1 Corinthians 13.1-13
4th Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday 30 January
It’s all about love ©Suzanne Grimmett
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal….
This chapter from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians were words the late author and social activist bell hooks memorised and returned to over and again as she completed her doctorate in an environment which she describes as placing no value on love. This reminder of the primacy of love became a place for her of solace and renewal, and she continued throughout her life to insist that love is not a part of life and certainly not confined to romantic relationships but the centre that informs who we are and transforms how we do everything.
The love passage of course is so familiar to us all from its frequent appearance at weddings. And while it is a passage that certainly can be meaningful in that context, I think Paul would be very surprised to hear that his letter is being read before smiling couples amongst the taffeta and tuxedos thousands of years later; a letter, after all, sent to a specific community in first century Corinth as a specific response to the conflict and division occurring there. These words about love follow on from the passage we heard last week about belonging in the body. There is a list of the gifts of the spirit from healing, teaching, and prophesying to speaking in tongues. And then Paul leads into his famous words about love saying, “And yet I will show you the most excellent way.”
After such a list you could be forgiven for thinking that love then appears in Paul’s thinking as the most supreme of the spiritual gifts. Rather, as bell hooks recognised, love is the way we exercise all of the other spiritual gifts; the foundation of any virtue we may develop and practise and the definition of what is eternal.
Paul casting a vision of love as the most excellent way of exercising gifts is in response to members of the Corinthian church apparently refusing to share, looking down on others while boasting in their own gifts and general superiority, and jockeying for positions in the church. The problem was not the lack of spiritual gifts, but the ways in which these gifts were being exercised. The problem was a desire to exclude others and create a hierarchy in a community of Christ where there can be no walls that divide and where members are held – no matter what- in relationships of loving mutuality and belonging. The famous passage in love cannot be understood outside of last week’s passage where Paul used the image of the body to assert that no member, no matter their rank, status, wealth or education, is greater than any another. Love tolerates no envy, nor rivalry nor exclusion.
This is anything but a sentimental passage. It espouses high ideals in beautiful language- love as patient, kind, never jealous or conceited or proud- but this is no exercise in hopeful and pious imagining. Paul is calling the people of Corinth to account for their behaviour because they have failed to understand the new creation that is their union in Christ and that love calls them into a new way of seeing and a new way of being together.
We may respond in delight to this passage, but it is likely that Paul’s Corinthian audience did not. Maybe it was like Jesus preaching in his hometown. In today’s Gospel reading his Nazarene audience found Jesus’ words at first gracious and were amazed. Then they sense the utter revolution that Jesus is inaugurating and the mood changes to hostility and violence. The crowd has chosen the safety and security and order of their lives and their religion over the new thing the Spirit is doing. What must be painful for Jesus is that this is his home crowd, people who know him, and yet they reject him with hatred and violence. In the same way, the Corinthians have encountered the good news of the risen Jesus but instead of their lives being turned upside down by a revolution of love, they would rather hold to the same patterns of self-interested rivalry.
Love holds the power of healing and transformation. Humanity is called to imagine something better for ourselves and this earth on which we live. We have the power to choose to continue with our rivalries and tribalism, our judgement and exclusion of others and our careless use and abuse of the earth’s resources for our own gain. The alternative is to experience love not as an idea or a sentimental image, or romantic dream but as the lens through which we see the world, the reason for all that we do and the energy through which we think and act.
This I think is best expressed through the idea of Ubuntu which we are gifted from the Zulu culture and language. Literally meaning, “a person is a person through other people” or alternately translated, “I am who I am, because we are who we are.” I think it would be hard to find a better definition of what Paul is saying about belonging in the body and what love really is all about than this one. Until we understand that what hurts you hurts me and what heals you heals me, we will not be living as the body of Christ. This clearly cannot be sentimental in practice but rather embedded in justice. There is no other way for love to be true, but as soon as its implications hit home, the prophets of love are more likely to be thrown off a cliff than embraced.
I think this is why this hope for this kind of love ends up proclaimed through subversive means like street art. bell hooks recalls a piece of graffiti art that adorned a wall of a construction site near Yale university. It read, “The search for love continues even in the face of great odds”. This expression of the hope of love’s possibility gave her great heart during a dark time when she was in danger of thinking that love could not be found anywhere. This message kept on pointing her to hope until it was whitewashed over by the council. In another example of the power of street art, Banksy’s famous image of the little girl releasing a red heart-shaped balloon is another such that speaks to human longing. Captioned, “There is always hope”, it too was removed by council but has endured in popular imagination. Love longs to be released… to be given away freely in every realm of human life and endeavour, changing our priorities and subverting ideas of economic value and worth. Love refuses to be set aside or categorised in the same way that the body of Christ cannot endure separation. We cannot create a boundaries for love and think we can work around it. Love needs to permeate all that we do and inform the way we do it to become an active source for hope when lovelessness seems to be the power and the order of the day.
Yet where does the revolution begin? Loving our neighbour as we love ourselves needs to begin as just that- a love of ourselves that includes all of who we are in order that we may love our neighbour with a love that includes all of who they are. Self-compassion leads to other-compassion. God’s love for us is the same love which flows out to others. We all have places where we are wounded and starved of love. bell hooks describes the beginning of the journey of love as ‘getting in touch with the lovelessness within and letting that lovelessness speak its pain’. Love is the only power that can heal the wounds of the past.
But self-love is not enough in and of itself. Communion of love with others is as important as our food and drink and is necessary for any healing to occur. How often do people suffer through difficult working or volunteering lives where there is no love…. or where they never know the renewal of spirit that is possible where love is shared amongst colleagues and in a community that nurtures growth and wholeness? Paul’s wisdom here reminds us that it is not the gifts we have but how we use them- without love any of our efforts at work, or home, or worship, or church committees or ministries, are like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
The changes of the past few years in the world, our society and in the church have been immense and we can be forgiven for feeling a sense sometimes of disorientation or even whiplash when we are caught in collisions between competing values and movements. Yet perhaps in these anxious times we may be more open to the work of love than in times that are secure and stable where we are tempted to rely on the permanence of our own creations. God’s love for us and the same love which holds us together in relationship… is eternal. The paradox of love is that it is the only thing that endures, and yet to endure it must be released…it must be given away. May we join in this self-giving revolution that commits to the way of love which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.
 hooks, bell, all about love, (New York, HarperCollins: 2001), p 157