Our text this morning is one of the Bible’s most familiar passages for Christians.
Even for Christians who aren’t that into the faith, it’s a winner.
What’s not to like?
Remembering that we are called to be patient, kind, and not insist on our own way—that we ought to work harder at not being arrogant, boastful or rude—that has a wellness app kind of appeal that anybody can get behind.
If that’s where you come down on this passage, fair enough.
It’s not so easy to walk through the world.
With that in mind, if Paul’s hymn to love inspires you to walk more gently, to be a better spouse or all-around human, that’s a good thing.
We often draw on them for weddings, and certainly, they have a wisdom and a resonance in that context.
When someone gets married, they may well be making the greatest and most challenging set of promises they will ever make before God.
Clearly, as far as joining our lives with someone else for all eternity goes, a small mention about not always insisting on our own way is a good tip.
But there’s a fundamental irony that seems important to name about these words we lift up in the context of marriage, because Paul’s first audience for then was a community that was swiftly coming apart.
If you read the passage in that light, it’s a little more prickly.
It’s message to us is more pointed than we may remember.
To me, Paul is saying something more about love than we often give him credit for.
Because here’s what has happened in Corinth: they’ve got themselves a hoppingchurch.
A few years ago, in its heyday, another congregation in Greenwich came to me to nose around whether we’d be interested in selling them the sanctuary…or at least sharing it on Sunday. Yes.
It was a short meeting.
I smiled and said no and sat there without elaborating and the person asking didn’t really have anything else to ask or say, so there it was.
We parted amicably, and I never heard from them again.
But it was easy to understand their interest—they had a hopping church, and they wanted a beautiful box to put it in.
And the church at Corinth was even more so.
It was a who’s who. Classy people. Successful people.
And they’d made for themselves a shiny, well-appointed kind of place. Downtown. Great parking. Really good plantings outside. Well-lit at night. It was a statement in and of itself, that church.
It told the world who these Christians were, by God.
Not that it was only that. Let’s not be crass.
The spiritual programming was also something.
What they had was way more than a dweeb in a robe for an hour a week.
There were people speaking in tongues, people prophesying, a feeding program.
Whatever their Fletcher Hall was, it was like Times Square.
It was an international crossroads, with delegations from other Christian communities there to raise money for other worthy things—there to offer the latest, most powerful ways to find and maintain a connection to the God who had raised Jesus from the dead and who had so much to offer those who came after, as well.
Like I said, the church in Corinth was hopping.
You’d think Paul would be pleased. They thought Paul would be pleased.
But as I said, Paul’s response was actually prickly.
Because where they thought they saw the Spirit moving, Paul saw something else.
He saw a community that was dangerously close to worshiping, not the living God, but rather a shallow version of its own success.
Paul was one of the first people to understand that just because someone called themselves Christian didn’t mean they were truly faithful.
Just because you went to the church or put that little fish decal on the back of your car didn’t mean that you were growing in knowledge and love of God.
It didn’t mean you were feeling led by conscience or concern.
It didn’t mean you were stretching.
So many of Paul’s ways of talking about the church—and Jesus’ too—were in terms of seeds and shoots and vines and branches.
This idea of growth was far more important to how they spoke about faith than any simple notion of status or attainment.
Over and over again, they remind us that we worship a God of infinite love and infinite creativity.
In God, there is always something new to see or learn or to which we might respond.
God is the inexhaustible source of all that is.
Jesus and Paul want us to see how our souls expand as we draw closer to that source.
For them, this is what it is to be faithful.
But somehow that’s not what Paul was hearing about in Corinth.
And so when he speaks of love in this famous hymn, he’s trying to recenter them.
He wants something for them that was deeper, more true and more wonderful than what they seem to want for themselves.
So when he writes them about love in this letter, he’s not just reminding them how important it is to be a nicer person.
He wants them to see how easy it is to waste our lives building things that will only pass away.
That may sound a little grim.
He doesn’t mean it to be.
He’s just acknowledging that some things abide while others don’t.
Even churchy things.
Some things seem like lasting monuments…incredible feats…Guinness Book of World Records sort of stuff.
But for Paul, if that’s what your life is all about, you’re missing it.
And the reason we call the message of Jesus “good news” is that you don’t have to.
Nobody has to miss it.
In the midst of life, there is a more excellent way.
He’s asking his friends at Corinth: is all this stuff you’re doing—is all this stuff you’re building—are all these people you’re attracting—is all this success actually proof of anything?
Because it only is if it’s teaching you to be more loving.
It only is if it’s actually bringing you closer to God…it only is if, every day, you’re finding ways to try being a little more like Jesus.
The best measure of our commitment to the Kingdom is often found in our willingness to do the things that, for the most part, cost us nothing.
A successful church is whatever gives us the imagination—the commitment to the possible—the deep sense of connection and concern to do those things.
Faith, hope and love. These three.
The world will do its best to convince us otherwise, but for Paul, a successful church doesn’t look like a certain kind of place.
It looks like a certain kind of life.
That’s what he’s trying to say in these inspiring words about the abiding power of love.
It’s important that we remember it, too.
Life may not always feel like that.
But in the midst of so much that passes away, much remains.
And as we come to trust in the power of those things, the veil parts, the shadows fade, and the light and life of God come before us face to face.