1 Corinthians 13
St Paul’s great hymn of love, 1 Corinthians chapter 13. One of the best-loved chapters in the whole Bible. In an ideal world, this would be the manifesto for all humanity, would it not? Love which is ever patient, and kind; never envious, nor boastful, nor rude. Love, never failing, ever trusting, always enduring. You can’t argue with that. You can’t improve upon it.
Except that we don’t live in an ideal world, do we? We live in a world that is damaged and complicated and sinful and far from ideal. Where, over the internet, young people are encouraged to act out any feelings of worthlessness they might have by harming themselves and starving themselves and taking their own lives. We live in a world where teenagers in our cities feel so fearful that they must carry knives, because fatal stabbings have become a daily occurrence. We live in a world where the poorest in our country must rely upon food-banks in order to feed their children; yet refugees still clamour pitifully to cross our borders. A world where it becomes ever more difficult to distinguish fact from misrepresentation, while the cataclysmic threats to our future are denied or ignored. And that’s just from this week’s news!
Yes, love is also visible each day, and is certainly not lived out only by Christians, nor constrained within the church. But evidently we do not love the way we should. We know that we fail, individually, as a society, as a species. I could spend the next twenty minutes cataloguing all the ways in which this chapter is hopelessly spiritualised, romanticised and idealistic. I could depress us all this morning: reality just isn’t the way St Paul would like it to be.
For reality lives by an alternative charter. Unlike love, reality is impatient most of the time, and rarely offers a second chance. Reality is cruel much of the time, blind to pain and suffering. Unlike love, reality puffs itself up, taking undeserved credit, deflecting blame onto others, despising the powerless. Reality selfishly stamps its feet and insists on getting its own way. Reality is prickly and difficult to work with, remembering every slight, storing up every grudge, and delighting in the misfortunes of others. It lies and misrepresents, distrusts, and bottles out. Unlike love, reality constantly disappoints.
But is St Paul really a hopeless romantic and a spiritualising idealist? Or are we misreading him, and missing the bigger picture? So often, we isolate this one chapter from his letter. We take it out and read it at weddings as an ideal picture of the purity of romantic love. But Paul writes twelve other chapters before this one, and three more to follow it.
Paul is writing his letter to the Corinthians because he’s hearing about quarrels and the factions amongst them, different parties jostling for influence and power. There are inappropriate, damaging relationships, he hears. The Corinthians Christians are even suing each other in the secular courts in order to settle their differences. They are insisting on their rights, to the detriment of other church members. They are coming together to share fellowship meals; but some go away hungry, while others keep the food they’ve brought to themselves. And they are arguing amongst each other about which spiritual gifts and church ministries are superior to others. Theirs may be the first, but is certainly not the last church in which love is little in evidence. Yet to this imperfect Corinthian reality, St Paul writes, of love as the most excellent way.
Do I feel as loving as I should, then? Do I daily overflow with goodwill and affection toward my fellow humans? The trouble is there are millions of them out there, people whom I’m never going to meet. Jesus tells me they are all my neighbours, so I should love them as I love myself. But the reality is that I can’t just conjure up feelings of love for people I don’t even know, and about whom I know nothing. It’s hard enough, sometimes to feel loving towards the ones I do know, and the ones who really are my neighbours. ‘Love thy neighbour’, says the old Jewish proverb, ‘even when he plays the trombone.’
The thing is, Paul doesn’t say that much about feelings of love. His hymn is all about what love actually does, and what love refrains from doing. To love others is not simply to feel warm and wooly about them. To love others is to act; to treat them with patience and with kindness, even when I am feeling impatient and unkind. To love is to rejoice in the truth, to endure, to hope. To love others is to refrain from behaving enviously, boastfully, arrogantly or rudely.
And if we don’t act lovingly, says Paul, all the rest is meaningless. In the life of the Corinthian church, speaking ecstatically, delivering prophecy, developing intellectual understanding; performing acts of generosity, even exercising faith so as to remove mountains; without love, he says, they are all worthless and meaningless. Yet love endures. Love will endure. Love always make a difference, until the end of time.
That isn’t to say that feelings don’t matter, of course. What love does is to evoke feelings. When I am loved, I feel that I am worth something. I feel that I matter, that I am noticed, that I am important to someone. When I am loved, I feel that the contribution I can make is valued; and that someone cares if I am unable to play my part. When I am loved, I feel more secure; that I am more than just a number, more than just a cog in the machine who could invisibly be replaced by someone else. To be loved, then, is to be enriched, to be encouraged, to be valued. And all of these benefits enable me to act and behave more lovingly in my turn. Even when I don’t much feel like it.
Though his love underpins all that we’ve said, we haven’t said much about God this morning. That’s because when he’s talking about love, St Paul almost avoids theological, spiritual language. Love for St Paul is intensely practical, about how we treat each other day by day. He knows we don’t live in an ideal world. But living and loving according to his manifesto would help to make it so, for to love is to do the work of God.
© Jon Russell 2019