We have been doing a little experiment of sorts this summer: we asked for suggestions from the congregation and I have been preaching on topics and questions that the church has suggested. In most cases, these have sprung from interests or concerns or questions that people have. How do people get called to ministry? What is the relationship between science and faith? What do we mean when we talk about grace? Why do bad things happen to good people? And more.
All great suggestions. The suggestion for today is a little different. Instead of a question or topic, the suggestion was a particular scripture: 1 Corinthians 13. 1 Corinthians chapter 13 is one of the best known and most loved passages in the Bible. It is called the Love Chapter. It is a staple at weddings. The poetry is beautiful. “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.”
I don’t think this suggestion was made because someone had a bone to pick with this text. I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was a matter of not understanding this scripture and wanting clarification. I think it is something more like the way we want to sing a favorite song. The way we want to hear again a favorite story. There are those special places that we want to go back to again and again.
In the same way, there are those scriptures we want to go back to - like the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd…” Like John 3:16: “for God so loved the world.” Like Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require: but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” And like 1 Corinthians 13.
And so we look again today at a text that is a favorite for many of us. It is beautiful and inspiring and it has a message that we need to hear. But here is the thing about the Love Chapter of the Bible. We sometimes think of it as though it comes from Paul’s Letter to the Wedding Planners. As though it is written to extol the wonders of romantic love, or to reflect on the power of love in an abstract and theoretical way.
But this is not the case. Not at all. These words were written to a church – to a congregation of people who as it turns out were seriously messed up.
Church dysfunction and conflict is a function of the fact that we are all human beings. Any group of human beings is going to have issues of one sort or another. But here is what was going on in the church in Corinth.
This was a church that argued over all kinds of things. It argued over food and the propriety of eating meat that had been sacrificed to foreign deities. It argued over which star apostles were the biggest stars. There were debates about sex, with Paul conceding that it is better to marry than to burn with passion. There was an instance of a man having an affair with his mother in law. Rich people were stuffing themselves and getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper while poor people barely got anything. People were all braggy about their spiritual gifts. And that’s just a start.
The Love Chapter of the Bible was written to this church, to these people. Nadia Bolz-Weber called the church in Corinth “Paul’s little church plant gone bad.” The church was bickering and dysfunctional and they had turned church into a kind of competitive sport.
In his letter, Paul reminds the people that the church functions as a body, and if one part of the body is hurting, the whole body is hurting. You can’t say, well, it’s no big deal, it’s just a kidney.
And then Paul says, I will show you a more excellent way – not by focusing on who has what gift or where a person came from or what their salary is, but rather by focusing on love.
So while this passage is a favorite at weddings, this is not about romance. But this certainly speaks to couples. It speaks to marriages. It speaks to families. This is a word for all kinds of families, nuclear families and church families and co-workers and neighborhoods. This is an issue for the human family.
Paul says that without love, the gifts we have don’t really amount to much. In the church in Corinth, there were people with tremendous gifts: teachers, healers, great preachers. Some had the gift of prophecy. There was enthusiasm, there were willing workers. They had everything needed for a vital church except for one thing. The missing ingredient was love.
Vince Lombardi was the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers. Lombardi was once asked what it took to make a winning team. He said:
There are plenty of coaches with good ball clubs who know the fundamentals and have plenty of discipline but still don’t win the game. Then you come to the third ingredient: if you’re going to play together as a team, you’ve got to care about each other. You’ve got to love each other. Each player has to be thinking about the next guy and say to himself: ‘If I don’t block that man, Paul is going to get his legs broken. I have to do my job well in order that he can do his.’Vince Lombardi will never be confused for some kind of relationship guru, but he has it exactly right about love. This is not simply about having a warm feeling for your teammate, although you may have that. It is about our actions. Love is willing and working for the best for the other. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”
You might think about these qualities in the midst of family life. Are we patient? Are we kind? Are we envious? Are we boastful? Are we irritable or resentful? Do we have to have our way? This is hard stuff. This is the nitty-gritty of being family, whatever kind of family we are talking about.
