Perhaps no other subject has been written and sung about more than love. I’m sure that almost all of us could name at least five songs dealing with love without even thinking about it, for Paul McCartney is probably right, “You'd Think That People Would Have Had Enough Of Silly Love Songs. But I Look Around Me And I See It Isn't So.” Of course McCartney, as part of the Beatles, would probably have at least one song on any list of love songs that we created. For me at least, I can’t think of love songs without several Beatles songs popping into my head, not counting Helter Skelter, and I think their focusing on this subject was directly related to what was going on at the time when they were writing. The 60’s were a time of turmoil and crisis. The nation was deeply divided over many issues; we were fighting a war with no clear end in sight that some said was absolutely important to protect America and to others it seemed meaningless and believed that we were led into the war by deceit if not outright lies. People didn’t trust the president or congress, and things generally seemed to be getting worse rather than better. Who says that history doesn’t repeat itself?
And yet in the midst of this turmoil, musicians were singing about love and we were being told that all you need is love. But could that really be true? Could love solve all of our problems? Is love really all we need?
Part of the problem of answering that question lies in the definition of love. What is love? What does it look like? What does it feel like? These are not easy questions because in our culture love is a lot of things. We talk about falling in love, as if love is a hole or a pit, and for some maybe it is. And we use the same word to describe our feelings about lots of different things. So I can say I love my wife and I love my daughters. But, I also love Italian food, I love to read, I love baseball and I love God. Certainly, the meaning of love is not the same in all of these things, so what is love? What does it mean? What does it look like? And what do we do with it? Perhaps Eliza Doolittle is right. In My Fair Lady, she cries out “Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words! Don’t talk to me of love, don’t talk to me of June, don’t talk to me of anything at all, just show me!” I think that is what Paul is trying to do in this passage.
At the time this was written, Paul was probably working in Ephesus but writing back to the community in Corinth, a community he founded and which holds a special place in his heart, although perhaps a troubled spot as well because, as I’ve said before, they can never quite seem to get it right. Christianity is lived and practiced only in community, which brings with it all of the attending problems that come with any social organization. And whether its issues of pride, arrogance, immorality, class issues, power-issues, self-righteousness, timidity, boasting or any of the other problems that arise in any social organization, Corinth seems to have them all. Apparently this is not the first time Paul has had to deal with this issue, nor will it be the last. In fact, in First Clement, a letter written by the church in Rome to Corinth a full generation after Paul, notes that the community continues to “engage in partisan strife.”
And so Paul has written them this letter to them to deal with the various issues they have and to try and bring the church back into harmony and most importantly back into community. Over the first chapters of the letter, Paul works through several of the problems being encountered. Then in chapter twelve, which we heard a portion of last week, he talks about spiritual gifts with the idea that the many parts of the church comprise the whole and that every part is just as important as all the others. Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that no one should be jealous, self-righteous, or think themselves less than or better than anyone else because of the gifts they bring to the church, because we are all gifted, which leads us directly into today’s passage.
While this passage is most often heard during wedding ceremonies as this beautiful verse and love, we should remember that his is actually a rebuke from Paul. Paul addresses the church in Corinth about love not because they are doing things correctly nor in order to give them a quote with which to sell commemorative plates. Paul is talking about love in order to criticize a group of people that he cares deeply for, because they are emphasizing all of the wrong things that God has given them and forgotten the most important thing: Love of God and love of neighbor.
Now even though Paul begins his rebuke talking about spiritual gifts, and notice it is a list very similar to what we heard last week, it is not the gifts in and of themselves that are the problem, for Paul says that he too speaks in tongues. The problem is that they are seeing that as the end of the religious experience and the blessing of God, instead of as the beginning. “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels,” Paul says “but have not love” then I have nothing. “If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love then I am nothing.”
Listen to what a powerful claim Paul is making: If we are prophets of God, if we understand everything and if we have faith great enough to literally move mountains but do not have love, then we are nothing. We are nothing without love. Even the actions we undertake if done for the wrong reasons are meaningless, for Paul says “If I give away all my possessions… so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Faith, belief, and even actions without love are meaningless. They are mere gongs and cymbals, making meaningless noise to the world and to God. All the things we do in the world are pointless; everything we have, everything we know, everything we undertake is all meaningless without love.
He is lifting up love to show the community how far they have strayed from the path. But, this is not a romantic love or an emotional love nor even a sort of Platonic love. This is a love not of feeling but of doing. This is not a love that overwhelms us or sweeps us off of our feet. This is a love that forces us to set aside our own self-absorption, our own feelings, our longing for happily ever after and eternal bliss. It is a love that forces us to look at others and accept them as they are, as a part of the whole, blessed in and of themselves because they too are a child of God. This is a much different type of love than what we are used to dealing with, talking about and acting on. So what is this love? In trying to answer this, Paul is much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who said about a certain type of movie making, that while he could not define it, , he would know it if he saw it.
So Paul gives us not so much a definition of love but guidelines to use in recognizing love: Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious 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, endures all things. Love never ends.
