First Corinthians 13 is one of the most lyrical passages in all of scripture, equal to the 23rd Psalm as a beloved text etched in the memory of Christians. To hear it afresh we must slightly dislocate it. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, it comes immediately after a discussion of spiritual gifts such as preaching, teaching ,prophecy, faith, and speaking in tongues. Not only does Paul say that love is a more excellent way than all those other gifts, he says that without love, speaking in tongues is just noise. Without love, prophetic powers, mystical understanding, and theological knowledge are nothing. Faith powerful enough to move mountains is nothing without love. Even sacrificing all one’s worldly goods, and giving one’s life in martyrdom, gain nothing without love.
What astonishing logic! When Paul talked about the other spiritual gifts, he ranked them. Speaking in tongues is good, but not of much use unless someone else has the gift of interpreting them, which is a higher gift. Helping others is even a higher spiritual gift, but not as good as teaching, having a prophetic voice, or preaching in an apostolic way. Faith and hope are at the top of the ranking of spiritual gifts along with love, and love is the greatest. Nevertheless, none of those other spiritual virtues count for anything unless one also has love. Although we might struggle for those other virtues all our lives, attempt to teach them to our children, and take joy in slow steps forward, Paul says they do not count without love. Love has a unique place in Christian holiness, as the condition that makes all the other spiritual gifts or virtues worth having.
The beauty of 1 Corinthians 13 therefore masks terrifying news. For love, so seemingly humble, is so very difficult. “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.” Who can live up to this? Aren’t we all sometimes impatient, sometimes unkind? Don’t we all have limits to what we can endure? Which of us is perfect in this love, even when described in Paul’s humble way?
When 1 Corinthians 13 is used at weddings, most people interpret it as setting forth an ideal for love. This is the ideal to which the newly-weds aspire, and the parental generation chuckles because they know that the bliss of the nuptual day will be exchanged for tough times that try patience, kindness, and all the other aspects of love. The wedding party prays that the couple will grow into love that can carry them through life’s difficulties, and this is all to the good. Paul’s point, however, is that, regardless of being a future ideal, only actual love can make the other virtues count. Having love as an ideal, not a reality, is not enough.
Paul’s reasoning in this chapter is that of all the gifts and virtues, only love is self-sufficient and never ends. Only love is eternal. When prophecies are fulfilled, we don’t need them any more. Speaking in tongues ceases. Whereas now our knowledge is partial, when it is complete in the knowledge of God, we will not need our partial knowledge. Our knowledge of God will be complete when we know God as God knows us, fully, face to face, not a glancing reflection in a mirror. That kind of knowledge is full love. According to Paul, love alone of all the spiritual gifts and virtues is for its own sake, not for the sake of something else. All the other gifts and virtues are good because they are useful for something else. Love is for nothing else: it is simply the way God is God and the way we should live before God.
Some of you know than I like to sing and have an “old ruined voice” like the late Johnny Cash. One of my favorite pieces, even sweeter than Johnny Cash’s own songs, is Johannes Brahms’ song cycle, Four Serious Songs. The first song of the four is on a text from Ecclesiastes that says, in an English translation of Brahms’ adaptation: “One thing befalleth the beasts and the sons of men; the beast must die, the man dieth also, yea both must die. To beast and man one breath is given, for all things are but vanity. They go all to the self-same place, for they all are of the dust, and to dust they return. Who knoweth if a man’s spirit goeth upwards? And who knowedth if the spirit of the beast goeth downward to the earth? Therefore I perceive there is no better thing than for a man to rejoice in his own works, for that is his portion . . . ” The second song, also from Ecclesiastes, says: “So I returned and did consider all the oppressions done under the sun. And there was weeping, weeping and wailing, wailing of those that were oppressed, and had no comfort, for with their oppressors there was power, so that no one came to comfort them. Then did I praise the dead which are already dead, yea, more than the living which still in life do linger. Yea, he that is not is better than dead or living, for he doth not know of the evil that is wrought forever on earth.” The third song, from the apocryphal book of Sirach, laments: “O death, O death, how bitter art thou unto him that dwelleth in peace, to him that hath joy in his possessions, and liveth free from trouble, to him whose ways are prosperous in all things, to him that still may eat. O death, O death, how bitter, how bitter art thou. O death, how welcome thy call to him that is in want and whose strength doth fail him, and whose life is full of cares, who hath nothing to hope for, and cannot look for relief. O death, O death, how welcome art thou, how welcome is thy call.” Although those texts might have an exaggerated pessimism, they also have a great realism. Why does life seem meaningless? Why is there such evil? Why is death cruel to the happy and a release for the wretched? The fourth Serious Song, as you must have guessed, is our 1 Corinthian text, the text that says love is not for something other than itself, that it is the highest gift and never ends.
