Love is Patient and Primary
I am tempted to ask for a show of hands, how many people have heard
this ode to love from Paul before, but I won't. I'm tempted also to ask
how many folks have either heard or included this scripture at a
wedding, and given my own experience, by now we'd have almost all of
the hands in the room raised. Other than the Christmas story and
possibly something about the Garden of Eden this is one of the best-
known passages in the Christian Bible. So when it came up for today,
and I read it again, I wondered if there is anything new that we can
hear in it since we're so familiar with it. Has it got any depths that
we haven't plumbed, or does it serve best as a reminder -- which is not
a bad thing -- of something we know?
If you've been in church when they read the King James version, you
know that the word love is not part of that translation, which
would be read more often on Stewardship Sunday than at weddings. King
James translated agape as charity, not love. Agape
is the word Paul chose, and it was, most of you know, one of three
kinds of love articulated in Greek: the other two are eros and philia.
Eros means "I desire," philia means "I
engage," and agape means "I give," but they all
get translated as love. Someone once said that love is a word made up
of two vowels, two consonants, and two fools. That's not exactly what
Paul was saying, although he did speak of fools for Christ. But what
new wisdom is in this poem, this paean?
Here is what catches my mind. Usually when I read this chapter, I go
right for the "love is" section. In this section we find two
positives, eight negatives, and five manifestations. Love is patient
and kind and so on. One of my mentors taught me to modify the word love
and insert the name the couple at a wedding to add some interest. Carol
is patient and kind, Randy is not jealous or boastful, arrogant or
rude, Karen does not insist on her own way, and so on. It makes you
think. And as I said, usually I jump right to this section when I read
But jump back to the start of the chapter, and remember that two
thousand years ago Paul had received some of his most critical and
conflicted claims from Corinth, and he was working to guide them to
build a new church community, and they were asserting that they were
all so very smart, plus some of them had ecstatic visions and spoke in
tongues and were way beyond the petty guidance that he promoted. This
chapter comes in the midst of critiquing all this special, asserted
wisdom and speaking in tongues, and it's almost an intrusion in the
flow of the letter, but anyway, the beginning of the chapter is key.
Three times there Paul says, "If I have blank, but not
love, then I am blank." Three times. And listen to his list
of things to have, because for me it is the key to a whole new level of
understanding this chapter.
I've looked for a learned scholar who says this, and I can't find one,
so this is my exegesis.
The list for Paul is this: If I have great abilities to speak, if
I'm a prophet, an interpreter of mysteries, all knowing, and have
enough faith to move mountains; if I have great accomplishments, if I
give away all that I have and become a martyr, a sacrifice, if I do all
this, am I not special? I read that list the other day, the list about
a prophet-preacher who is part human, part angel, one who can move
mountains with faith and then gives away all and becomes a sacrifice,
and maybe you've noticed this every time you've read the book all your
life, but I noticed for the first time that someone in particular is
being described here. Does this sound like anyone we know? Like a
Paul describes Jesus, and he gives this list, and then he says, but
with just this, He's nothing. He's a noisemaking, empty failure. Am I
going to far here? But with love, everything changes. With agape.
Jesus is nothing without love. How could we expect to be? I could
almost be the messiah but meaningless without giving, serving love. I
think that's breathtaking.
Erotic love is edge to edge. Philia love is side to side. Agape
love is center to center. And agape love is what Paul
encourages. I wonder if most people know that at their weddings? I
wonder if they know that you can get a great start with eros,
and there is true call for philia, but to go the distance, to go
anywhere deep, agape, center to center love, is what we need,
and luckily it is also what God gives and what Jesus displays. It is
what Jesus asks of us. It's what we ask of Jesus.
Jump back four hundred years, when our ancestors made another bold
claim about Jesus, or He made a bold claim upon them. The first
Congregationalists, once called Separatists, asserted that there are
visible saints in our midst and that in covenant with God and with one
another we are Jesus' Church. People said that we were complete as a
body together, and that we could worship, ordain, make members, and
excommunicate them: all the stuff of Bishops previously. But we didn't
need bishops, and while John Winthrop referred to the Church of England
as "our dear mother," his generation also said that this
Congregational thing was "the final chapter in God's plan."
There were a thousand theological issues to be clarified, but one that
was in absolute perfect agreement among all these folks: Jesus Christ
was the sole head of the church, not us, and to this day that assertion
is in our own bylaws. Four centuries ago folks knew that this did not
make our church life easier than those from whom we had separated: it
made it harder. They knew that it took extraordinary Christian devotion
and giving to pull this off, not just simpler efforts or lighter
burdens. They knew that it took God. Yet they were called to form a
place of intellect and mission and responsibility for faith. And they
Our ancestors left us with the theological groundings that we still
assert today: that when we are together we can hear not just the voices
of one another but the voice of the Holy Spirit, if we listen. That we
are responsible one unto another for our common life, and that without
question we are responsible to Jesus Christ. This church is for us, but
it's not about us. It's about the Body of Christ and the central
ministry of Christ, which is love.
Sometimes I come to church thinking I desire, and I'm willing to
live edge to edge. Sometimes we do well to say, I engage, and we work
side by side. But our goal, if we believe Paul, is to find ways to give
and to strive to be center to center with one another and with God.
Because to say that Jesus is at the heart of the Church is to say that
love is there, and love calls us to something breathtaking. Something
more than moving mountains and preaching and philanthropy and even
The final words of Paul's poem say something radical about
eschatology, which displays the Christian claim that the kingdom has
not yet come but is still ahead. Yet the final words directly state
that prophecy and tongues and all manner of wise things will pass away,
but love will not. Love is the one eschatological gift presently shared
by all believers. Or, love is heaven on earth. It is the future, now.
Friday night, a number of us gathered here in the Parlor for a
program called Theology for Parents, where we talked about sharing God
with kids and answering their amazing questions. One of the things that
we did was talk about how to discern when God is with us. And I read
these words from Rabbi Henry Cohen about growth and love and tomorrow
"God will be with you as you grow physically from a child to a
man (or a woman), for God is the Power that makes for growth.
"God will be with you as you grow emotionally from an infant
who thinks primarily of its own pleasure to a truly human being who
somehow comes to care about the needs of others, for God is the Power
that makes for love.
"God will be with you when, after days of anxiety and
confusion, the dawn breaks and suddenly you see where you are going,
for God is the Power that makes for a better tomorrow."
In our life today, God is calling us to tomorrow and delivering it,
In our need today, God is drawing us to health and giving the power
In our moment today, God is with us, for God is love as we unite
center to center.
Amen.Copyright © 2007
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.