“If Love is the Answer, What was the Question?

“If Love is the Answer, What was the Question?

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I am nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies.

Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompleteness will be canceled. When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.

We don’t yet now see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love

1 Corinthians 13 from The Message (Eugene Peterson translation)

May I have a show of hands? How many of you are familiar with these words of scripture? (Likely a different translation.) How many of you have used this passage in a wedding, or plan to?

I have to confess that I can’t even look at this passage without thinking of the movie Wedding Crashers. In this less than spectacular movie, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play best friends who crash wedding parties as a way to meet women. They do so by developing elaborate cover stories to charm the crowd and become the life of the party.

In one of the early scenes, the two are at a wedding and when the pastor announces that the bride’s sister will read scripture, Owen says to Vince, “$20 on First Corinthians,” to which Vince replies, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.”

The bride’s sister takes the lectern and begins, “And now a reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.” (The movie actually goes downhill from there.)

This is perhaps the most widely quoted passage of any of Paul’s letters, which provides both challenge and opportunity. In a way this passage lives a life of its own.

This text is often used at weddings because it is (incorrectly) understood as praising the preeminence of human, romantic love. What is often missed, and perhaps deliberately ignored, is that these words were written to a community that was having a very difficult time staying together. Preached with this in mind, it could make for a surprisingly helpful text for a wedding (but I’ve never heard it taken that way…) For it is in the difficult realities of relationships and communities that the love Paul describes needs to be lived out in everyday ways, and because of that dynamic this passage holds real promise for the gathered people of God.

You may have seen this passage anywhere and everywhere– (this ‘artsy’ rendition on the bulletin cover is just a start.) You can find these words on shopping bags, pens, notepads, cross-stitch patterns, tattoos, you name it. The words have been domesticated to the point where it all may just blend into a meaningless string of words.

That’s why I chose to read a different translation today, to try to recapture some of its intended meaning. When we reread it again with new eyes, we might find one of the most powerful passages in all of Scripture.

Paul spends the beginning of First Corinthians leading up to this passage, trying to explain that it doesn’t matter which teacher you follow to hear the Gospel; what is most important is that sharing Love in Jesus’ Way is how to live out the Good News.

One way to understand the true power of this passage and un-domesticate it is to read it in other places besides weddings. Read it in your living room or on your back porch, read it in a Doctor’s waiting room or before you meet with your accountant. Read it while parked in your car before you go grocery shopping.

Read it before a family gathering, or even before a church meeting. Read it after you watch the nightly news, and often.

The kind of love evoked by these words sounds like a healing balm, much more like the love Jesus intended in the context of daily life; especially in the midst of the tensions we now live in.

With these words Paul tries to help people experience transformation, (read ‘change’)- and that’s never any easy thing. Paul is not writing in a vacuum. He’s got particular issues roiling the waters and a particular ‘action plan’ in mind to help put this in proper order.

Remember that the people of Corinth were Paul’s ‘unruly children’, with apparently more problems going on than any of the other communities to which he wrote. The most particular troubling issue at hand, interestingly enough, was ‘glossolalia’, speaking in tongues. And it’s worth our while to see what this was all about.

A seminary friend of mine, Dale Martin, who teaches at Yale Divinity School, has written a lot about this, and I learned some new things this week about all this.

In the ancient world, speaking ‘foreign’, unknown or indecipherable words was somewhat common practice. It was taken for granted that the ‘gods’ spoke a different language than the common people, so if one were to communicate with them, or be a ‘communicator’ (an ‘oracle’) through which they spoke, then another language was necessary. The ‘gods’ did not speak everyday Attic or Doric, the predominant dialects of Greece. So to speak another ‘godly’ language was to possess a treasured gift. Similarly and interestingly, in Jewish culture at that time, a piece of writing was making the rounds titled “The Testament to Job.” In it was explained that after Jobs’ trials and tribulations, after he was rewarded for his faithfulness with double of all he had before, his sons were given property and his daughters were given a ‘golden cord’ that enabled prophetic speech (whatever that was…)

So ‘speaking in tongues’ was not as unusual gift as you might think. Times change, and cultures do too.