I was reading about redwood trees the other day. Redwood trees can grow up to four hundred feet in height – roughly the same as a thirty-five-story building. They are the largest and tallest trees on earth. Interestingly, they do not reach these amazing heights by sinking their roots deep into the ground. They grow to these heights by sending their roots out horizontally and connecting with the other trees. They are tall, because they bear each other up.
That is a perfect metaphor for our lives. Through love we bear one another up. Through love we help one another to believe and to hope and to endure, even through the difficult times. Redwood trees are a testament to the power of love. And like those trees, we grow taller and stronger -- we are better people - when we are connected in love as a community.
Love is so important that Paul says our love must exceed our knowledge. “For we know only in part.” Let’s face it: living here in Ames, we are surrounded by knowledge. This has got to be one of the top places for knowledge per capita in the country, maybe on earth. I am all for knowledge. Knowledge and learning and education is important to our church. But knowledge alone is not enough. Knowledge does not insulate us from the problems of life, and none of us have it all figured out. There are so many problems we face for which there are no easy answers and on which we need to proceed with great humility. We need knowledge, to be sure, but we need love in even greater measure.
If you wanted to capture the essence of Christian faith – strip away all of the peripheral matters and get at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus – there is one thing. What it is all about is not a doctrine or a set of rules or a creed or a confession. When you come down to it, it is about faith and hope, and at the core of it all is love.
Jesus showed us that love is always something you do. Love is always an action. Jesus lived a life of love, a love that would endure whatever the powers threw at him.
The choir anthem this morning is a song we sing every once in a while as a congregation – “Siyahamba,” or “We Are Marching in the Light of God.” With the anthem this morning, we got to hear the verses, which are less familiar. And I was struck by the last verse: “We walk in the strength of the Lord, God’s love is ever sure. We shout that the world may hear, we sing a joyful song.”
Do you know what this song is about? Do you know who was singing this? This is a South African freedom song. Sung by people hoping and praying and working for an end to apartheid – people who were suffering oppression and injustice and the indignity of racial segregation and second-class status in their own country. And yet this song is not filled with bitterness or a desire for vengeance; it does not come from heavy hearts or troubled spirits. This is a joyful song. If is filled with faith and hope and at the center of it all, love. Because God’s love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Steve Donst shared a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13. I have adapted his words, and share them with you now:
What if I could stand up here and say the most wonderful things, and sound impressive and answer everyone’s questions, but I didn’t love anyone - what would be the point?
What if we were the most incredible church where every pew was filled, the preaching was always inspirational, we had a choir that always sang perfectly and we served the best coffee in town but no one felt love - what would be the point?
And if as a community we teach our children lots of information and knowledge and they can recite the books of the Bible and know all the right answers but they don't know how to love, then we’ve failed them.
If we pray every week for the poor of the world and yet we don’t feed the hungry and reach out to the poor of our community, where is the honesty in that?
If we don’t love, then what’s the point?
Love is kindness in action, offered simply and humbly.
Love is not meant to make us look good, score brownie points with God, or draw attention to ourselves.
Love is co-operative; there are all kinds of ways of doing good and God is happy to use every way there is. Love only cares that what’s needed is done; love has the best interests of the other in mind.
Sometimes we grow weary and give up - we can’t think of what else can be done. But God never gives up; God's love continues and new possibilities are always appearing.
What we know now is never the whole picture. What we do now is never the whole story.
In some ways we’re like children: we do what we can and what we know to this point. But there’s still more for us to learn, to grow into, to accept.
Some day we’ll look back on where we are now, and wonder how we could ever have wondered and doubted and refused to accept what was happening. In some ways, it's like looking in an imperfect mirror. There’s a reflection there, but it’s not quite right, not totally true.
We are the body of Christ, the image of God - but not perfectly, not completely, not totally truly … not yet.
The day will come when we will see.
The day will come when we will know.
Until then, we live in faith, trusting God’s love.
Until then, we live in hope, hoping for God’s love.
Until then, we live in love, showing God’s love as best we can - because love is the point of it all. Amen.