1 Corinthians 13
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I remember the wild cyclamens of Nazareth.
They came on the second day of the whirlwind trip to the Holy Land I took two years ago.
Our tour guide had taken us outside of the city limits, to a rocky path that wound up a hill. At the top of the hill was a cliff, and a plaque that read: “Mount of Precipice.” Our guide told us that this was the cliff that Jesus’ hometown tried to throw him off of, on that fateful day that Luke recorded in our gospel today.
Everywhere around us were limestone boulders. And in the crevices of those white boulders grew tiny flowers—the wild cyclamens. I remember the dark blue-green of their thick leaves against the white limestone. The impossible delicacy of their flowers, that bloomed in the middle of January, and thrust tiny, spiraling pastel petals up toward the sky. Like women dancing, raising their arms to heaven.
I thought about the strangeness of finding such delicate and lovely flowers in the place where a violent mob tried to kill Jesus, three years too early.
What a strange thing for a religious community to do.
The thing is, we have this expectation about religious communities: that they will be places of love, and they will act like it. But something is off here: either this expectation is misplaced, or God has made a terrible, terrible mistake and put built the church out of humans. Humans, with our enormous capacity for getting things precisely right one minute, and terribly wrong the next.
I mean, God knew better. God knew, because the very first story of our faith is the story of God giving the very first humans one thing that they’re not supposed to do, and they go and do it. We have a history as long as our history of being really bad at living up to God’s expectations.
But still, God persists in calling us together through the Holy Spirit and making us church, and calling us the body of Christ in the world.
This should make us quake in our boots.
And I think it does. I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, and honest about our history as church, honest about the ways we’ve abused our role in society and exploited the expectation that church is a nice place and a safe place, honest about the brokenness in us that Christ died for in the first place, we do realize how terribly qualified we are to be church. And we go for the only possible solution:
OK, that’s a little unfair. It’s not precisely denial. It’s the admission that although we were once terrible people, Christ died to take away our sin, and that sin being gone, now we have a clean slate and we are no longer terrible people, and we will no longer do terrible things. We will get it right. We will live up to God’s expectations.
At this point, we turn to the Bible for inspiration about how we are to live. We open to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and we read:
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.
And we think: Ok, we can do that.
Or…we try, and it comes out wrong. We try not insisting on our own way, and end up not speaking up when the community needs our voice. We try bearing all things, and end up enabling behaviors that are abusive and wrong. We try being patient, and miss the moment when God called us to act.
Somehow, someway, even our very best intentions have a way of turning us into sinners.
And can I tell you something? God knows that. That is why Jesus had so much to say on the topic of forgiveness and repentance. Because he knew we would need it.
And we are not the first. Not by a long shot. Paul wasn’t writing these words to the church at Corinth because they were doing such a super job of living up to them. No! Paul was writing to the church at Corinth because they were screwing up being the church. They kept holding community meals at times when the poorest members of the community couldn’t be there, or could only come in time for the leftovers. They had members who had amazing gifts for speaking in tongues, and they were using it to say, “Oh, well would you look at how much more God loves me.” They had people forming into factions according to who had baptized them. They were making a mess out of being the church, and in the midst of it, Paul writes to them to say:
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love never ends.
It wasn’t about what they were doing. It wasn’t even a little bit about what they were doing. This passage, this famous, gorgeous passage about love, was about what God was doing. About what God was doing among the church at Corinth, and in them, and sometimes—often—in spite of them.
In the midst of a community that was arguing about whose spiritual gift was better, Paul writes to remind them about three fruits of the Spirit that were at work in every single one of them: faith, hope, and love.
Faith was the fruit given to them by the Holy Spirit, not because they deserved it or earned it, but because they needed it to trust the Christ died on the cross for them, and rose on the third day, and broke the chains of death and took away the weight of sin and cleared the way so that they might have life, and have it abundantly.
Hope was the fruit given to them by the Holy Spirit, not because they deserved it or earned it, but because they needed it to trust that the story wasn’t over yet; that Christ would come again, and usher in a new creation that was so beautiful that they couldn’t even imagine it.
Love was the fruit given to them by the Holy Spirit, the greatest gifts of all, not because they deserved it or earned it, but because it was what they needed in the meantime to give a purpose to every gift that the Spirit gave them, whether speaking in tongues or prophesying or teaching or healing, because whatever the gift, whatever the ability, it didn’t have any value at all unless it was used in love.
This passage about love, this is not a call for what you’re supposed to be like. This is a description of a gift that God has already given to the church, because of what we’re like. God has not made a terrible miscalculation in making God’s church out of human beings. Instead, God does something indescribably terrible and wondrous on the cross, and through it turns every one of our mistakes into a window to God’s grace.
Love is patient because we are forgetful. We forget the God who has known us and loved us even in the womb. So Love patiently reminds us whose we are.
Love is kind because we are callous. The little voice instead our heads and too often, out of our mouths, is cruel not just to others, but even to ourselves. And so love is kind, unfailingly kind, because we need to know God’s lovingkindness before we can show it to others.
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…because Christ does not envy us, or boast about his miracles, or lord it over us that he is Lord over all of us. At the core of this love Paul describes is the self-emptying of Christ, who put aside all power and all greatness to become like one of us, and die like one of us.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. All things. All the things we do, can do, are afraid to do, dread to do but do anyway…love bears it all. There is not one single thing, out of all the things, that can separate us from this love that is in Christ. That love is in us because the Holy Spirit has put it there, and will not take it away. Ever.
Because love never, ever ends. Every other spiritual gift? Healing or teaching or miracles or speaking in tongues or organizing Buck-A-Chick or smoking sausages for Oktoberfest or visiting the homebound? All of those will end, because a time is coming when Christ will come back, and Buck-A-Chick will disappear because there won’t be any more hunger, and visiting the homebound will disappear because we will all be resurrected to new life, and speaking in tongues will disappear because we will all be singing in one voice around the throne of the Lamb—but love will never end. Love will never end.
So…what do you do? What do we do, being imperfect, but perfectly loved?
Paul gives the answer in the first verse of Chapter 14: pursue love. Pursue it for the sake of upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation. Pursue love, and become a people shaped by that pursuit.
Pursue love, and be like the wild cyclamens of Nazareth, flowers that bloom in the coldest times, that cling to the unfriendliest ground, that look out on the place where Jesus’ own hometown synagogue tried to throw him off a cliff, a place where religion tried to kill God—and still raise their petals to the sky like people rejoicing in God’s inalterable love.
Pursue love. But in the midst of the chase, know, always: love has already caught you.