How do our actions and practices in the world stack up against that list? If you are like me, you probably didn’t do so well, because as it turns out this is not a touchy feely selection written by Hallmark, but instead an incredibly difficult way of being and acting in the world. This idea of love is not merely how we are supposed to deal with our spouses, significant others, family and friends, but instead how we are supposed to be with everyone. If we do all of the things commanded by God, but have not love, then we are nothing, we have nothing, and we gain nothing. This love is not characterized by feelings, beliefs or knowledge, but instead by actions. There are several words in Greek for love, the two most prominent being eros, which is the feeling or love, and agape, the word Paul uses, which is the doing of love. A word that some people have written might be better translated as charity.
In writing about this passage, the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said:
To the Christian, love is the works of love. To say that love is a feeling or anything of the kind is an un-Christian conception of love. That is the aesthetic definition… But to the Christian love is the works of love. Christ’s love was not an inner feeling, a full heart and what not; it was the work of love which was his life.
To have knowledge of Jesus and to proclaim him as our Lord and Savior is not enough, and Paul even says that we don’t really understand what that means, that we do not yet have full knowledge of God yet. But, we must act on the knowledge and belief we do have in our community and in the world.
As James says, “Faith without works is dead. Show me your faith apart from your works, and by my works I will show you my faith.” We do works of love in the world because God first loved us and by doing so we act as examples to the world of God’s love. And, here comes the hard part, just as God loves everyone so too are we obligated to love everyone, even those whom we would rather not and we have to do it all the time.
A while back the “What Would Jesus Do” program was fairly popular and was being taught in churches all of the country. The purpose was to teach kids to think like Jesus and to act on Christian principles in their lives. Unfortunately, like all things this was not always successful. One woman was preparing pancakes for her two sons, Kevin, age 6, and Ryan, age 5, when they began fighting over who would get the first pancake. Seeing this as an opportunity to teach a moral lesson, she asked her oldest son “if Jesus were here what would he do?” Kevin, having learned his lessons well, said that Jesus would let his brother have the first pancake. “So” his mother said, “what are you going to do?” “Well,” Kevin said, “I’m going to let Ryan be Jesus.”
Showing love is not easy, and showing it to those with whom we are in conflict, or those with who we disagree, or just simply dislike is even harder, but that is what Paul is commanding the community in Corinth, and us, to do. In the novel, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters, Father Zosima, says, “I love mankind, but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love individual people.” That is loving in the abstract, or generally, is easy, but loving in the concrete is hard, especially for those we would like to see buried in concrete. But if loving is to mean anything it has to mean loving specific, individual people, especially those who we like to exclude or despise because of their culture, race, religion, sexual orientation, class, health, or whatever barrier we might like to erect around the other. And it also has to be more than one of the things I often here is that we should view everyone as if they were Jesus, and treat them as if they were Jesus. On its face it’s not a bad practice, but when we do that we strip them of who they are, the good and the bad, and instead place our own preconceived ideas onto them. That is really no better in the end that Father Zosima’s position. Instead, we must see them as they actually are, warts and all, and still love them.
Differences are not renounced by love; instead they are embraced as being necessary for the wholeness of the community. Paul is not saying that each person needs to be, do and think the same thing. Instead he is saying that we need to respect the fact that everyone is unique and has unique gifts and skills which combine to make the entirety of the community and each and every person is important, just as each and every part of the body is important. There is a big difference between unity and uniformity. Paul is seeking unity so that all of the members of the community can be brought into full and equal participation. The work of the Holy Spirit is seen in the multiplicity of skills, ideas and gifts, not in the lack or repression of them, and to use them to approach the world with love. And so to should it be with us.
There is currently a great deal of dissension and internal strife in the church. We squabble over cultural things like abortion, euthanasia, sexual orientation, race, school prayer and women’s rights, to name just a few, and we even squabble over religious issues like baptism, communion and the dating of Easter. We, as the body of Christ, are supposed to be the example to the world of what God’s love looks like, and yet we can’t even get along with ourselves. As Peter Gomes has said “We have just enough religion to know how to hate, but not enough to know how to love.” We are no better today than the community in Corinth was in Paul’s time, and thus this passage still has import for us right here and right now. How do we push for peace and reconciliation between nations and groups when we are constantly fighting with each other? Why should people accept God’s love into their lives when they don’t see it being practiced by those who claim to have it?
Our convictions are important. A community without convictions lacks integrity. But convictions without respect, convictions without love, are also meaningless. Jesus was not concerned with people who believed the right things. If he was, the Pharisees, scribes and priests would have been his best friends. Beliefs are meaningless without proper actions. As Paul tells us, love is the greatest spiritual gift there is, it is the most direct and closest spiritual gift to God. Without love everything else is meaningless. We as a community of Christ need to be a witness to the world of the power of love, and as a rhetoric of hate continues to grow here and around the world, it is more important now than ever. We need to be a witness to the world that merely because you disagree does not mean that you need to be enemies with those whom you oppose. We need to be a witness to the world that God’s love is all embracing and includes everyone within its sphere. We need to be a witness to the world that love, not hate, is the most powerful force in the world. And we need to be a witness to the world that without love, not just for those we like and agree with but for everyone, without that love who we are, what we have, what we do and what we know is meaningless.
In what was supposed to be the last line of the last song of the last album the Beatles ever recorded, seems to sum up their entire philosophy. It says: “in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Is love all you need? The simple answer is yes, for without love we are nothing. We are sent out into the world to demonstrate to others the love of God which we have accepted for ourselves, and in the end, faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.