I Corinthians 13
Ah, Paul on love. Not love with candy hearts and lace doilies, mind you, because for Paul love is not the way we’re supposed to feel about each other. Rather, love is a kind of conduct that builds a reliable community of faith. The love Paul describes is the divine gift that makes all God’s other gifts work correctly – that is, for the common good.
Exercised without love, even the best gifts won’t help a congregation over the long haul, and may even harm it, as the Corinthians are learning the hard way. So this lyrical passage on love is also just plain old Paul, hammering home his vision of what God really has in mind for people who call themselves ‘church.’
Because love is a gift, you can’t force it. But Paul says you can create conditions of possibility for receiving it by acting as if you already have it. You can develop habits and practices of love that train your heart to be responsive to grace.
These practices and habits will also serve as counterweights to the strong emotions and showy stars to which churches are prone to hitch their communal wagons, only to discover later that such things are ephemeral. They vanish as fast as they appear and leave us, as someone once characterized it, spinning our wheels like the Road-Runner in mid-air with no traction.
But Christ’s love was not a flash in the pan. It was a deed he did and kept on doing even after he was nailed to a cross. In order to build up Christ’s Body, then, Paul knows something more is required than occasional brilliance on the part of a few, or the thrill of excitement that momentarily animates a congregation. You need everybody to practice – to do love, to act patiently, to behave kindly, to conduct themselves humbly, in fact to rejoice over the good, and to stop being so damned rude. Not everyone can raise the dead like Jesus, preach like Paul, prophesy like John, be a martyr like Stephen, or fix heating systems like J. J. Sullivan & Sons; but everyone can take a walk on a “more excellent way,” as Paul puts it; everyone can learn to behave.
Of course, although marriage was not the original context of this strong corrective message, what Paul says about community-building love applies as well to married love, be it between Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve. So it’s no surprise that we hear it so often at weddings, even at weddings that are in church only because it’s traditional to have them there, or because it’ll make Grandma happy, or because it’s convenient to the reception hall.
It was chosen by a relative of mine for his wedding some years ago, and when he and his now former wife asked me to “say a few words” about it at the ceremony, I did. I said that if their marriage was going to last (since half of all marriages don’t), they’d need to cultivate habits that would make them receptive to the gift of love. I said that they could not kid themselves that all they’d ever need for their marriage to keep working right would be the feelings they had for each other on their wedding day.
That poor dreamy couple didn’t give a flying bull-pucky what I said. They were lost somewhere in Lace Doily Land. The congregation didn’t care either. They were fidgety because their children were fidgety, and probably also because I was saying a few words more than the few words I’d been asked to say. Afterwards, the groom’s father approached me. He had been listening, and he was offended. “Jeez!” he said. “Why did you have to say all that? You’ll scare ‘em to death!”
I felt bad, of course. I had unknowingly transgressed an unwritten understanding about weddings – namely, that when you’re asked to say a few words all they want you to do is say, “Ain’t love grand?” and sit down. Anyway, those two aren’t married any more, and it’s a darned shame, all the pain they caused each other. I wish that text had scared them more than it did. I wish it would scare our congregations too.