One evening last week I came across the 1984 Sally Field’s movie, “Places in the Heart”. It had been a long time since I had seen it and I did not remember a lot of the details. The themes of the movie include poverty, oppression, sexism, and racism. Coincidently I was preparing for today’s sermon, and I was very surprised to hear today’s passage from First Corinthians read in the closing scene. It is a powerful scene, and I don’t want to give it away if you have not seen it but for me it spoke to the all-encompassing power of God’s love, and how humans can strive to demonstrate God’s love even though they will sometimes fall short.
While I was surprised to hear Corinthians 13 in a movie, I cannot remember how many times I have heard today’s second lesson read at a wedding. I have been the reader myself at least five times and I am certain I have listened to it at many others. Perhaps you used it in your marriage ceremony. (I can see a few of you nodding.) It is a wonderful passage for use at a wedding, reminding both the congregation and the couple being married of the actions involved in loving. Love that endures involves much more than a romantic feeling. The love we heard about in this lesson is lived day-by-day through our behavior and in how we treat others. Much can be gained by hearing these words at a marriage rite. However, the love between a couple and a conclusion to a movie about society’s outcasts, were not the original purposes when St. Paul wrote these words.
Rather, the entire epistle to the church at Corinth was written to address a time of conflicts within that church. The Corinthians were very divided in their opinions. Each group believed they were “right” in whatever the issues were. This division caused them to split into various groups and the groups had become deeply rooted in their conflicts. When the groups came together there were many arguments. Not discussions, which would involve listening as well as putting forth their points, but arguments. Much time was spent within the groups preparing their arguments as to why they were right and why their position made them better than the other. Paul wrote to address their behavior towards each other and the separation this had caused. Earlier in this letter Paul spoke about spiritual gifts and the importance of all gifts being necessary for the benefit of the whole. Today’s passage is a part of Paul’s charge to the Corinthians to find unity in the middle of their differences. And Paul says that the key to unity in a Christian community is love.
In this I think Paul’s words can speak directly to us in the 21st century. We are divided now into multiple camps. We are different from each other, perhaps physically in terms of our race or who we love or who and what we support. We have certain and opposite understandings on multiple issues. While true for our society in general it is also true in the church. Often, we have become so entrenched in the issues that divide us that we are like the Corinthians. As Paul would point out, we too have lost sight of our central belief, our belief in God.
We are different, yet wouldn’t it be boring and lackluster if we were all the same. Difference, diversity can make us stronger. Differences can make us collectively more beautiful and more interesting, and able to accomplish much more when we work together. God’s created world intended humans to have diversity just as his created world of plants and animals is full of differences. Paul reminds us that what enables a community to embrace and respect differences is when love is the foundation.
This love that Paul speaks about today is an action or collection of actions, rather than an emotion or feeling. Without the actions involved in love we are empty. Love must be at the center of our being leading us, guiding us,, directing us, encouraging us and this love is God’s love. The attributes that Paul uses to describe love are in fact attributes of God.
I want to look at verses 4-7 from this 13th chapter of First Corinthians again. This paragraph begins with “Love is patient” and finishes with “Love never ends”. You may check on your bulletin for this paragraph if you want. Or not, it is a familiar passage. I want to read it again using the word God in place of the word Love.
God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on God’s own way; God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never ends.
In fact, all the positives in this paragraph, being patient, kind, (and so on) are descriptions of who God is and how God loves us.
And the opposite, the negatives in the paragraph, those actions of envy, boasting, arrogance, rudeness, insisting on its own way, (and so on) are all qualities that the Corinthians were exhibiting at the time. Those attributes got in the way of their relationship not just with others of the opposing groups, but with God.
Human beings are not perfect. The Corinthians were not perfect, nor are we! We cannot love as God loves all the time. God knows that about us, perhaps better than we do. We need his presence in our lives to even attempt this type of love. He must be our center. When we waiver off that path of love it is time to re-focus, to re-focus on God in Christ and the love that we have received and are asked to demonstrate.
The Corinthians had gotten off-track. They had replaced God with being “right” as the center of their community. And throughout the time following the early Christians, there have been occasions when groups have also gotten off track, multiple times actually, if we look at history. Perhaps if we reflect now, we might find ourselves in that same place also. Is God and God’s love at the center of our Christian community?
When that is so, it is wonderful and encouraging to the world around us. We live as beacons of light to the world showing how unity can exist with differences.
Is God’s love at our core? If not, how might we re-focus to become so?
It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Hitting the pause button is the start of remembering God’s love is at the center of all we do and say and in how we act. Go back to the basics and take a little quiet time apart from others to read this passage aloud and listen to what God is saying to you through it. Maybe even read a little more of 1 Corinthians—we have been using it as the Epistle for the past few weeks—or choose some other scripture that has meaning to you.
Read and reflect and then discuss what you have heard with a trusted friend to go a little deeper into God’s word. Most of all, think about how God loves you and accepts you as his beloved child. And then remember, God accepts us all as his beloved. God is patient; God is kind. God bears all things, hopes all things; God’s love never ends. There is unity in God’s kingdom that includes our differences.
This world of ours needs God’s love and we are called to be the agents of his love. Without His love at our core, we are lost. His love is our anchor. No matter our circumstances at the moment, God’s love will never end.
“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Amen.