The verses we read this morning from the 13th chapter of Corinthians are some of the most familiar in the entire Bible. They are the mainstay of many weddings. They serve as a testimony of a how a husband and a wife are to live together in marriage. But the very fact that we have heard these words so often in the context of a wedding can deafen us to their deeper meaning. This teaching about love goes far beyond the relationship of husband and wife. Paul didn’t write these words for a bride and groom, he wrote them for every member of the church who wants to be a follower of Jesus Christ. And the truth of the matter is these are hard words, difficult words, challenging words.
Let’s look at these verses contextually. At the beginning of this lesson Paul is describing various roles in the church. The church is a like a human body he says. Together we make up the whole but individually we have specific roles to play. There are apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, etc. All these gifts are important and all are needed within the community. Paul was responding to those in Corinth who were claiming that their specific gifts were more important than others and therefore they should have special status within the community. But there is no special status Paul says – everyone has gifts and all gifts are valuable. Instead of arguing about gifts he tells them, let me show you a still more excellent way – to live in love. Because all the gifts in the world without love are worth nothing. Prophecy without love is nothing. Leadership without love is nothing. Teaching without love is nothing. Love is the highest and the best. Love is what must underlie all our actions or our actions mean little. Living in love St. Paul says means reaching spiritual maturity. Living in love is the most we can do in this life when we can only see dimly, when we can only know in part.
Now this is a different kind of love from the chocolate-coated love we celebrated this past week on Valentine’s Day. This isn’t sweet sentimental love that feels good, but a love that requires hard work, sacrifice and a willingness to get our hands dirty. This is good Samaritan love, risky love, love that demands us to reach out and care for another human being even when to do so might cost us. This is love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. This is love that can scare you to death and love that can make your life worth living.
When I was in Savannah, there was a member of my congregation who never ceased to impress me with the extent to which she was willing to love. Your classic southern bell and debutant, wife and mother, she had never lived farther away from home than the University of Georgia campus in Athens. At first glance you might think she was the kind of woman who never got her nails dirty and never got too far away from her makeup and hairdryer. But her faith was the most powerful force in her life and several times a year she packed a bag and headed off to Atlanta in her minivan, where she spent a week living and working in the largest Women’s prison in the state. There she led a spiritual retreat where she met with, prayed with, cried with, and counseled – prostitutes, murderers, drug addicts, thieves and the like. She loved these women in spite of where life had taken them. She built bonds with these women and she supported them with her money and her time when they came out of prison. She had no reason to go there, no reason to leave her comfortable life; she simply knew that a life spent loving is “the more excellent way.”
This is it. This is the message that Christians have to offer the world. This is the heart of the Gospel, the heart of the Good News as seen in the life of Jesus. Love is not only the better way – it is the only way. And if you call yourself a Christian the only question worth asking is not – am I going to love as Jesus loved – but – how am I going to love as Jesus loved? How am I going to bear more, believe more, hope more, endure more for the sake of another?
In other words, how are we living in love? That’s an easy question to answer when it comes to loving someone you like. Most of the time it is easy for me to live in love with Melissa, Marshall and Eliza, but the kind of love St. Paul is talking about goes so far beyond that. The kind of love Paul is talking about means that we have to struggle to live in love with those we don’t even know, and more to the point, those we don’t even like. It means we have to be kind to the judgmental, disapproving mother-in-law; to make time for the cousin who is mentally ill; to try again and reach out to the alcoholic sibling; to treat fairly the coworker who wants your job; to forgive the parent, spouse, or friend who has hurt you; for the “yellow dog” Democrat to honor the “right wing” Republican and for the “right wing” Republican to honor the “yellow dog” Democrat. These an many other examples make up the hard work of love and it is this kind of love that is supposed to set your life apart from the lives of others – because you are a Christian.
Love is hard work, let’s be honest. It goes far beyond a box of chocolates and a cute card; it goes far beyond the vows of a bride and groom on their wedding day. But living in love is the only way to mature in your faith. It is the only way to follow Jesus, and in the end it is the only way this crazy messed up world of ours is going to survive. Amen.