Rev. Caroline Barnett
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.
Because this text is often read at weddings, with it’s beautiful testament of what love is, it might be tempting to assume that Paul is a bit of a romantic.
I can see it now— Paul traveling so much, sends his regrets to a friend’s wedding. He gives the couple these poetic words in lieu of a gift off their registry.
But the reality is: Paul is not a romantic person. Not even a little. In fact, most of the things Paul says about marriage specifically are not things we read at weddings— he tends to be more practical about things like marriage, than our own ideas of romance allow for.
And then here we read his words on love—and yes, they are beautiful, and no, I am not saying we shouldn’t read them at weddings, but they’re not words originally intended for romance. They’re not for two people in love, in fact they’re for a community that is about to fall apart.
You see the church in Corinth is not doing well by the time Paul writes to them. They have a lot of problems. Division and conflict comes in many forms for the church, but one problem is that the many of the members of the Corinthian church who were very comfortable in Greek society— they were wealthy and had a lot of status— are they having trouble adapting to a more self-sacrificial and humbling way of life.
This faction of the church was competitive, aggressive, obsessed with social climbing. And when faced with people who disagreed with them, they were used to using their influence to manipulate the situation, and to verbally mock and degrade their adversary in order to get what they wanted.
Now I don’t want to come down too harshly on these Corinthians — it would be easy to repeat their own mistakes of judgment and condemnation.
These Corinthian believers are just acting in the way that is expected by them: To be tough, and to fight for what they believe in with little regard to those who get in their way. They speak to others in cruel ways because that’s how everyone speaks to one another.
They are behaving as they were taught to do, as they were raised to do, in ways that make them successful adults in a world where survival is cutthroat.
And yet, it is those things, those traits the world views as valuable for upstanding and important people that Paul labels as childish.
Paul lays it out clearly: there is love and there is something else.
There is patience and kindness and humility, and then there is boastfulness and arrogance and envy, even if it is disguised by prophesy and knowledge and good works.
There is a love that is self-sacrificing, unconcerned with image and status, that can guide us through conflict, and then there is something else that can pull us apart even further.
And one of those ways is the mark of a mature faith, and the other… is childish.
Imagine with me for a moment that we are those Corinthians who have been taught from a young age to value winning over everything else. That we have been trained to cut our competition down through mocking language and insults. That if someone else wins, that means we have lost. Imagine with me then that the traits that make you a well-adjusted adult member of society are now being called childish. And then imagine instead, you are being told to be kind and patient and humble, traits that sure, sound nice enough, but are they really going to get you what you want?
I suspect, and maybe it’s just me, but you may not have had to imagine yourself living in ancient Greece to understand the Corinthians.
Though our world is less stratified, less combative, it’s not that far off, and the message the Corinthians first learned still exists. That to be successful in our “grown up” world, we must be ruthless rather than loving.
And yet, Paul flips the script on the Corinthians and calls all of it childish. Because that’s what God’s love does to us. God flips the script.
God upends our expectations of what it means to be powerful or successful.
Because God came to earth as a poor baby not a powerful king, and walked around in a vulnerable body that bled and failed and died, but only to rise from the dead.
God calls all sorts of people into God’s service, people who were outcast or unprepared or low in status, because God knows everyone has something to offer the world.
And God promises that God’s love is for everyone, without exception, without the need to prove oneself through words or actions or knowledge. And that is a love can change everything.
By Greek society standards— or even our own— what could be more childish, more outlandish than a belief in that love— not power or knowledge or might — will transform the world?
But that’s the crux of faith for Paul. The key to an adult, “a grown-up,” mature faith is to love. And it is not a cute, romantic love that we can show off in moments of celebration. This type of love is a deep abiding, sacrificial love God first gave to us.
It is a love that cuts through artifice and posturing down to the bones of what makes us human without regard to the pride, envy, and boastfulness we hide behind.
Ken Fuson died in January 2020 . Now, Ken wasn’t a particularly famous or well known beyond the community that loved him. The only reason I know who Ken is or anything about his life is because I happened to read his obituary which he wrote himself before he died.
Published in the Des Moines Register, it starts off like most obituaries do. It lists his accomplishments: where he attended school, his various jobs as a journalist and later working in the marketing department of a college, the family he leaves behind and how much he loves them. Ken was a writer, so it’s a well-written obituary and includes some very funny lines including the opener: “Ken Fuson died at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, of liver cirrhosis, and is stunned to learn that the world is somehow able to go on without him.” Lines like that give us insight into what Ken was probably like.
Ken could have written a witty but smooth story of his life and wrapped it up with a sentence or two about memorial services or where to send flowers, but halfway through the tone shifts.
"For most of his life, Ken suffered from a compulsive gambling addiction that nearly destroyed him. But his church friends, and the loving people at Gamblers Anonymous, never gave up on him. Ken last placed a bet on Sept. 5, 2009. He died clean. He hopes that anyone who needs help will seek it, which is hard, and accept it, which is even harder. Miracles abound.
Ken's pastor says God can work miracles for you and through you. Skepticism may be cool, and for too many years Ken embraced it, but it was faith in Jesus Christ that transformed his life. That was the one thing he never regretted. It changed everything."
In one of his final acts of life, Ken abandoned any inkling of boastfulness. He disregarded his final chance to show off how successful he was, or how perfect he might have wanted others to think he was. And instead, he used his last words to share how he was loved without condition, how vulnerably he loved others, and how transformational a love like that can be. And it resonated with so many, that his obituary was shared beyond his own community, with strangers commenting on how profound (and yes, at times, funny and silly) it was.
This is the type of love Paul wants the community in Corinth to be transformed by. This is the sort of love Paul wants the church to use as their guidepost when they face differences and conflicts. It’s the type of love God wants us all of us to experience throughout our whole lives, and not just at celebrations and weddings, but every day from birth til death.
This type of love transforms the world, and it shows us that what we once considered important may actually be childish, and what may seem childish and silly is actually profound.