Today we get one of the most beautiful passages from the Bible: “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; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:4 – 7) writes Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.
They are so beautiful and it sounds like it should be easy to live out. Yet, I read these words and I know deep in my soul, that I don’t live up to them. I get frustrated. I say things that are unkind. Sometimes I want what others have and I like to have my own way. Paul’s words seem like an impossible measuring stick. They are so beautiful but on any given day I’m sure that I fall short.
That is when a little context helps out. Paul is not writing these words to people who are succeeding at loving one another. He is writing to the Christian community at Corinth because they are barely hanging on to their community. They are not getting along. Really 1 Corinthians 13, which is so often read at weddings, is the home stretch of Paul’s lecture. In Chapter 12 Paul, writes about how all the parts of the body are necessary and how the body isn’t complete unless everyone is part of it. The members of the community were in a sense fighting about whose spiritual gifts are the most important. Each person wanting to establish that theirs is the best. At the end of Chapter 12 he writes, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12:29 – 31)
The more excellent way is love. Not romantic love which the Greeks called eros or fraternal love found in families but a third kind – harder to describe called agape. Agape is word for love which was seldom used in the Greco Roman world and the word for love used in this part of Corinthians. Agape is love in action. It is in the most challenging kind of love. It is the love that puts others ahead of self. It is love reaches out. It is easy to lose sight of the more excellent way of love.
In many ways, it is relief that church communities are the same in every age. I have yet to find a church community that doesn’t fall short. It also means that whatever it is we can get through it, we are not alone as we face these kinds of challenges. Nadia Bolz-Webber who started House for all Sinners and Saints in Denver writes this about community in her book Pastrix, “Every human community will disappoint us, regardless of how well-intentioned or inclusive. But I am totally idealistic about God’s redeeming work in my life and in the world. … [at our quarter welcome events]I tell them … I too love being in a spiritual community where I don’t have to add or take away from my own story to be accepted. But I have learned something by belonging to two polar opposite communities… and I wanted them to hear me: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our communities failure, and that’s just to beautiful and real to miss. Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.” (Pastrix page 65 – 66)
The beauty of God’s grace is found in that “love that will not let us go.” God doesn’t just send us out into the world with our all to human imperfections and say, “Love one another.” First God loves us into being – just as we are, with all our imperfections and mistakes. Then God gives us Jesus as that reminder of what love in action looks like. And finally, God invites us to love others, just as God loves us.
Do we always get it right? No. But we sure do get it right a lot of the time. Love is what binds us together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Love is what makes the difference when we fail and disappoint one another. Love is what binds up hurts. In Paul words, “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. And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 – 13) Amen.