Scriptures: I Corinthians 13; Psalm 136:1-3, 23-26
Every time I read I Corinthians 13 I feel guilty. It says, “Love is patient.” I hear that, and I think about the time a couple weeks ago I was in the grocery store check-out line, and the person in front of me wanted to buy a bottle of gin. So the checker had to go find someone with the key to open the liquor cabinet and get the bottle of gin, which took forever, and when she came back the customer said, “No, that’s not the right bottle.” So she again had to find a manager with a key, and after several minutes brought back a different bottle of gin. But when the customer tried to pay for it his card was rejected. So he fumbles in his wallet looking for another card and finally says he’ll have to go home and come back. And this was in the express line. Love is patient, but sometimes I am not.
Then it says, “Love is not envious.” I have a confession. I am not envious of many people, but I would give anything to have a voice like Tom Hutyler, the stadium announcer for the Mariners. Have you listened to that voice? A voice like that could bring an entire community to Jesus. If I had a voice like that … well…. Love is not envious, but me—that’s another story.
Even worse is verse 5: “Love is not resentful,” or as the Good News Bible translates it: “Love does not keep a record of wrongs.” I don’t know about you, but I find it easier to forgive a wrong than to forget it. It is just too handy to keep it around, and use it as a weapon if the other person ever starts to complain about something I do. Love does not keep a record of wrongs, but me—that’s another story.
If it is any comfort, the Corinthians had the same problems. This week while studying this passage, I discovered that almost every characteristic of love mentioned in this chapter was violated by the Corinthians. For example, Paul says that love is not envious or jealous. Earlier in I Corinthians chapter 3 Paul says to the Corinthians, “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not … behaving according to human inclinations?” The Corinthians had a problem with jealousy.
Paul also says, “Love is not boastful or arrogant.” In I Corinthians 5 Paul says to the Corinthians, “Your boasting is not a good thing,” and in I Corinthians 4 Paul says, “But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant.” Some of the Corinthians see themselves as superior to others in the church. They see themselves as being more knowledgeable or spiritual. So Paul says to them, “Love is not boastful or arrogant.”
One more example. In I Corinthians 13 Paul says, “Love does not insist on its own way.” Earlier in I Corinthians 10 Paul says to the Corinthians, “Do not seek your own advantage.” In Greek it says literally, “Do not insist on your own way.” Almost every aspect of love described in this chapter was violated by the Corinthians.
Which brings me to a point I made in the church eNews this week. You often hear I Corinthians 13 read at a wedding. I myself have read this scripture at probably a hundred weddings in the last 35 years. But I Corinthians 13 was not originally written for weddings. It was not originally written for couples or families. It was written for people needing to get along with each other in a church. All the things said in this chapter are describing ways we need to treat each other in the church: with patience, kindness, and even politeness, putting up with one another, believing in how God can work in us, and hoping for what God can yet do through us if we give God the chance. I Corinthians 13 is not only a manual for family relations; it is a manual for church relations.
And here is why love is so important in a church: because all the other things we might do in this church are only temporary. Paul says, “As for prophecies, they will come to an end.” For the word “prophecies” the Good News Bible uses the expression “inspired messages.” In verse 2 it says, “I may have the gift of inspired preaching, but if I have no love I am nothing.” I hate it when the Bible gets personal. But it is true. Preaching is not the most important thing that happens in a church. One day there will not be no more preaching. In the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more sermons. We will not need any preachers telling us about God; we will see God face to face. But by the time we get to heaven we better have learned how to love, because if we haven’t, heaven will not be heaven.
This point is so important, Paul uses several examples to make it. He says, “If I have knowledge but do not have love, I am nothing.” It does not matter how smart you are or how many degrees you have behind your name or how many Bible studies you have been to; if you haven’t learned how to love people you have nothing.
Or he says, “If I give away all my possessions but have no love, I am nothing.” It does not matter how much you give to the church or to COTN; it does not matter how much volunteer work you do at Kent Hope or the Des Moines foodbank or anywhere else; if you have not learned how to love people, you have nothing. Because all those things will be gone in the Kingdom of God. There won’t be any churches or foodbanks or homeless shelters in heaven. What there will be are people, and if you haven’t learned how to love people, what are you going to do?
Do you see what is at stake here? Love is the only thing that will still be relevant when everything else is gone. So if we don’t start practicing love here and now, practicing love in our families, in our church, in our community, even in our country and world, we won’t be ready for heaven even if by God’s grace we get there.
But here is the good news. God’s love is not like ours. God is patient and kind, even when we are not. God does not keep a record of wrongs, even when we do. God’s love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
And that’s why for Paul the most important characteristic of love is its endurance. After all the other characteristics of love are mentioned, Paul summarizes with these words: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Then he says, “Love never ends.”
Garrison Keillor once said that there are no perfect marriages, only marriages that give up and marriages that keep trying (Wobegon Boy, p. 142). That is true of all forms of love. None of us are always patient. All of us are sometimes envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. We all keep a secret record of wrongs. The only chance we have to succeed at love is to hang in there with each other—to keep trying. That is the key to marriage and also the key to being a church: to keep trying, to keep showing up, to keep working at it. For Paul the most important characteristic of love is endurance, and the most important way we show love and grow in love is by continuing to try.
This does not mean we never confront other people about their actions. If you noticed, Paul said, “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.” In other words love does not overlook wrongdoing that hurts other people or puts them down. Love is not silent when people are unjustly treated or ignored. Love does not stand aside while people destroy themselves or others with drug abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or deceit. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. Yet even with that, love continues to seek the best possible good for the other person as well as for ourselves. It’s faith, hope, and persistence never fails, just like God’s faith, hope, and persistence in us.
In a book called The Road Less Traveled psychiatrist Scott Peck notes that when couples fall in love all things seem possible to them. He writes, “United with our beloved we feel we can conquer all obstacles. … All problems will be overcome.” But then he says, “Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reasserts itself. He wants to have sex; she doesn’t. She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t. He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher. She wants to talk about her job; he wants to talk about his. She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers. … One by one, gradually the ego boundaries snap back into place. … Once again they are two separate individuals. At this point they either begin to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving” (pp. 87-88).
The same thing applies to being a church. It is one thing to commit your life to Jesus in a powerful moment of faith. But when you join a church—that’s when you begin the real work of learning how to love.