When I do premarital counseling with couples, I often find that they select the passage we heard today from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. They may not know anything else about the service, but they know they want this text. Of course, I am happy to oblige. I think the passage is the perfect passage for a marriage – but the reasons I like the passage are probably not the reasons the enamored couple likes the passage. The couple usually likes the passage because the passage sounds so dreamy. If I do not have love, Paul says, “I am 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…” The couple usually looks lovingly at one another and says, “Yes! That is how our love is. And we want to always have this love.” Watching the couple is sweet, really. Seeing young, hopeful love reminds me of days long ago when I had that same naivety, and helps me remember all the goodness of my partner.
But the reason I agree to read the passage at weddings is because Paul is not describing romantic, dreamy, caring love. Paul is describing how truly hard love can be. Do you know how hard it is to not be irritable at 6:00 am after a sleepless night with a newborn and without the blessing of coffee and a hot shower?!? Do you know difficult being patient is when you have asked that your partner do something a certain way ten times?!? And love is not just difficult among partners – love is hard among family, friends, and churches. Who among us with a sibling has not struggled with envy or resentfulness? So, when a happy couple asks me to read this passage, I am happy to read the passage because I know that five, ten, twenty years from now they are going to need desperately to remember that love is patient and kind, is not envious, arrogant, or rude, and does not insist on its own way. Because love the way Paul describes love is beautiful. But love the way Paul describes love is one of the hardest things we do.
Of course, Paul’s letter is not meant for newlyweds. Paul himself never marries, and truly did not seem to give much thought to or even recommend marriage. Instead, Paul is still addressing the same Corinthians we have been hearing about these last couple of weeks. If you remember, Paul wrote to a diverse community deeply embroiled in conflict.[i] He had already written to tell them that although they each have varying gifts, each of their gifts is important. Last week, we heard the portion of his letter that reminds them that they are a body of parts, and that each part is crucial to the body. Into this set of instructions, Paul adds this next chapter about how the Corinthians are to act like that body: they are to love in a way that is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. In fact, Paul does not just describe how love looks, he describes how love acts. As one scholar explains, the original Greek is better translated, “Love ‘shows patience.’ Love ‘acts with kindness.’ Here, love is a busy, active thing that never ceases to work. [Love] is always finding ways to express itself for the good of others. The point is not a flowery description of what love ‘is’ in some abstract and theoretical sense, but of what love does, and especially what love does to one’s brother or sister in the church.”[ii]
Of course, we can sometimes be like dreamy lovers ourselves when we hear Paul’s words. We totally agree that our faith community should be one that expresses, and even actively shows love. That is, until we are faced with how difficult expressing that love will really be. This month we are reading Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who serves in one of the most violent gang-inhabited areas of the country. Father Gregory tells the story of a tiny kid, Betito, who became a fixture around the Homeboy Industries office. He was funny, precocious, bold, and only twelve years old. One holiday weekend, Betito was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was hit by a stray bullet. Father Gregory kept vigil at the hospital, but despite their best efforts, Betito died that night. At twelve years old. But that is not the hardest part of the story. You see, the police caught the shooters and Father Gregory knew them too. He says, “If we long to be in the world who God is, then, somehow, our compassion has to find its way to vastness. [Compassion] would rather not rest on the two in the van, aiming frighteningly large-caliber weaponry. I sure didn’t. …it was excruciating not to be able to hate them. Sheep without a shepherd. But for lack of someone to reveal the truth to them, they had evaded healing. …But are they less worthy of compassion than Betito? I will admit that the degree of difficulty here is exceedingly high. Kids I love killing kids I love.”[iii]
What Father Gregory is trying to do, and what Paul is trying to teach the Corinthians is how to love the way that God loves: with compassion, kindness, patience; in a way that is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude; not insisting on its own way, avoiding being resentful. At weddings couples can easily profess how they want to love each other in the right way. What they do not often realize is how incredibly difficult that will be. In fact, a couple of years ago, a friend of mine celebrated his first wedding anniversary. We had had long talks about marriage before he even proposed. He told me in that congratulatory conversation that I had been right. That first year had been really, really hard. Marriage is no joke, he told me. But the truth is love is no joke. Love is hard to do. Love takes work, commitment, humility, right-sizing our egos, and patience. Paul never says that love feels good.
But the understanding that love is hard is not just for newlyweds. Understanding love is hard is important for all of us. Paul’s warning is for St. Margaret’s today just as his warning is for the Corinthians. If we distort what love is, we can be in danger of thinking that the mission of St. Margaret’s is to gather like-minded and likable people. Doing so would certainly make loving each other easier! “But true love is not measured by how good love makes us feel. In the context of 1 Corinthians, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.”[iv] Like any family, we are always going to have disagreements, conflict, and tension. No matter where we go or who we are, there is and will be disagreement and division.[v] The mark of us being a community of love is whether we can weather those disagreements, sources of conflict, and tension without division.
The good news is that we have the capacity to be a community of love because God first loves us. In verse 12, Paul says, “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.” We are fully known and loved by God. That love means that we are not left on our own to develop a capacity for patient, kind, un-rude love. The love described by Paul “is a love we experience as God’s unshakable grasp upon our lives. ‘That love’ is the source of our greatest security and, thus, our freedom to actually be patient and kind, to bear all things and not insist on our own way.”[vi] “We can love because God has already fully known us and [loves] us anyway, and is working to make our lives and our communities look more and more like…busy, active, tireless love.”[vii] Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] Carol Troupe, “One Body, Many Parts: A Reading of 1 Corinthians 12:12-27” Black Theology, vol. 6, no. 1, January 2008, 33.
[ii] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13,” January 31, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2734 on January 28, 2016.
[iii] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” (New York: Free Press, 2010), 66.
[v] Karoline Lewis, “Love Never Ends,” January 24, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4249 on January 28, 2016.
[vi] Jerry Irish, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 306.