by James Nieman
1If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
2And if I have prophetic powers,
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing.
3If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love,
I gain nothing.
4Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
11When I was a child,
I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult,
I put an end to childish ways.
12For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.
I once knew a church with a sermon series called, “Great Verses of the Bible.” Clever idea. Since many folks are largely ignorant of scripture, why not draw on what they do know, pieces they would recognize, to teach them more? You know, great verses like “For God so loved the world” and “The Lord is my shepherd” and “My brother Esau is a hairy man”…okay, maybe not that last one. The idea is to keep things simple, pleasant, and comforting, everything the church should be—which is also precisely what the scripture is not. You cannot distill the thick account of God’s enduring love for a sinful people into a thin broth of sayings and slogans without a real loss of flavor. It would be like a gallery that displayed only “Great Square Inches of Painting” or an orchestra that performed only “Great Measures of Music.”
That said, if you were going to list a few great verses of the Bible, surely today’s reading from 1 Corinthians would be near the top. Who doesn’t love to hear about love? Commonplace in sappy greeting cards and even at secular weddings, these verses are so familiar that paying attention is optional. When I used to teach preaching, students would often gripe about Paul’s letters. He’s so long-winded and confusing, you know, not to mention judgmental. It’s not like the stuff that Jesus said…it’s all law! This was my tip-off that, first, these students knew very little of what Jesus really said, and second, they surely didn’t understand what is meant by law …or gospel. In any case, they heard Paul’s words as difficult, harsh, challenging, all indications of dreaded law. An exception was allowed, however, for Paul’s thirteenth chapter, these great verses that sound so utterly simple, pleasant, and comforting.
All of that holds up, I guess, so long as you don’t listen to what Paul is saying here. For me, though, the longer I spent with this reading, the more it evoked the theological experience we call “law.” Law: the stark realization of what we amount to when left to our own devices, the plain recognition of our distance from the God before whom we all stand. The law isn’t some sort of unpleasant content found in certain parts of scripture but absent from others. Instead, it’s the impact of all of God’s word upon our lives, the spirit’s unsparing mirror reflecting back the truth of who we are and what we’ve truly become. For me, Paul’s song of love, undeniably upbeat in tone and soaring in style, has become just that kind of unsparing mirror.
Now, I’m just not a fan of mirrors. I don’t like gazing into one in the early morning only to see my ugly mug staring back, and I sure don’t like those ones you find in trendy clothing stores, the full-length variety with angled panels on each side, the better to show my misshapen frame from three different directions. But that’s what this reading resembles. Its beginning and end are like those side panels, where Paul reflects on what we do and whether it matters. In the one panel, the opening verses, he says our finest abilities just aren’t enough. Can you speak in tongues or prophesy? Do you know a lot or believe deeply? Are you really generous, maybe even courageous? It doesn’t matter. All of these abilities, which we’d rate as pretty important, are just empty noise, pointless pursuits, meaningless without love. It’s no better on the other side, the closing verses. In that panel, Paul recites most of that earlier list—prophecy, tongues, knowledge, and so on—and dares to say that whatever you’ve been doing with these abilities is really just partial, incomplete, even childish and thoroughly confused. Without love, everything you’re so proud of doing falls short, a kind of mirage.
Of course, Paul is saying this right after an entire chapter where he reviewed all the skills and abilities the Corinthians had. These words were meant as a corrective to people who were pretty impressed with their spiritual capacities but utterly unaware how these were debasing others and tearing the body apart. But don’t let his words apply only to them. Take them into yourself and think about the abilities on which you rely most, whatever you’re good at doing, the things others admire about you. Maybe you’re a good listener or speaker or care-giver. Perhaps you’re an inspiring leader or smart as a whip, a musical wizard or wise with money. Whatever it is that you enjoy about yourself and others appreciate in you, just imagine now Paul saying that it’s all quite faulty, shortsighted, amounts to nothing. If that doesn’t dim your self-image, well, you’re just not paying attention.
From one side and then the other, the same image is cast back: nothing you do matters apart from love. So if what really matters is love, you’re driven from the side panels toward the center, the very heart of this reading. Gazing straight into that, just what is this love that makes all the difference? Ah, well characteristic of Paul, he doesn’t really say, at least not directly. No, what you mainly learn is what this absolutely essential, utterly enduring love is not. In short, love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, unyielding, irritable, resentful, or gloating. Well that’s helpful. But I stayed with those eight words a while, this little list of what love is not, rattling around my mind like some dismal refrain: envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, unyielding, irritable, resentful, gloating. Eventually, I had to admit I was really staring right into the main panel of that full-length mirror. Surely you have no such flaws, and maybe you’d rather not know this about someone in my position, but that little list is a pretty apt self-reflection. All these unlovely behaviors lurk beneath the surface and fill my days.
And do you know what they have in common? They’re all forms of self-assertion. Envy, boasting, arrogance, and all the rest are just ways we claim our place, push others to one side, dismiss their concerns, and get our own way. So the really haunting question is now this: If love truly oriented our days, if this parade of horribles no longer marched across center stage, what do you suppose we’d do with all the spare time on our hands? What would fill the space now opened up in our crabbed and cramped lives? Well, maybe we’d have room for someone else, which is the beginning of love. Maybe we’d then be able to bear with others, trust them deeply, share their hopes, endure suffering with them. But we won’t, or more truly, we can’t, because we’re consumed with the self-assertion that drives out love. We’re thus left to our own devices, trapped with all our fine abilities in a hall of mirrors whose horizon seems infinite but is in fact only a lonely, foreshortened illusion.
Perhaps this sounds like a Debbie Downer sermon at the start of this bright new semester, but I mean just the opposite. Paul’s stark reflections on love and its impossibility by our will or work are liberating, an antidote to delusion. It’s a great mercy to hear the truth we’ve long suspected: not only do our best efforts fall short, but what’s more, lasting love doesn’t result from our best efforts. For Paul, the love that truly matters is neither a moral virtue nor a human achievement. Instead, such love is a person, the one who came with forgiveness and healing to reclaim us for life by embracing us even in death. Love is also an image, a vision to set us free from self-preoccupation, to be open for others so they can more fully live. Which means that, finally, love is a gift, flowing from God’s loving heart so we might likewise freely begin to love, and so freely to bear, to believe, to hope, to endure.
1 Corinthians 13.1-13