Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.
A few years ago, the New York Times published an article titled “At First she Didn’t Succeed, but she Tried and Tried Again (960 Times).” The feature profiled a 69 year old grandmother from South Korea named Cha Sa Soon and chronicled her five year quest to attain a driver’s license. During this period, Ms. Cha traveled by bus from her home in the country to a testing center in the city several times a week. After failing the 700th time, she became something of a national celebrity, not only because she was a loveable underdog, but because of her dogged persistence. When she finally passed the test, Ms. Cha earned accolades from her countrymen and made international news. More importantly, she made it clear that her perseverance had been worthwhile. By outlasting the doubters, Cha Sa Soon became a symbol of what can happen when we refuse to give up.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was addressing a community plagued by conflict. Much of this dissension stemmed from the fact that there was a faction in the church who believed that they had discerned the only way to live an authentic Christian life. This group believed that they had it all figured out. In particular, they valued knowledge and spiritual gifts above all else. These Corinthians thought the ability to speak in tongues, to make prophetic utterances, and to understand the mysteries of the universe were all key components of the Christian life. As a result, church members who possessed these gifts disdained anyone in the community who lacked knowledge or spiritual charisma. Though it might seem that these gifted members of the community were just trying to prove that they were better than their less talented brothers and sisters, their disdain is actually slightly more complicated. These gifted members of the community believed that knowledge, tongues, and prophecy were the most effective way to commune with the divine, that they were vehicles for connecting with that which is eternal. Indeed, the Corinthians thought of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge as tools for addressing the fundamental human anxiety: how do we deal with the fact that we will die? These members of the Corinthian community believed that their mastery of human knowledge and their ability to speak in tongues and prophesy allowed them to escape the tyranny and inevitability of death. This is why those gifted members of the church regarded others in the community with contempt: the others weren’t trying hard enough to fix the ultimate human dilemma.
Paul’s response to his congregation is intriguing. He does not methodically demonstrate that their way of thinking is flawed as we might expect; in fact, he declines to engage with their position at all. Instead, he implies that the spiritual gifts they so highly prize have no value in themselves. In spite of their knowledge, Paul suggests that the Corinthians have no idea how the world really works and that their preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual gifts will fail them in the end. Paul insists that there is a better way. He dismisses the Corinthian preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual charisma and instead offers a glimpse God’s ultimate purpose.
It is in response to the Corinthian conflict that Paul offers his famous meditation on the mystery of love. In this meditation, Paul’s implication is clear: everything we think is important pales in comparison to the gift of love. For Paul, love is what gives meaning to the things we value. Paul is at his most poetic when he tells the Corinthians that those who speak in tongues without love are noisy gongs and clashing cymbals and reminds them that those possessed of immeasurable knowledge and prophetic powers are nothing if they do not have love. This is not to say that Paul considers these spiritual gifts inherently useless. Indeed, Paul makes the startling claim that the faith to move mountains, a virtue that is celebrated specifically elsewhere in the New Testament, is worthless without love. For Paul, nothing can have value, not even the greatest spiritual gift, unless it is animated by love.
The reason for this is that love has staying power. The Corinthians deluded themselves into believing that their spiritual gifts could forestall the inevitability of death. Paul disabuses them of this fantasy: “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.” Paul acknowledges the painful reality at the heart of the human condition: all of the things we think are important will come to an end, all of the things that preoccupy us will cease, all of the things that we believe can free us from the tyranny of death will ultimately come to an end. The only thing that does not end, that will not end, that cannot end is love. Love persists; love abides; love doesn’t give up; love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.”
We’re on somewhat dangerous ground here, because it is possible to fetishize love, to turn it into one of the tools that the Corinthians imagined they could use to cheat death. This is what we tend to do when we sentimentalize love, when we think of it as a magic formula that can solve any problem. Hollywood loves to do this, to have every problem disappear when the protagonists realize their love for one another. Love, however, cannot solve every problem. Indeed, sometimes love makes those problems even more painful. The love of a wife will not necessarily cure her husband’s clinical depression. The love of a daughter will not heal her mother of cancer. The love of a parent will not necessarily prevent a child from spiraling into self-destruction. What love can do is endure every single one of these trials. Love won’t necessarily fix everything, but it can outlast anything. This is why the ultimate expression of love is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God proves that love truly endures all things, including death. In the resurrection, God affirms that nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even the fact that we will die.
In just a few moments, we will baptize Charlotte Grace into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just after she is covered with the waters of baptism, she will be anointed with oil using these words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Baptism is neither admission to a club nor a guarantee that everything will go well for us. Rather, baptism is an affirmation that God’s love for us can outlast anything. As Christians, we are called to manifest this love to the world, confident that God will never give up on us.