1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And 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. If 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.
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. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love 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.
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When 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. For 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.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13 is not news to any of us. We have all been to weddings, we have heard it read to crowds of people waiting urgently to get to reception. There is something about it which appeals to sermonizers as well. When you open up any epistle, there’s a risk that people might be offended by a text, might find it too strong of a statement on Paul’s part or else that it might clash with something else going on. Yet this passage always gets passed through anyone’s worries. It travels from the lectionary to the pulpit as soon as the presider reads the address of these verses. It would seem that I am no exception.
There is a compulsion, all the same, to delve into the mysteries of this text. To really see what it means to say that love is all these things. To begin, we could say that when Paul says that Love is all these things, it is as good as saying God is all these things. If that’s true, it can shake up quite a few of our ideas of God. God is patient and kind. God envies no one. Is never boastful. Never conceited nor rude. God does not insist on God’s own way, God is not irritable or resentful. God does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Most compelling among this list is the idea that God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. This speaks deeply to how we engage God in our day today. How often do we feel that we probably give God a headache? That our Heavenly Father looks down on us and shakes their ever loving head – or maybe even their fist – at our inability to behave in even the most basic of Godly ways. Or, perhaps we feel that our prayers must grow tiring to God, that we might annoy God with constant requests. Well here we have it, in black and white – God believes in you, God hopes after you, and eve if you did manage to annoy the almighty, God endures.
Still more, we know that we do not exhaust God – God hears us and rejoices in us. Do we not see Jesus telling us that while lawyers, judges, and politicians may grow annoyed by us – granting our requests to shut us up – God acts out of love to free us from all obstacles, to free us for joyful obedience. Not only this, but God bears the weight of our sorrows – not just in the work of Christ on the cross, but in the continual solidarity Christ shows for us. God bears our pain because God bore the pain. God is willing to help us face trouble because God faced troubles.
Now, there is one verse that may scare us away from seeing this as referring to God – but let’s face it shall we. “God does not insist upon God’s own way.” Uh oh. Sounds like we’re tiptoeing into some loosey-goosey Christianity. Are we not told elsewhere that God is quite sure about God’s way. The narrow road, the ways of life and death, the right hand of the sheep the left hand of the goats. Perhaps a better way to translate this would be that God, “Does not demand what is God’s.” Now, this is not to say God could not – but let us consider this for a moment.
God, in seeking after us – do work night and day to reclaim a mutual love within our hearts. God grants grace upon grace, God sends God’s spirit to commune with us, God sent Christ to live and die for us. In all these things, God sought after us. Yet, God does not demand that we come home. God does not bust down our door and drag us out of our homes – as much as our walk with Christ can sometimes feel. No, we are told instead that God stands at the door and knocks. God does not demand we do anything, but God is always ready to take us on if we turn home.
So would it be right to say that this text promises us how God is? It seems alright, but I don’t think that’s where we should stop looking. Let us look at the other way we typically read this text – to love is to be these things.
Most commonly this interpretation appears in well-meaning posts on the internet or in self-help books on dating. You take your husband’s, wife’s, or significant other’s name and pop it into the verse. In this model, and I’ll make myself the target – someone must ask themselves. “Is John patient? Is John kind? Is John slow to anger? Is John envious, or boastful? Conceited or rude?” and at that point, they answer no, and join a nunnery because if someone as fantastic as me doesn’t make the cut how could they ever find someone who does (Here you see clear evidence that I don’t meet the criteria for boastful or conceited.)
There are worse ways we could read scripture, but this is limiting for many reasons. On one hand, if this is your criteria for being in a relationship with someone then your future is really limited to life monastic life. To find someone who is unceasingly patient, and kind, who never insists on their own way… Oi. Some people manage it to be sure, but they are far and few between and after they die they usually get the letters S and T in front of their names. It also limits relationships outside of our romantic ones. Imagine, for example, if you applied similar measures to the company that you keep.
Suddenly friends, coworkers, and acquaintances would drop like flies from your social circle, and while there is wisdom in saying that we should not keep company with fools, we should also remember we worship a God who kept company with far worse than impatient people. Cheats, liars, criminals, at least two revolutionaries – Jesus was not afraid to fill his inner circle with people who by all means were not patient, kind, or, as some translations put it, “kept no records of wrongs.” When we apply such stringent a list as this to those who we associate with, then we find deficiency in all and squander our love for few. This is not acceptable if we are to follow a God who, in owning all these characteristics we can boldly say – “is love.”
I would not hesitate though, to say that we should hold ourselves to this standard. Oh, what a hypocrite I must sound like! If we cannot keep our friends with such criteria how can we keep anything approaching self-esteem? Well, I think that oftentimes we confuse our self-esteem, our self-worth, with our need to feel important. To quote from this passage, we prefer our self-conceit to our self-worth. Literally in Greek, “to fill ourselves up with air.” It is not a sin to think well of ourselves, it is a sin to lie to ourselves about how good we are. Passages like this then challenge us to really think about how we are.
Am I kind? I hope so, but now that I think about it I really shouldn’t have talked to so and so like that the other day… Do I demand my own way? Well just yesterday I got very mad at a coworker for how they edited a document… And so on and so forth.
This kind of self-examination is not asking that we deny our good qualities so that we can seem humble, it is asking us to be aware of how we act. We cannot follow God fully if we are not willing to act like God, that is to act in love. To truly love is work. We are not born knowing how to do it and many people die being quite bad at it. Love is equal parts emptying ourselves and filling ourselves up. To again look to the text, we tend to be puffed up with our own self – sometimes with our need to see ourselves as good, other times so concerned with our internal fears and doubts we forget that there is a world outside ourselves.
Take as deep a breath as you can, pull in all that selfness. Filling ourselves as we do with complete concern for ourselves. Every time we assure ourselves, we aren’t part of the problem, just those other people. Every time we enter into conflicts and blame everyone but ourselves. Every time we lock out the troubles of the world because we feel too full take all that in with this enormous breath – and then let all of that out.
Breathing out those concerns, breathing out our self-perceptions, our fears, our conceit – now we feel emptier. It is only when we become empty of all this that we can begin to be filled – to be filled with love, with Grace. We look at lists like this, and we can become overcome, to think that we are to be like God and that it is impossible. Well, that’s no way to look at anything. If we begin a journey by saying we can never make it to the destination, then we will stop walking as soon as we are asked to.
No, we must believe that when Christ asks us to “Be perfect as [our] Father in heaven is perfect” that it is possible to do so. Now, this is only possible with God’s help of course – but we must always be willing to do our part. We must examine ourselves at all times and ask honestly, “How can I be better.” Not so that we come to hate ourselves, but that we grow in love. After all, Love “Keeps no record of wrongs.” That includes wrongs that we commit. While we should be quick to work and reconcile ourselves to anyone we hurt, to dwell on the wrongs we do outside of repenting and making amends is to harm ourselves. We are not locked in a prison of past wrongdoings, we are freed to do good!
So, with all the confidence of God – we move onward. We walk toward the love of God and neighbor by being in love with God and neighbor. We examine ourselves so that we can improve ourselves – and whenever possible we take the steps necessary to do what is right. We live into what God has put before us in God’s example – namely that we have an example in Christ for how we can live perfectly. C.S. Lewis once said that to be humble was not to “think less of ourselves, but of ourselves less.” Similarly, let us not hate ourselves in our pursuit of loving others, but still, may we never waver to give others advantage.