Believe it or not, nobody is getting married this morning. I understand if you were confused, though. First Corinthians 13 is the classic, “go-to” Scripture lesson for weddings, even for people who otherwise have little or nothing to do with the Christian faith. Years ago I was meeting with a couple who was trying to decide whether they wanted to have their wedding at the church I was serving and had some questions about the service. As I walked them through a typical service, they were uneasy about some aspects of it, particularly the prayers and Scriptures. “Do we really have to include that?” the groom asked. “It’s not that we’ve got a problem with God or anything,” he hastened to add, “we just don’t want our service to be too…you know…Christian.” The bride nodded, wincing in agreement: “yes, we don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable.” I looked at them for a moment. “Well, then maybe you shouldn’t be asking a Christian pastor to officiate the service in a Christian church, then!” I barked at them…in my head.
Out loud, I simply said, gently, that Scripture really wasn’t an optional element of a Christian wedding, but were there any passages they had looked at that didn’t make them feel uncomfortable (we had a suggested list posted on our website). Then the bride pulled out a copy of a webpage she had printed. “Well, we like this one,” she said. “It’s beautiful, and it’s all about love.” I looked down on the page and, sure enough, I saw the words of First Corinthians 13. And just as my eyes happened to alight upon verse five (which is the part about love not being rude or irritable), she gushed happily, “and look, it’s perfect, it doesn’t say anything about God or Jesus at all!” God does have a strange sense of humor. And, technically, she was right: neither God nor Jesus is mentioned by name anywhere in this passage; the subject, throughout the passage, is the nature and characteristics of love.
The thing is, Paul is not writing some poetic celebration of the beauty of human love; the Corinthians have many attributes worthy of celebration, but love does not seem to be one of them. He opens his letter by saying, “I give thanks to my God always for you …for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Clearly, Paul feels that the Corinthians have been extraordinarily blessed in their resources to be God’s church and exercise God’s ministry in that place. But those blessings are not enough: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,” he continues, “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.” As the letter unfolds, it appears that the very giftedness of the Corinthian congregation is causing them considerable problems, as they argue with one another about whose gifts are the most powerful, the most important, the most spiritual. Just before this passage, he goes into his famous image of the church as Christ’s body, with each of us individually being members or body parts, each with particular gifts that are necessary to the health and well-being of the body and should be honored accordingly.
But then, just after tallying up and celebrating the range of spiritual gifts and callings that the Corinthians have been blessed with, Paul knocks them all down with the affirmation that the towering height and depth and breadth of all those gifts amount to nothing without love. You can speak in every tongue that there is, human and spiritual, but without love it’s just a lot of noise. You can know everything that there is to know or have limitless faith and conviction, but without love, you are nothing. You can be the most holy, most dedicated, most disciplined Christian the world has ever seen, but without love it will do absolutely nothing for you or anyone else. Love is not just all you need, as the Beatles said; love is all you are. Without love, everything else that we are, have, say, or do simply has no value.
To us, that sounds pretty harsh, because one of our fundamental cultural assumptions is that love is primarily a feeling, and one that you can’t control. And if that is the case, then Paul’s words are pretty bad news, because it would be saying that if you don’t feel love, then you’re worthless. But that’s not how Paul or Scripture in general or first century culture understand love. For them, our feelings (intense or otherwise) simply have nothing to do with love. Our love does not determine our decisions and actions; our actions and decisions determine our love, our imitation of God’s own decisive loving activity toward us. Love is a verb, not a noun; it is an action, not an emotion. Thus, we can “have love,” show love, regardless of how we feel about someone; far from being hypocritical, for Paul this is what the true virtue of love is all about.
The translation we heard earlier really doesn’t really do this passage justice. A more accurate reading would be, “[Love] is not provoked to exasperation, it does not calculate and reflect upon injury, it is not glad at injustice, but rejoices together with the truth…Love never comes to an end” (my translation). It is not simply that “love never ends,” cruising serenely and eternally above any turbulence that might affect its progress. Rather, love never comes to an end; there is neither a barrier that can stop it nor a boundary that indicates the limits of its responsibility, a line where its jurisdiction ends and we no longer have to act: not our feelings for others, not their feelings for us.
Now, this does not mean that we are obligated to accept abuse or violence or oppression as our Christian duty; on the contrary, if love is not glad at injustice but rejoices with the truth, then the loving thing to do is to resist and speak the truth that such injustice is contrary to God’s will and must be repented of and atoned for. But it does mean that we do so out of love, always hoping for transformation and healing, repentance and reconciliation, rejoicing with the truth that there are no limits to the power and the reach of God’s love. And, far more often, it means that we ourselves have things to repent of and atone for; we have enemies to love, and wounds to heal, and carefully recorded accounts of injuries suffered that must be wiped clean.
That bride-to-be I met with could not have been more wrong; this passage says everything about God and Jesus, about what God’s love for us in Jesus Christ really means. And she was also wrong about it not making anyone uncomfortable. There is a downside of love; just as its reach for us, its blessings to us, never come to end, so our responsibility to accept it and act upon it never comes to an end, even in the face of those who desperately want to limit its territory or oppose its claims, even when those faces are our own.
So what would it mean for us to really accept the downside of love? What sealed-off doors into dark places would that break open for you? Who would you have to decide to forgive? Who would have to forgive you? Who would we have to embrace that we are pushing away, or holding at arm’s length, or just ignoring because we think they are out of our area of responsibility? If we take them seriously, those are scary questions, because if we begin to answer them they are likely to take us places that we really don’t feel like going. But the good news is that in and through Jesus Christ, God has gone ahead and waits for us there as he promised. We have only to decide whether to meet him.