Chapter 12 ends with the call to strive for the greater gifts and a hint of a more excellent way. This chapter is that more excellent way. But more excellent way of what? Or for what? For being the church, the body of Christ. Remember, we were talking about giftedness and unity. Or rather we were talking about disunity. There is division in the body. Whether we want to talk about the body of Christ, the church, or whether we want to talk about the body politic, the human community. There is division in the body. Paul sets out to address that division. But not by calling names or pointing fingers. Paul doesn’t add fuel to the fire by talking about who is in the wrong and who is in the right. Maybe that needs to happen somewhere, somehow. Maybe that courageous conversation needs to take place somewhere, somehow. But I Corinthians 13 is an invitation to step back from that moment. It is about reframing, about breathing, about claiming the gift that Christ came to give; it’s about salvation.
Too often, we talk about salvation primarily in terms of what we’re saved from, from sin, from condemnation, from an eternity of frustration and suffering. Or, when we do talk about what we’re saved for, we talk about the someday of heaven, of the coming kin-dom, of all that is to come. And to be sure, there are times when such things need to be discussed. But I Corinthians 13 gives us a different answer to the question, “What are we saved for?” We are saved to love; we are set free to love; we are empowered, equipped, enabled to love. That’s what it means to be saved. We are saved for love.
This love, then, is described in some of the most beautiful verses in the whole Bible. As a preacher, you could do worse than to simply read and reread and then read these verses again. Let the people hear them. Let these words wash over the consciousness of the gathered body. Let this image of love and of loving reorient our thinking until we long to live out this image of loving in our everyday lives.
The task before the preacher of I Corinthians 13 is to move beyond the comfortable familiarity of these words. Sure, read them once and everyone will nod along with a smile on their face. They’ll be remembering a wedding somewhere where these words were used to somehow capture the essence of this wild and crazy promise being made before the gathered overdressed assembly, this human enterprise that escapes human capabilities on a regular basis. They’ll be remembering the Pinterest post in fancy calligraphy, or the needlepoint in Grandma’s sitting room. We have seen these words, even if we aren’t all that familiar with the Bible. Even if our connection to the faith is tangential at best, these words ring a memory in our minds.
But are they too familiar? Have we heard them so often that they have lost their power to amaze? How do we hear the overfamiliar? Persistence. Echoes. We wear away the wall of certainty until we return to the amazement of the power of these words. “If I speak,” says Paul in the humility of love, “without love, I am nothing.” How might we make this declaration? If I approach the “enemy” on the other side of the aisle without love, then I am nothing. If I look at the one who is different from me, different race, different orientation, different ethnicity, with anything other than love, then I am just flapping my yap. If I stand in reluctant and silent acceptance, while grinding my teeth at what I am losing in so doing, then I am spinning my wheels and not getting anywhere.
We can’t recast these words with anything like the eloquence of Paul’s pleading with the Corinthians. But we can stand in his certainty that there is a new way of being alive in the world, a new way of seeing the world and everyone in it. Must we simply accept everything going on in our messed-up world with a smile and nod? Of course not; evil exists. But we aren’t always the best at identifying where the real evil resides. Paul argues that it would better to lead with love rather than condemnation. And that transformation happens in a loving relationship much more effectively than from a position of judgment and rejection.
This is the more excellent way Paul presents to us. And it still remains so, if we would only give it a try. What if the church were to be known as the place of love and acceptance rather than of division and finger-pointing? What if we treated our brothers and sisters in the faith as brothers and sisters rather than heretics in need of condemnation when their positions differ from ours? And even if those positions need correction, what if we were to approach them in love rather than angry name-calling or shunning?
And if we were able to do this, even a little, then would it be possible that those not yet in the faith, not yet on the path to discipleship, might believe us when we proclaim a God of love and not hate? Would it be possible that they would believe us because they could see it in our own lives and our dealings with one another and with the world? Would this more excellent way be possible? Be excellent?
Whatever you do, preacher, don’t present this as something easy. Or as the no-brainer that it ought to be. This will take some major work in each of us and all of us just to begin. And it will, unfortunately, take time. Because we have a long way to go, if the world that we see before us is anything to go by. The good news here is the seed from which this whole series grew, is found in verse 8 of this amazing, incredible, almost too high to grasp chapter: “Love never ends.” Thanks be to God.