First Corinthians was written to a deeply troubled church. What else is new, right? The trouble started on the day of Pentecost and will continue until Gabriel blows his horn. The church is troubled because it's made up of people such as you and I. But that's a topic for another sermon.
The troubles of the Corinthian church were different from the troubles of other churches in degree and not kind. But the troubles in the Corinthian church were pretty bad.
We've been reading First Corinthians in our Wednesday Bible study, so it's been on my mind a lot. Right away, in the first chapter, Paul mocks the Corinthians. " For it has been reported to me by Chlo'e's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apol'los," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"
Paul reminds them of their baptism. He reminds them of the source of their unity. He points out how absurd it is to divide up into parties because they have all been named and claimed in baptism by God in the name of Christ.
And then at the end of First Corinthians, Paul gives us his great hymn to love. The 13th chapter of First Corinthians wasn't written to be read at a wedding; it wasn't even written for the funeral of Princess Diana (although former PM Tony Blair's reading of it at her funeral would almost make you think that it had been written for that very occasion). First Corinthians 13 was written for a first century church that was deeply divided. It was divided between rich and poor; between Jews and Gentiles; between those who spoke in tongues and those who didn't.
First Corinthians 13 is not a Hallmark Valentine's day card. It is a desperate plea for unity in a divided church.
There are two fundamentally different theories about the universe in which we live. Maybe some of you who know more about science than I do can tell me which is currently favored.
One theory has it that the Big Bang exploded with such force and the basic matter of the universe was launched outward with so much momentum that the universe will never collapse back upon itself. But eventually it will slow and stall in the cold and dark of space.
The other theory is that the momentum of the matter that exploded outward in the Big Bang was not quite enough to propel the universe outward forever and eventually gravity will win and the universe will collapse in upon itself. In other words, the universe will eventually slow down and its outward momentum will reverse, and its whole structure will collapse inward.
A simpler way of looking at this is to say that there are two fundamental forces in the universe - one that propels us outward and one that pulls us inward.
There is a force of disintegration and a force of integration.
Paul tells us which will win: "Love is patient and 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 "
Love is that force that draws us together, that draws us toward our source, that draws us toward God.
One of my favorite movies is Love Actually. I would recommend that you all see it, except for the fact that the characters use certain four letter words a little too frequently.
But in spite of that, it has a good message. At the very beginning, the newly elected British PM played by Hugh Grant, says that he likes to visit the arrival section at Heathrow Airport. So the movie shows people embracing each other: parents and children; husbands and wives; sisters and brothers; long lost friends; and so on. As he reflects on this, Hugh Grant's character adds, "When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge. They were all messages of love."
There is something in the human heart that reminds us that the basic principle of the universe is integration, not disintegration; the force that draws us together, not the one that pushes us apart.
One of my favorite translations of 1 Corinthians 13 is by British New Testament scholar J.B. Phillips. I'd like to share it with you.
If I speak with the eloquence of men and of angels, but have no love, I become no more than blaring brass or crashing cymbal. If I have the gift of foretelling the future and hold in my mind not only all human knowledge but the very secrets of God, and if I also have that absolute faith which can move mountains, but have no love, I amount to nothing at all. If I dispose of all that I possess, yes, even if I give my own body to be burned, but have no love, I achieve precisely nothing.
This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience - it looks for a way of being constructive. It is not possessive: it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance.
Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. It is not touchy. It does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good men when truth prevails.
Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen.
One of the most important things to notice about 1 Corinthians 13 is that Paul says nothing about feelings. He describes love entirely in terms of characteristics, qualities, and actions. Love is patient; love is kind; love is humble; love endures.
But in almost every description of love in popular culture, love is described in terms of feelings.
That's why I often think that love is the most dangerous four letter word in the English language. It is so easy to fool ourselves into believing that we are loving another when we are really serving our own interests.
The Greek philosopher Plato said that love is the child of poverty. What he meant is that all too often we love others to satisfy our own needs and desires and not out of a real interest in their own needs and desires.
I believe that that is part of what Paul was saying when he said that "When I was a little child I talked and felt and thought like a little child. Now that I am a man my childish speech and feeling and thought have no further significance for me. At present we are looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face to face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when I shall know it as fully as God now knows me!"
In other words, under present circumstances our love will always be needy, it will always be compromised by our own selfishness, our own egotism. That is why we are not saved by love alone; we are also saved by faith and hope.
There is a marvelously enigmatic saying by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: " Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."
In other words, not only is our love for others compromised by our own selfishness, we are not even able to see our own selfishness. That is why we need others. We need them to point out our shortcomings.
Love is patient and kind but it is not easy. Love requires a lifetime of practice. Love is costly.
For several years I taught piano to a little boy named Stevie, but he was not all that interested in learning piano. One day I said something about my own piano teacher. Stevie's eyes got big and he said, "How long do I have to keep taking piano lessons????"
Love is a little like piano lessons. We have to keep practicing. Paul names the scales and arpeggios and exercises of love in 1 Corinthians 13: Patience, kindness, humility. Keep practicing!