.
Not faith. You notice that? Paul, the theologian of salvation by faith alone, still places it below love in the final measure. Perhaps because love without faith is still love; but faith without love is a broken empty mockery of the real thing.
The greatest of these is love.
But read on one more verse.
“It is love, then, that you should strive for”
The point of this whole poem is not to decorate our walls, not to give us a warm glow at weddings.
Written to real people with real arguments, this is not a passage to make us feel good. It is a call to action.
This is love. This is the way of God. Patience with those who try you. Welcoming difference, disagreement. Believing in one another, even when things look bleak. Never giving up on the path that lies ahead of us, however hard things get. Always hopeful, not with foolish optimism but with trust in the final victory of God.
This is who we are called to be. There is no other commandment greater than this.