Some of the most elegant prose in all of literature provides our Scripture lesson this morning: 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul’s gripping testimony to the power of love.
The passage places love and all its nuance at the center of life for a faith community of ever-maturing disciples. Love is the absolutely indispensable quality of the believing life. Since God is love, love, like God, reigns supreme.
But before we start unpacking all that, let’s be crystal clear about the kind of love that Paul is lifting up. The original text of the New Testament uses three different Greek words that all translate into English as “love.” But each of those three Greek words has a slightly different meaning, and Paul chooses his words carefully and with intention.
He’s not talking about brotherly love, like the kind of affection you might have for a sibling or close friend. He’s not talking about romantic love, like the kind of physical or emotional attraction that brings two people together. No, he’s talking about unconditional love: Like the kind of love that God holds in the divine heart for each of us, like the kind of love that the Lord pours into our hearts by his Holy Spirit, like the kind of love that the Lord invites us to pour out of our hearts and into the hearts of others.
Without unconditional love – no matter how much stuff you own, no matter how large the house you occupy, no matter how cool your clothes or how flashy your car, without that kind of unconditional love, Paul says, you are lost and as good as dead.
Let that harsh-but-hopeful truth open your heart and mind to the Word of the Lord.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
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. Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)
“Love bears all things.”
“Love always protects.”
“Love passes over all things in silence.”
Straight and to the point, Paul captures the very essence of unconditional love. Not only does love not keep score for better or for worse, but love also looks the other way, so to speak. Think for a moment about your best friendships. You know by experience that the ties that bind the two of you together remain strong if and only if one is willing to give the other a break, give the other the benefit of the doubt, even to allow slights and trespasses to roll off the back like water off the proverbial duck.
Since strong, healthy friendships grounded in brotherly love depend on all that, how much more so does unconditional love depend on extending that same grace to another!
That doesn’t mean, however, that we ignore, pass over, or look the other way when, for example, we see someone being abused physically, emotionally, or sexually. In no way is Paul suggesting that a victim endure pain in silence and that the perpetrator get off scot-free. Quite the opposite!
When it comes to protecting the vulnerable, unconditional love demands that its essential partner, Justice, the righter of wrongs, be brought to bear. Unconditional love protects the victim not the victimizer, thus we “bear all things” that do no harm to anything or anyone of God’s creation. Unconditional love always walks hand in hand with Justice. And into our hands God places authority as the community of faith to call out such exploitation and to hold the exploiter accountable – in love, of course!
Which brings us to the irony of it all.
Unconditional love carries with it a certain ambiguity that flies in the face of common sense: In seeking good for another, you find good in yourself. You’d think that we take care of ourselves first and, if any time or thing remains, then we turn our attention to others. But Paul supposes that one’s good is not achievable apart from the well-being of others in the body of Christ to which all of us belong equally.
That understanding forges love into an ironclad circle, starting with God’s unconditional love for each of us, which renews and remakes bodies, souls and spirits, then continuing to raise us up such that unconditional love becomes our instinctive expression toward others as a way of responding in thankfulness to God’s unconditional love to us.
Love is only fully realized, only fully unconditional, when it is being shared freely from heaven above and upon the earth below. We who are fully and unconditionally loved by God honor and abide in that love most completely and faithfully when we eagerly and gladly share that love with others. To look lovingly after the interests of others inescapably benefits everyone in the community and therefore benefits oneself.
Just be careful not to let your extension of unconditional love provide an excuse for failing to attend to your own needs and exercise good stewardship of self, or create a smoke-screen for hiding your own desperation and deficiency. Paul assumes in all this that we’re all well-versed in honest self-assessment, that you know where you stand, where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and that you will build upon your strengths and shore up your weaknesses through prayer and spiritual discipline.
As great and powerful as unconditional love is, it crashes and burns when it becomes an excuse for avoiding good self-care or clouding honest self-assessment. Absent the stewardship of self-care that Paul assumes exists in everyone, love cannot properly engage the person you really are with another. You cannot enter into the brokenness of another without entering into the brokenness of yourself.
Yet, in the end, despite all its complexities and ambiguities, love endures – in Paul’s eyes, even greater than faith and hope.
That means that the unconditional love we share endures beyond us to become our legacy. Our sharing of unconditional love is the compassion, the empathy, the forgiveness – the grace, that we leave behind in the souls and spirits of others.
Taking seriously that our unconditional loving is our legacy – what we leave behind after we’re gone – demands a Spirit-led reorganization of one’s priorities, an honest reassessment of how we spend (or hoard) our time, talent, and treasure, and a faithful redistribution of those gifts that expresses God’s love for us. And in all that reorganizing, reassessing, and redistributing, the God of Love is glorified, and our legacy of love is maximized.
The artworld has long depicted faith, hope, and love as three women. You see them, for example, in El Greco’s Modena Triptych, in which three women stand together at the crucifixion of Christ. El Greco depicts Love surrounded by children clinging to her legs and resting in her arms. El Greco seemingly understands as Paul does that Love is known by her offspring and the company they keep.
And thus ancient, ever-true words beg hard questions: What kind of children are you raising? What kind of legacy are you nurturing? What kind of person does God want you to become?
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, September 11 , 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by J. Paul Sampley inform the message.