In this year C Lectionary, one of the readings appointed for the end of January was St. Paul’s famous ‘Hymn to Love,’ as the scholars have called it, the gorgeous numerical symmetry of 1Corinthians 13:1-13 –
The first verse: ‘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.’
What a comparison! Anyone who has been close to such unpleasant noises, knows that the whole body is disquieted to the point of squirming, by sounds which attack the ears in such grating ways. Paul was describing for his day, what in our day is the screech of chalk on a blackboard, or a strident, ear-piercing announcement that the emergency network is being tested on a television, whatever the service that television brings in.
So, as Paul so rightly describes it, speaking with the absence of love becomes a physical and psychic assault. And those who have experienced unloving words, bullying, cold authority, indifferent reactions to our troubles or sorrows, have felt the pain produced by our own time’s clanging cymbals.
Paul goes on to describe what love is, and what it asks of us: ‘Love is patient; love is kind….’
Love is not arrogant or stubborn in demanding one’s own way; it ‘bears all things,…endures all things.’
He continues his exhilarating description of love, in words that are among the most familiar of all the beautiful verses of the Bible. We often hear these words read at weddings, reminding the couple of what lies ahead, of what their love will ask of them, in themselves and in each other.
This is wonderful, and appropriate, for although we often hate to acknowledge it, love demands sacrifice, it often asks that we let go a part of our wishes and desires, to please and help those whom we love.
But there is so much more to this than wedding recitations. We have perhaps forgotten the global application of Paul’s words, and the reminder that he was speaking to a community of faith, to the church at Corinth that was contentious and difficult.
His words would do well in a polarized, often-bitter America. Paul was speaking to a church that had many divisions. How like our own history, for we are at a point now that seems a terrible mirror of the 19th century’s Civil War in America, where brother fought brother, families were divided and the slave states were trying to divorce themselves from the Union. Like a marriage breaking apart, each side saw the wickedness of the other. Yet, there were slaves in the North – people forget that – and there were those who saw the sin of enslavement in the South.
We need to examine two special aspects of this wonderful set of verses: first, how did Paul come to know so deeply that the message of Jesus was a Gospel of love? And second, what was that love message that Jesus proclaimed, how was it related to the continuing story of God, through the fortunes of Israel, to us in this latter day?
Evidently, though Paul never met Jesus in person, he did meet the Presence of Christ on the road to Damascus. Others heard the voice but Paul also saw, and then was blinded by that light. Hymns and prayers have used this, in exactly those words – the great paradox, that light can make us blind. And once his sight was restored, he was a new man, amazed at his own transformation.
I remember running around a church as my diocese was electing a new bishop, finding at last the bible scholar everyone referred me to, who turned out to be a long-absent friend. I asked, “How did Paul know what he knew about Christ?” and the answer was, “Nobody knows.”
The accepted (canonical) scriptures of what we call The New Testament, are indeed very stinting on such details. There are great gaps in our knowledge of the everyday life of Jesus and His disciples. And Paul himself describes how many of his days were spent, tent-making, and finding a way to support himself and preach, through the trade learned from his family in his youth. But he describes this in passing. His main message is the astonishing elaboration of the meaning of Jesus’s coming into the world, the Christ, and the new beginnings ordained by that coming.
How did Paul know all this? His teachers certainly must have emphasized it. But Paul says, himself, how he knows many of the things he preaches: he speaks of revelations made to him. In these words that we can almost miss, he declares himself to be a prophet, for in revelation, he has received his messages directly from God.
The descriptions of love in the famous verses, were specifically aimed at partisan, conflicted, badly-behaving Corinthians. In the ancient world. to be called a Corinthian was to be called a person out for trouble, fractious, impious, self-directed to the point of rejecting any authority beyond oneself. A touchy, edgy, difficult community made up the young church in Corinth.
Are we so different, this America today? To read the faults of the Corinthians seems an all-too-familiar portrait of the challenges we face as a people who are supposed to love our ideals and love each other enough to “promote the general welfare” of all, as the Preamble to our Constitution states.
The importance of these verses, though, far transcends the deep probing of what love is. The verses reflect what Jesus was and is, what the Gospel messages are about.
Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law, and it is so easy to forget that the Law was first and foremost the instructions God gave to Israel, to be charitable, to be loving, toward the poor, the weak, the stranger, the person newly freed from slavery. We must love even beyond what we call our comfort zone: we must manifest a love that shares its blessings with others, even and especially those whom we think are so different from us. Patience, kindness forsaking arrogance and bitterness and self-entitlement, would literally change the feel of the everyday world. Wariness and cynicism give way to a peaceful heart and a trust in God that is, admittedly, the proverbial great leap of faith. Paul’s words should perhaps be our daily prayer, to struggle from hostility to love, from defensiveness to openness, to the joy and freedom they alone can give.