Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.
There are many musicals about love (they’re all about love aren’t they?), but none deals with the topic quite as well as Jerry Bock’s Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler is the story of a Russian Jew named Tevye as he struggles to maintain his people’s traditions in a changing world. He struggles with poverty and with the uncertainty of living as a religious minority in czarist Russia. But all of his challenges are encapsulated in his struggle to understand changing attitudes toward love and marriage. In his culture, the tradition is that the father picks his daughter’s husband. But all three of Tevye’s daughters choose not to follow tradition, but to marry for love. Tevye’s first daughter asks for his permission to marry the man she loves, his second daughter merely asks for his blessing, and his third daughter simply makes the decision without consulting him. Gradually, Tevye’s understanding of the world collapses around him as love begins to supersede tradition. Towards the end of the show, Tevye begins to wonder how all of this talk about love affects him. In one of the sweetest songs in musical theater, Tevye asks Golde, his wife of 25 years, “Do you love me?” Golde’s response is typical of someone worried about forces beyond her control: “Do I what?” She continues, “With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town; you’re upset, you’re worn out, go inside, go lie down! Maybe it’s indigestion!” And Tevye says, “Golde, I’m asking you a question: do you love me?” After more exchanges like this, Golde finally asks rhetorically, “Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his; if that’s not love, what is?” “Then you love me!” responds the overjoyed Tevye, to which a slightly less effusive Golde responds, “I suppose I do.” Tevye says, “And I suppose I love you too.” The couple finishes the song by singing, “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so; after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.” In spite of thinking that the question of love is silly and not worth her time, that there are more important things to worry about, Golde finally realizes that the relationship she’s had with her husband, the struggles and joys they’ve shared together can only be described as love. Love was not just important; love existed at the very core of Golde’s marriage with Tevye.
Today we hear a similar reflection on love. For the past several weeks, we have been working our way through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. As we all know, Paul is not particularly impressed with the way the Corinthians are living in community; they don’t seem to be working and playing well with others. For a variety of reasons, the Corinthians simply could not get along, and most of their problems stemmed from one group in the community thinking they were superior to another. There were groups who thought they had superior knowledge or who thought they possessed superior spiritual gifts or who thought they had been baptized by a superior apostle or who were convinced that their superior economic station entitled them to eat the Lord’s supper whenever they wanted. Paul’s response to all of these people is that the differences they perceive are unimportant, that their unity in Christ is what matters. But part of what Paul does not do in these earlier parts of the letter is offer the Corinthians an alternative way of thinking about the community. As far as they’re concerned, the only way to understand what one can contribute to the community is by evaluating the quality of his or her knowledge or spiritual gifts. “Sure Paul, our unity in Christ is important, but we have an organization to run. How are we supposed to operate if we don’t know who has the ‘right stuff’ and who should be put in charge?” But Paul anticipates this objection. At the end of the passage we read last week, Paul asks rhetorically, “Are all apostles? Are all teachers? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” The Corinthians were thinking, “of course not, these gifts are allotted as the Sprit chooses.” But when Paul tells the Corinthians to strive for even greater gifts, they must have been surprised. The Corinthians thought that there were no greater gifts than prophecy or speaking in tongues. So when Paul says, “I will show you a more excellent way,” the Corinthians must have wondered, “What could possibly be better than speaking in tongues? What great gift is Paul going to tell us about? More importantly, how can we get it?”
Imagine their surprise when Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. And if have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing.” Paul lists these gifts that the Corinthians valued above all else (tongues, prophecy, knowledge) and says that they are nothing compared to the gift of love. Love trumps every spiritual gift in the community. And when Paul talks about love, he’s not just talking about affection. For Paul, love is something much deeper; it is giving yourself to another, even though the other person has done nothing to deserve your love. This should sound familiar, because it is precisely what Paul affirms God has done for us in Jesus Christ. God has given himself to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, even though we have done nothing to deserve God’s love. Love is how we participate in and how we embody God’s grace; we give of ourselves to others with no expectation of reward. You can see how this turned the Corinthians’ thinking on its head. For the Corinthians, your role in the community was based on what you possessed, whether knowledge or prophecy or other spiritual gifts. But Paul is saying that life in the Christian community is not about what you possess; life in the Christian community is about what you give away. This is why the traditional translation of “love” in this passage is “charity”; love at its purest does not expect anything in return. While speaking in tongues, prophecy, and knowledge were the source of all kinds of division and resentment in the Corinthian community, Paul tells us that love, the gift that surpasses all of these, is patient and endures all things. Like Golde in her conversation with Tevye, the Corinthians have only to recognize the love that has existed among them from the very beginning. The Corinthians have only to recognize that it is their relationship with one another, their common history of joy and struggle, their shared experience of God’s redeeming love that has given life to their community, and that all of the other things they’ve worried about are mere distractions from the central reality of love. To drive his point home, Paul concludes by saying, “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.” This is an amazing statement because Paul is saying that all of the spiritual gifts the Corinthians thought made them special and mature were really childish things. Knowledge, prophecy, and speaking in tongues are not the pinnacle of achievement; they are childish things to outgrow. The Corinthians might have thought that love was the childish thing, that love was something that mature people didn’t pay attention to, but Paul insists that the adult way of thinking, the mature way of living in community is to give of ourselves in love. The Corinthians had to learn that there is nothing in this world that is more important than this question of love.
At the end of Golde and Tevye’s song, they conclude that love “doesn’t change a thing.” But if we are to take this passage from Corinthians seriously, we are led to conclude that love changes everything. Paul tells us that all interactions within the Christian community should be based on the self-giving love that God has revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that everything we do in the Church should be built upon a foundation of love, that love should be our priority. Everything that we do in the Church should be a reminder to the world that we are all loved by God, that we are all welcome in this community regardless of who we are or where we come from. This is particularly true for those who, for whatever reason, have been driven away from the Church. Archbishop William Temple described our mission well: the Church is the only organization in the world that exists primarily for the benefit of people who are not its members. We might put it a different way: the Church is the only organization in the world whose primary responsibility is to reach out in love to those who are not its members. Love should be such a priority for us that whoever comes into this place or encounters one of us outside of this place should know immediately that they are loved. As the hymn puts it, the Church is a place created by love where the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling. If love does not exist at the heart of who we are, if we do not recognize that this place is created by love, then all that we do on Sunday mornings, the prayers, the preaching, the music, the teaching, is just noise. We are called to show this love to the world. Just as God expresses God’s love in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we express our love in action. We show our love for each other when we reach out to comfort a widow who has just lost her husband. We show our love for each other when we make sure a newcomer feels welcome. We show our love for each other when we give of our time to organizations committed to helping those in need. We show our love for each other when we give of our resources to make sure that this church can reach out to the most vulnerable in our community. We show our love by creating a place for love in our hearts, by realizing that love is at the core of who we are, and by giving ourselves to one another, because if that’s not love, what is?