I think it’s safe to say that we Presbyterians aren’t so familiar with speaking in tongues. It’s not our thing.

We generally think of folks maybe in backwoods Kentucky doing that, along with snake-handling. We take ‘glossolalia’ as a ‘status indicator’, that it is for those who are uneducated, ‘unrefined’, (which YouTube videos tend to bear out) but that’s not always been the case. “Speaking in tongues” was ‘thing’- a fairly common and somewhat respected practice among numerous Protestant groups over the past few hundred years, among French Huguenots, New England Shakers and even among the Mormon leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

What seems to have ‘gotten Paul’s goat’, was not so much the exercising of this special gift, but it’s exaltation over other gifts. It appears that the Corinthians themselves accorded high status to the tongue-speakers. What Paul was trying to get at was not a flowery description of what love “is” in some abstract or undecipherable sense, but rather a practical example of what love means, and especially what love’s impact can mean for one’s brother or sister in the church.

The Corinthians were actively pursuing some of the things that Paul mentions in the opening verses such as speaking in tongues and knowing “mysteries.” There may be nothing wrong with such things in themselves, but if in the process people forget about loving their brothers and sisters, such things end up being worthless. Without love, it does not matter what budgets, buildings, or mission programs we have. Fundamentally, the church is called to be a community that practices love.

Paul never says that such love ‘feels good’, and this is where the typical use of this chapter goes astray. Such misunderstanding creates trouble not only for expectations regarding the day-to-day realities of marriage, but also for the realities of the church. Because of our disordered assumptions about what love actually is, we often act as though the mission of the church is to gather like-minded and likeable people together. We think that in such a community it will be easy for us to love or, more honestly, to “feel the love.” But true love is not measured by how good it makes us feel. In light of 1 Corinthians, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for creative tension and flexibility without going off the rails.

Here’s another way to think about it….with a story. When I was growing up, our Sunday School Superintendent was a man named Victor Koch. He was a businessman. Mr. Koch didn’t teach much. As I remember it, he walked around & got attendance lists from each of the classes and once in a while did some fill-in teaching. But he always sat in the confirmation classes that were taught, so it must have been from my confirmation years that I remember this story. We had a collection of Bibles before us, and we were all asked to look up different passages of scripture in them and then to compare their similarities and differences.

And I remember that one of us had an old ‘red letter’ edition King James Version of the Bible that we had in the Sunday School class, where it clearly marked exactly what words Jesus once spoke. And one of the erudite in our class raised his hand and said, “Mr. Koch, why is it if Jesus is so important, there aren’t that many pages of red letters in this Bible?” Well, we thought to ourselves, this guy has got a good point.

Yeah. It’s our side, 1; Mr. Koch, 0.

And Mr. Koch had a bit of a pause, as he often did, and then he said, “Well, Steve, I guess it’s probably because Jesus listened a lot more than he talked.”

Hmmmm. What do you think about that? Real understanding comes from real listening. Isn’t that so? And real listening, honest listening, isn’t simply jumping at the next chance to respond. Honest listening takes courage, because we might just hear some things that we don’t expect to hear, or want to hear, maybe even something that might in some way change us.

I’ve been thinking about that answer, of the love it takes to listen, and what a gift it is that doesn’t call attention to itself.

Maybe you’d be willing sometime this afternoon, this week, just to stop for a moment and recall a person who listened deeply to you at an important point in your life. Maybe it is someone who took a risk on you at work or at home. They heard what you said as well as what you didn’t or couldn’t say. Someone you felt really heard you at a time of great joy or of great need, great sorrow or great confusion. What was it that took place that allowed such a memorable moment to continue in your life?

And with that experience in your heart and your mind, is there somebody else who you may be called to listen to?

This week to come, maybe just once you’ll stop long enough to listen – and listen deeply in a way that you might not have. That’s all. Just listen.

Some would say that maybe that’s the greatest gift of all. Amen.