Brahms’ point in the fourth song is not to reverse the burden of the previous three, that life has no transcendent meaning, that evil is pervasive, and that death ruins the happy and is the best the wretched can hope for. Brahms’ point is that those things are transient and are transformed when taken up into the greater reality created by love. Love gives purpose to life that might have no purpose itself. Love lets us bear the evil that comes with God’s creation. Love lets us triumph over death that is premature and over a miserable life for which death is a welcome blessing.
Brahms’ fourth song begins with a wild dance of upsetting rhythms, crashing chords, and impossible leaps, like real life, interrupted by lyrical phrases longing for love; that life’s greatest virtues count for nothing without love is a madness of noise, a cacophony of sounds. The slow middle section reflects on now seeing through a glass darkly and looking forward to then seeing face to face; the sinuous melody is like the
sound of a distant hunting horn, while underneath the piano builds a hidden beat of triplets, the divine energy. The last section begins like the first but with small changes brings the cacophony to transcendent harmony; it connects heaven and earth with more than octave leaps in a paean to faith, hope, and love. A coda brings the song home with the melody and rolling triplets of the middle section, now made harmonically more complex, to say that the greatest of these is love. I want to sing this love song for you, counting on you to remember that I am merely a preacher bringing the message of love in a vocal medium, not a certified singer like our choristers. That the song is too high for me is like the fact that such love is also too high for me. [sing]
Now the reason love fills eternity is that God is love, as John says. The best way to understand creation is as the creativity of love that makes lovely things for their own sake. God’s loving presence with each of us in our inmost heart is the Holy Spirit loving. By the Holy Spirit we can love God. By the Holy Spirit we can love our neighbors. The Holy Spirit is God creating us to be lovers. When we search our souls and find little love of God and neighbors, this means that we must awaken to the Spirit within us. When we search our communities and find little love of God and neighbors, this means we must awaken to the Spirit among us. In one sense it is vain to attempt to call down the Holy Spirit or to understand its workings through the cosmos. But in another sense the Holy Spirit is the fount of our very existence as individuals and communities. The creative Spirit is God loving us into existence. That we don’t see this much of the time is because we, not the Spirit, are asleep. So I call upon us all to wake up to the Spirit of love, the power of creative impulse, the deep-seated sympathy that makes our hearts flip-flop at the sight of danger or suffering for others. We can awaken to the loving power of God pounding like triplets about to break out in new life and justice. So life has no meaning on its own terms: life filled with love is lived in God. So evil is inevitable and rampant: evil endured in love is transfigured to victory in God. So death cuts short the happy and consoles only the wretched: love for however long a life is part of the eternal love in God’s life.
Forget the impatience of your love and wake up to the patience of God’s love. Slough off the unkindness of your love and put on the cosmic kindness of God’s love. Don’t let your love be envious, you already possess all things in God. Your love need not boast because it already reflects the glory of creation. Abandon the arrogance of your love, for God’s love that you share humbles itself to slip beneath the claws of meaninglessness, evil, and death. If your love insists on its own way, don’t worry because God’s love of which yours is part always gets its way. If your love is irritable or resentful, don’t worry, you also have God’s love that is joyful and all-giving. If you sometimes rejoice in wrongdoing, don’t worry, for even that flawed love awakens the longing for God’s truth in love. When we are awake to the true Spirit of God’s love in creation, it does not matter that our love does not bear all things: God’s love bears all things. Though our love cannot believe all things, God’s love set the truth to be believed face to face. Though our love’s hope is faint, God’s love sounds all Heaven’s trumpets. God’s love is the beginning of creation and its end. Between Alpha and Omega God’s love pulses the Holy Spirit through our lives, setting the weakest, most flawed, perverse, and self-defeating of our faint versions of love within the fullness of God’s love. Praise God, that to have even the most pitiful and wretched impulse of love is better than perfect faith, hope, or any other spiritual gift with no love, for it participates in the being of God. If we have any love at all, we live within the whole of God’s perfect love that draws us toward the perfection of creation. Come Holy Spirit, love divine. Amen.
-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville