“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
When you heard that passage read a few moments ago, did you look around for the wedding couple?
Just as the 23rd Psalm – “the Lord is my shepherd” – is frequently linked to funerals, Paul’s hymn to love has become a standard scripture reading at weddings. Its lovely and expressive language makes this perhaps the best known of all Paul’s writings.
And certainly it contains good advice for two people on the verge of promising to spend their lives together – reminding them to be patient and kind, to not insist on their way, or be arrogant or rude, or my favorite – irritable.
But Paul’s words, lovely as they are, were not written with marriage in mind. In fact, one commentary I read this week advised that the first task of preaching on this passage is “to rescue the text from the quagmire of romantic sentimentality in which popular piety has embedded it, linking it forever with flowers and kisses and frilly dresses.”
Flowers and frilly dresses were not on Paul’s radar screen when he penned these words.
In fact, Paul’s words were originally addressed not to a couple, but to a congregation, one that is in serious conflict.
The church in Corinth has been rocked by an incestuous affair among its members, by church members suing each other, and by drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper. Rich members of the congregation have been accused of eating all the food at the great communion feast before poorer members, who had to work, could get there.
There are also bitter arguments about baptism, the meaning of the resurrection, and whose spiritual gifts are the greatest. Members are vying for power and splitting into factions.
The next time you hear someone longing for the church’s past days of glory and theological purity, remember the church Paul founded in Corinth just years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
When read in this context it is easy to see that Paul’s words were not originally intended to praise the virtues of romantic love, but were meant to tell a quarrelsome people that their religious fervor means nothing if they don’t love one another.
By love, Paul does not only mean warm, fuzzy feelings.
Paul’s love, Christian love, is practical, ethical, leading to concrete actions. For Christians, love is not just an emotion; it also should be a way of life.
First, Paul says, even the strongest spiritual gifts – prophesy, generosity, even faith itself – are worthless without love.
The conflicts in Corinth, the power struggles and confusion, are caused by a loveless spirituality, one that abuses God-given gifts to create factions and conflict rather than to build up the body of Christ.
The antidote to the conflicts that have split the congregation are not better theological arguments, but more love for one another.
That is easier said than done, of course. Can love be mandated? One of life’s truisms is that we don’t choose with whom we fall in love.
Again, Paul is not talking here about romantic love, or even love as an emotion. He is talking about an obliging way of life.
The “more excellent way,” the way of love, acts like this, Paul says. Love refuses to stoop to petty retaliation. It shuns competitiveness and resists keeping a score card of who is right and wrong.
Love is kind and patient, even to those – maybe especially to those – who are most aggravating and annoying. Love remains hopeful, even in situations where stress and conflict seems overwhelming.
Feelings come and go, but the actions of love abide.
Of course, this is not new material from Paul. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In a sermon in Atlanta on Martin Luther King Day earlier this month, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the leader of the Episcopal Church, put it this way:
“That means Democrats you’ve got to love your Republican neighbor. Republicans, you’ve got to love your Democratic neighbors.
“And if you’re black, white, gay, straight — no matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, no matter your religion — love your neighbor as yourself.
“Everything that God is, everything that God has been trying to do comes down to this.”
There are some caveats to be made about Paul’s words and loving your neighbor.
The phrase “love bears all things, endures all things” has at times been misused to mean that people should stay in marriages or relationships that are abusive, or that any kind of conduct or behavior, no matter how offensive or outrageous, should be tolerated by a community.
That is not what Paul means.
Love does not mean being a compliant victim of abuse. And Paul is also not saying that a community based on love is one in which all things are permissible and there are never disagreements.
Elsewhere in his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul outlines how disagreements should be dealt with, and emphatically says that those who are living life in an unchristian manner must be confronted by members of the church.
Love that, as Paul says, rejoices in the truth, may require us to speak hard truths to one another at times.
But those confrontations should not be done in anger or to prove oneself right at the expense of another. Instead, they should be motivated by a concern for the other, and carried out with love and respect.
I often give thanks for the good fortune of being in a congregation that is not beset by great factions and power struggles and conflicts.
That is not to say that everyone here is in agreement on all issues. Of course, we are not. But disagreements have not evolved into conflicts, divisions, or strife.
And I believe that is because at the core of this community is the type of love that Paul writes about, a love that is expressed in a mutual concern and consideration for one another.
Parishioners often tell me they have been sustained through difficult times by the love and concern shown to them by members of the parish.
It almost goes without saying that this kind of love should not be taken for granted. Within our own denomination, conflicts and factions have at times abounded.
And as I read articles about those conflicts I am struck time and again by what is absent from what I read – and that is love.
In fact, some of the most hate-filled rhetoric I hear is espoused in the name of Jesus, much of it directed at other Christians who have differing viewpoints or theologies.
And yet Jesus did not say that the ultimate sign of Christianity is the doctrine or creed one espouses, what church one attends, or what political positions one takes.
As important as these things might be, the ultimate sign of Christian discipleship and community is the way we treat one another.
As Jesus said to his disciples the night before he died, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
A song I used to sing in church camp many years ago puts it this way, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Today we have many litmus tests for Christianity. Love is seldom on the list.
Paul reminds us today that love is the foundation of all Christian life, and without love no life can be Christian.
It is a simple message with no high doctrinal content. That is how the world is to know us, how we are to know one another.
Amid all the complexities of our faith and life, love, kindness, and friendship are the first marks of a disciple of Christ. Martin Luther King knew that. In a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” he says: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover it we will able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.” Amen.