Year C, Epiphany 3
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
As some of you know, I had a last minute drive to St. Louis right after Christmas. I was officiating my niece’s wedding and planned to fly out early Saturday morning as that was the day of the rehearsal. We missed the flight due to a couple of factors. So we started our drive at 6am, already slightly sleep deprived with a very disappointed 2 year old who was really looking forward to a plane ride. We were in no way prepared for a drive that long and I knew I would be missing the rehearsal. One of my big fears as a pastor is that I will be late for a wedding or funeral. Another fear is missing my flight. This was those two major fears wrapped into one tidy ball.
Needless to say, I was not in a good mood and I really wanted to yell at my husband. I wanted to make sarcastic comments. I wanted to be snide. But here was the problem. I had written the wedding sermon the day before. It was all about how important it is to be kind to your spouse. Presumably, I was going to have to preach this sermon the next day in front of God and my husband, and I was going to have to do it without feeling like a big hypocrite. So I didn’t yell. I didn’t make snide comments under my breath. I was nice. It was really really hard. It took a tremendous amount of effort on my part.
One of the readings for the wedding was this reading from First Corinthians that we heard today. “Love is patient. Love is kind…it does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable and resentful.” We all know this one. You have probably heard it at 90% of the church weddings you have attended because it’s beautiful and poetic. It’s about love, which is what we are celebrating when we attend a wedding. The Apostle Paul wrote this letter and he was by no means a romantic. He was never married and even discouraged people from getting married. However, he understood the importance of Christian love in the context of our relationships with one another and our relationship with God (which is primarily what he was talking about).
I am going to get a little detailed on grammar, but I want you to stick with me. When we hear the word kind or patient, we would classify those words as adjectives. They describe something. Therefore, we might read this passage and think that Paul is talking about the attributes of love. He is describing love. However, Paul did not speak English, nor was the Bible originally written in English. This was Greek. In Greek, those are verbs—action verbs. Usually when we think of action verbs, we think of words like run, walk, talk, laugh. We don’t think of being patient and kind as an action verb. You see Paul was not describing some romantic form of love that would easily fit on a greeting card. This was not descriptive. It was prescriptive. He was telling us how to love. So often when we talk about love, we portray it as a feeling, a feeling that can come and go. But Paul was quite clear. Love was more than a feeling. It was about action and effort.
In 1995, Gary Chapman wrote a book called: The Five Love Languages. The premise of the book is that we each have a primary language we use to express our love, which is not-so-coincidentally the same way we prefer to receive love. The five love languages are: receiving gifts, words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time and physical touch. In the Old Testament God showed his love in a number of ways. He gave humanity the greatest gift by actually breathing life into us. The prophets provided words of affirmation and judgment on behalf of God. God also served his people by providing food and water in the desert, parting the sea, and even winning military battles.
In the New Testament, God’s love language shifted a little. He began by giving another huge gift…the gift of his only son. Then his son shared his time with people. He provided words of affirmation through parables and conversations. However, if I was to pick Jesus’ primary love language, it would be acts of service—whether it was washing the feet of his disciples, providing food to hungry people, healing the sick or turning water into wine. His greatest act of service was his death, his willingness to die for his people. That was how he ultimately showed his love.
Paul understood all this. He talked a great deal about Jesus’ ultimate act of love. In our reading from Corinthians, Paul was talking about how God’s love is manifest in our words and actions. He wasn’t saying we need to do anything drastic like sacrifice ourselves. He was not trying to recruit martyrs. In fact, he is giving us very tangible and accessible action verbs. In the 13 verse we heard today, Paul provided 15 action verbs….15 ways that we can express our love for God and one another. Being patient, kind, truthful, and never giving up are just a few of those actions.
These are not easy things. I am not sure that I would have been as kind as I was during that car trip had I not had a sermon looming in front of me about kindness. The people of Corinth were facing far more difficult challenges than a long car ride. These new Christian communities were unique in that they included a tremendous amount of diversity. Previously, communities had formed around blood relatives, ethnic groups, socioeconomic status or religious upbringing. The people in the Christian community of Corinth were coming from all kinds of different perspectives and they were having a hard time loving one another. Even when they worshipped God, they still found ways to compete. They were competing over who was more spiritual, more gifted. We still do that. We are often comparing ourselves to other denominations and churches. How often have you heard… “well at least we are not like those Christians.” Even in our Christian communities today, we still have a hard time acting with and in love.
In six days, Night’s Welcome will begin. It is the week when we host the homeless in our parish hall. We feed them. We provide lodging. We treat them like our guests and show them the respect they deserve as our brothers and sisters. It is a perfect example of how Jesus taught us to love. It’s not easy. We are forced to see things that we normally try to avoid. I want to encourage you to take part in Night’s Welcome or in another one of our outreach ministries. Or if you can’t do that right now, perhaps just reach out to someone who might be hard for you to love. We all have those people in our lives. We might be those people.
My hope is that the next time we hear this reading, we won’t envision a bride and a groom, but instead we will see a person who we loved even though they didn’t really deserve our love, perhaps someone we only saw once. Or maybe we will remember a time when someone showed us kindness when we ourselves could not show that kindness. Let us stop describing God’s love. We can let the poets do that. Instead, let us show God’s love. Let our faith be a verb—an action verb.