I Corinthians 13:1-13
February 3, 2013
A few years ago, there was a video on YouTube that went viral. It’s called “Kevin and Jill’s wedding.” It’s a real wedding with real people, not actors or actresses playing parts. The video starts out just moments before the bridal party is about to walk down the aisle. You think that it’s going to be like any other wedding. Then all of a sudden music begins to play that is not your typical wedding processional type music. Instead it’s a pop song. The two ushers who were handing out wedding bulletins suddenly fling the programs into the air and begin to dance their way down the aisle. Then two bridesmaids follow, also dancing down the aisle. A groomsman and a bridesmaid bop their way down. Ultimately the whole wedding party gathers together and dances as a group. Just when you’re wondering what else could happen, the bridesmaids and groomsmen huddle at the doorway and the groom somersaults his way through them, dancing his way to the front. Finally the music reaches a climax. The camera pans back to the doorway, and there she is! The bride. She too dances her way in. She is met halfway by her husband-to-be, who escorts her, arm and arm, the rest of the way.
My description does the video no justice. As silly as it sounds, the first time I watched it I got a little teary. This couple was obviously so full of joy about marrying each other, that it seemed completely natural and normal that they grooved their way to their marriage vows.
The video stops shortly after the bride and groom reach the altar, so the viewer has no idea about what the rest of their marriage service is like. But it’s quite possible that they used this passage from I Corinthians. It’s probably one of the most popular passages of scripture to be used in a wedding. And I mean, why not? Its sole purpose is to talk about love. What love is and what love isn’t. Isn’t that the most important thing to talk about when two people are about to join their lives together forever – love, the foundation and basis of it all.
Not according to Richard Hays, a commentator and scholar with the Interpretation series of biblical commentaries. He writes “the first task for the interpreter of I Corinthians 13 is to rescue the text from the quagmire of romantic sentimentality in which popular piety has embedded it. The common use of this text in weddings has linked it in the minds of many with flowers and kisses and frilly wedding dresses. Such images are far removed from Paul’s original concerns.”
Well, I guess I’ve blown it already, haven’t I? The first thing I did was link this text to a wedding. But, that is where we hear this text the most, at weddings. So why not at least start there.
As Mr. Hays writes, romantic love was not what Paul was trying to get at in this passage. As he is throughout this letter, he is trying to make the Corinthians understand that the way they are living is far removed from what God in Christ was about. At different places in this chapter, we hear Paul exhorting them to stop putting so much emphasis on knowledge, but look instead to love. Paul wants them to realize that loving each other as Christ loved is not about who is superior and who is inferior. It’s not about who has the best spiritual gift. There is no hierarchy when it comes to love. Those who speak in tongues are not going to be loved more by God, than those who don’t. All Paul seems to want is for the Corinthians to learn how to love, not romantically, not patronizingly, but as God showed love to God’s children in Christ.
But what does that mean exactly?
I know I’ve said this time and time again that one thing Paul was driving at was that love is not just about warm and gushy feelings. Certainly being in love brings out all sorts of warm, gushy feelings. But those feelings don’t necessarily last. They may not disappear but they change. Hopefully they evolve into something deeper and truer than any warm gushy feeling could be.
But beyond romantic love, Paul saw love as something that was enacted. A person following the way of Christ practiced love, lived love everyday. Living love means reaching out to those we don’t like as well as those we do. Living love means doing what is right over doing what is easy. Living love means speaking the truth even if it’s a truth that most don’t want to hear, even if it’s a tough truth. Jesus speaks the truth in love in the passage we have from Luke today. And Jeremiah will be called on again and again to speak hard words from the Lord to people who would rather close their ears, hearts and minds, then hear the truth God wants to impart.
So that’s what Paul is trying to get at in this passage. He’s telling the Corinthians that if you don’t have love as the basis for all you do and say and think and feel, then you don’t really have anything at all. If you speak in the tongues of angels, whether it’s a tongue giving to you by the Holy Spirit or if you just use powerful and beautiful speech, but you don’t base your words in love, then you are a noisy gong. Paul isn’t trying to say that those spiritual gifts are wrong. He would not have believed that. But he is telling them clearly, that without love, they become meaningless. The metaphor Paul uses here would have been a profound one for the Corinthians. Corinth was well known for the bronze vessels it produced. These were not musical instruments, but large acoustic vases that were used in theaters to help provide echo and amplify the actors’ voices.
So when Paul says that if you speak in tongues of angels, but you don’t speak with a foundation of love, it’s like these bronze vases are echoing but it’s only noise. It’s not speech that can edify or build up. It’s just noise.
If you have faith, if you give all that you can to the poor but you don’t have love, then your faith becomes a mockery and your actions of self-denial lose their truth. Nothing is gained without love.
I think it’s important to repeat what Paul is trying to convey to the Corinthians. He wasn’t putting love as something separate or higher. He wasn’t trying to make a check list of spiritual gifts and activities with love at the top as the most superior factor. No. Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that all of the things they had been doing, speaking in tongues, self-denial, etc. was fine. But love must be the starting point. Why deny ourselves? Because we love. Why be willing to open our hearts and speak to God in the language of angels? Because we love. Why should we not value knowledge above all else? Because knowledge without love is nothing.
Paul is saying to the Corinthians, in some of his most powerful and inspiring rhetoric, that faith, that life without love would eventually become hollow. The Corinthians must learn how to love.
Self-denial without love is like a clanging bronze vase. Religious life without love is empty. Without love, nothing makes sense, nothing can be fully known, nothing can be complete.
Paul knew the Corinthians needed to learn how to love. So do we all. I think this is a pretty loving place to be. But I also know that with all we love, there is so much more we can do, there is so much more we can be. There is so much more I can do and be. I know for a fact I don’t have this loving thing down. I am not always patient. I am not always kind. How many wrongs against me do I keep in my heart? How many times am I unwilling to forgive, to let go of anger, to persevere in love? Too many.
So today and everyday, I must learn, like those Corinthians, how to love. Let us learn together. Let us love one another and all whom we meet, as God has first loved us. Let us learn how to love, and share that love with a broken world. Amen.