Sermon based on 1 Chorinthians 13
“1If 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.
4Love 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.
8Love 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 week my friend Sara reminded me that the really amazing thing about 1st Corinthians 13 is that even 100s of thousands of schlocky wedding and inspirational posters and bad Christian coffee mugs can’t kill it. Paul’s hymn to Love is perhaps one of the most recognizable texts in the New Testament. And it is really beautiful… but it has just about nothing to do with romance.
To be sure, the subject of love is a tricky one. I think because we so often are loved poorly, loved incompletely, loved conditionally. The subject of love is a tricky one because we so often love poorly, incompletely and conditionally. And, forgive the pop psychology, but my theory is that when we are loved so poorly we begin to, on some level, assume that we are maybe undeserving of being loved well. And from this state of being loved poorly, feeling undeserving and then loving poorly in return, which let’s face it, is the foundation of Oprah and Dr Phil’s entire empire….but from this state we do some stuff that’s…unhelpful.
I’ve been thinking about the things I’ve done in my life to try and make myself more lovable. I lost weight, I tried to not use big words, I tried laughing even when a joke wasn’t funny. And when I was dating Matthew…and those of you who know me will get this, I went camping. I tried showing the other person only the parts of myself which I thought were lovable and if there weren’t enough of those parts then I just manufactured some. Because I was sure that to know me… is actually not to Love me.
We come by this naturally…given messages as we are about what is ok and what is not. Strong smart girls learn to act ditzy and helpless…tender hearted boys learn to toughen up. And it’s no secret that some of these messages insisting on our fragmentation came from the church. I remember a male Sunday School teacher in 5th grade taking my parents aside and suggesting that they insist I stop answering all the questions in Sunday School so quickly because then the little boys, who really should be answering the questions, don’t really get a chance.
Richard Rhor has a way of assessing our spiritual health…namely what do we do with pain. Do we transmit it or do we transform it? Because the mirror in which we might see ourselves as God see us gets dimmer and dimmer when the pain of being human is transmitted to us and not transformed. As our own sin and brokenness begins to be a lens through which we view ourselves and others the mirror grows dimmer. And then the pain of not knowing who we really are becomes transmitted through all the things Paul describes: arrogance, impatience, unkindness, envy, selfishness. It can be a desperate cycle based on something as simple as the truth my mother once spoke “honey, bullies just bully out of their own hurt inside as though they have to spread it”. But this is true of so many things when we think about it. And I think what Paul was saying to his little church plant gone bad was: stop hurting each other. Stop transmitting your hurt and sin. Because from that state of being loved poorly, feeling undeserving and then loving poorly in return, we do some stuff that’s…unhelpful.
This letter to the church in Corinth wasn’t providing a sentimental reading for their weddings, it was a smack down. They were bickering and dysfunctional and competitive. Some of them had some mad skills but were being asses about it, as though being church together had become sort of a competitive sport. They were being petty and prideful and ridiculous. They didn’t know who they were and Paul was trying to remind them. And he told them who they were – not by telling them about history or biology or sociology – but by telling them about love. Not the emotion of Love. Not the sentiment of Love. Not the romance of Love. Because honestly I have yet to see a Hallmark card with I love you so much that I will endure you. Or, My love for you bears all your things. But Paul writes of Love as origin. Love as source. Love as God, and God as Love. This Love has really nothing to do with feeling nice. It’s actually not about feelings at all, it’s about truth. It’s about the truth of who we are through the eyes of a God who knows us fully.
This love described by Paul isn’t mushy and sentimental. It’s tough and unwilling to yield. This love which is patient and kind and isn’t rude or boastful and is self-giving and all that…. here’s what is scary about this kind of love: you can’t manipulate it. There is no amount of weight loss, piety, personality management, big smiles or strained pretense that can effect this love. And maybe in the absence of manipulation we stand bare before the eyes of God. This love is found in the gaze of God as God looks upon us naked and whole. Because this type of love is characterized by the giver not the receiver. Gone are the strivings and manipulations and efforts to make ourselves more lovable. In the face to face Gaze of the beloved we are known because we are loved. We aren’t loved because we are known. …that leads again to trying to gussy ourselves up to be lovable.
We are known by God because we are loved by God. Think about that. The truth of who we were before any pain and hurt was transmitted to us by those who are hurt and in pain…before we forgot our song we were loved. Paul says For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. For now we manipulate our selves and our image and our loved ones and see only dimly. Now we gaze in the mirror and see only part of who we are and even then the image is reversed. But we have the promise that in the fullness of time we will see face to face with God. Because, Paul writes, now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
The truth of who you are is found in the eyes of God, not the eyes of the world. It is the love of God who created this world and called it Good….it is the love of a God who brought the Israelites out of slavery, who fed Ruth and Naomi, who walked among us as Jesus of Nazareth, it is the love of the God who knit you together in your mother’s womb that gets to tell you who you are. Nothing else. Not the media, not a family who wishes you were different, and not even yourself. Only the God who knows and loves you fully can tell you who you are. And this is true of everyone – the good the bad and the boring.
In the Movie Dead Man Walking sister Helen Prejean offered pastoral care to a despicable murderer. He was an unrepentant, wretched man. Yet her faith in a loving God allowed her, moments before his execution, to say to him “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”
I think Paul might be telling us to be the face of love for each other. When we know that we are loved by God in the fullness of God’s knowledge of us we are free to live in this love. Free to transmit the love of Christ in a hurting world. Free to see ourselves and others as God sees us. Not because we are good, but because we are loved. And seeing just a glimpse, wanting it, moving toward it, brings us closer to what is promised to us forever: that we will see God, who is love, face to face. Amen