“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends... And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
(1Corinthians 13: 7,8a, 13)
Certain passages of scripture are associated with certain elements of Christian life. You don’t need to attend too many funerals to know that Psalm 23 is a common passage read on that occasion. The Psalmist, David, was not close to death or even thinking about death when he wrote this psalm, still it’s become the most popular piece of scripture at a funeral. At a baptism or ordination service you often hear Isaiah 43:1 read: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” And without question, the most common passage associated with a wedding ceremony is 1 Corinthians 13... the love chapter.
Everybody thinks it fits a wedding because chapter 13 is devoted to love. But contextually speaking, this passage couldn’t be more out of place at a wedding. Paul is refereeing a battle within the Corinthian congregation – they’ve divided into different camps and refusing to work together for the common good. So along comes Paul to remind them of the one quality they are all missing ‒ love. Now, that scenario couldn’t be further from the context of a wedding where everyone is on their best behavior and bride and groom are both intoxicated with love! Paul’s words to the Corinthians are too heavy to consume at a wedding... so the pastor must whip his words into a frothy meringue and serve it as a light dessert when in fact it’s meant to be the main course.
So, I’m glad the passage has come up in this context – Sunday worship ‒ where the context fits and where Paul’s words can challenge the quality of the love we express as a congregation.
Last week you’ll remember Paul compared the church to a human body – the human body is made up of different members and they all work together as one body. “So, it is with the body of Christ,” he says. Each of us has different gifts but we are to use those gifts for the common good of the whole body. The problem was an unhealthy spirit of competition in Corinth – those with greater gifts were exalted and those with less gifts were shown distain. So, Paul wrote to encourage them all to work together and all the while strive for the greater gifts. And that concludes the 12th chapter...except for one small phrase that Paul add at the end. He says: “But strive for the greater gifts... and I will show you a still more excellent way.”
Now why did he add that phrase? Paul is appealing to their sense of competition! He’s saying, “You want to be the best? Well, listen up and I’ll show you how to make your good, better and your better, best. And with that he’s got everyone’s attention at the start of chapter 13. What is this more excellent way?
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels” (and all the charismatics lean in) ... “but have not love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.” “And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge” (and all the educator-types lean in) “but have not love, I am nothing.” “If I give away all my possessions and hand over my body so that I may boast” (and all the mission lovers lean in) “but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Paul identifies the three major camps in the Corinthian congregation... all three are guilty of trying to operate with an absence of love. The result? None of them amount to a hill of beans! Love is not a spiritual gift rather it is the ingredient that makes our spiritual gifts excel. When we share our spiritual gifts in the spirit of love then they have consequence... then they have value, otherwise they are just something you are checking off your list: “Visit to my neighbor... check!”
Now Paul has everyone’s attention! And they want to know more about this kind of love. Just what is agape love anyway? Paul shares what it is:
“Love is patient; love is kind.” And then he goes on to share what agape love is not so that we understand the obvious shortcoming of the Corinthians: “love does not envy” – envy and strife are the mark the Corinthian church! “Love does not boast” – but the Corinthians boast continually! “Love is not conceited – but the Corinthians are full of themselves! And even though Jesus Christ is never mentioned anywhere in the chapter, the examples given seem to allude to his sacrificial life, death and resurrection: Christ lived a life of agape love and that love “bears all things, believes, hopes and endures all things!” Christ is the truest example of agape love there is, and the Corinthians are challenged to live by his example.
And then Paul adds one more sign of the primacy of love. Love never ends. Nothing else endures but love does...it endures forever. Spiritual gifts like prophecy, tongues and knowledge will all pass away because they are not complete but partial... temporal. Think about it: What good is prophecy when you’re standing in the presence of God? Prophecy will have no purpose then ‒ it’ll be obsolete. What good are tongues when everyone’s already filled with the Holy Spirit? What good is our pithy knowledge when we are standing face to face with the Lord of all Truth?
All these are partial, so when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. But not love... love will endure. Even in heaven love will prevail because it reflects the complete. And we already know this is true even now in this age: because acts of love live on. They never stop blessing us!
This past week I was invited to Warwick Forest for a thank you luncheon. I preach there about four times a year, so they held a luncheon to say thank you to me and another clergy who do the same. The new chaplain there had a marvelous lunch prepared for us and a beautiful program. She shared some things about her life since she is new to Warwick Forest. She confided that when she was a youngster her father abandoned her mother and the family. One of the first persons to knock on their door after he left was a Baptist minister. He took her family under his wing and cared for them – not just for a while but for many years. Every Sunday night the whole family was invited to his house and he made pancakes for dinner. That act of love has stayed with Ruth for all her years, in fact it continues to bless her still. She has made it her purpose to reflect the love of that Baptist minister in her own ministry even now. So, love continues to flow from that initial act of love... agape love never ends!
This coming Wednesday a large group of people will congregate at Williamsburg Presbyterian Church to celebrate the life of Rev. Harold McKeithen. He was the pastor here for 22 years and as you know, he had many wonderful gifts as a pastor. He was a great preacher and strong administrator and we made him Pastor Emeritus here because of his long and faithful service. But I think what I will remember him best for was the way he looked after his wife in these last years.
They moved to Williamsburg Landing about eight years ago and we all wondered why. Charlene certainly did not want to go, and she made no secret of not liking the place. People assumed Harold did it for himself... so he was closer to his work at Williamsburg Pres. But all her friends were down here! Then we began to see what he saw all along... her forgetfulness, asking the same question or saying the same thing over and over. Suddenly the reason for the move became clear to the rest of us.
Eventually Charlene had to go into Woodhaven, a memory care facility at the Landing... but Harold visited her every day. At first, he’d come and have lunch with her but eventually he’d just come later in the afternoon and the two would lie down and have a nap together.
A few Christmases ago I took some cookies up to give to Charlene along with a card. There was a Christmas program going on in the hall – Santa was there, and some song leaders, and they were all singing Christmas carols. I stuck my head in to see if Charlene was in there. Sure, enough she was... and Harold was right beside her with his arm around her shoulder. It was a touching moment and I just watched them a while enjoying the program. Together. And that’s the image of Christmas that stuck with me that year and blessed me. Agape – selfless love... a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This love never ends...