The State of Our Union
1 Corinthians12:31b-13:13
Rev. Dr. Troy Hauser Brydon

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I told you at the beginning of January that I wanted us to spend this month in 1 Corinthians because it has a lot to speak into our present moment — about the State of our Union as the Body of Christ striving to be what God has called us to be in a broken and divisive world. That plan took seed over the past few years as I read from 1 Corinthians 13 at funerals. Those services tend to be emotional in the first place, but each time I would read Paul’s staggering words about love I would be grieved by how this Christian love was not just absent from our world but also how the opposite was increasingly present. I thought, “What the world needs now is love…but a love that is deeper, broader, and higher than any of the other things we call love.” So, all that we’ve preached on up to this point has been building to Paul’s hymn to love. I believe that we spend our lives trying to understand what love is.

Let me begin by saying what Paul is doing here is describing love that is different than people in Corinth understood.[1] The Greek language had two primary words for love. There was eros, which is religious or romantic love. It’s the root of our word “erotic.” We know what that love is like because it’s the supreme focus of music and movie plots. If you’ve ever been in love, you know eros. There was also phileo, which describes love between friends and family. We also know this love. It’s phileo that leads us to have friends over for dinner. It’s eros that leads us to get married. Paul adds the Greek word agape to this trinity of loves. It’s a word that had little rooting in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. It was rare in Greek literature, so this word was like a blank slate on which Paul could write about love in a new way.

Our reading today began with the final sentence of chapter 12, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” This is the way of agape, a way that goes over and beyond the joys and genuine pleasures of eros and phileo. A more literal translation of that sentence could be, “I will describe a journey of a way of hyperbole.” Hyperboles overstate something to make a point, but in their world it didn’t carry quite the same meaning. Paul uses it elsewhere in his writings, and it has been translated as “abundance,” “beyond measure,” “utterly,” and “immeasurable.” In this case “a still more excellent way” could be translated as “a mountain pass.” Putting all that together, we could say Paul introduces this dramatic text this way, “I will describe a journey through the mountain pass.”

Why all this attention on translating this for you? Because agape love is not something that just happens to us or emerges from us. Like hiking through a mountain pass, it is difficult, but the effort is worth it because the views of the world are entirely different than if you stay right where you are. That is, do you want to love in the manner of Jesus? Seek to love on this higher plane, a place where few of us truly dare to go.

We don’t dare to go there because the noise of this world drowns things out. The first three verses of chapter 13 describe how our best efforts apart from love are merely noise. Corinth was known for its brass work. Imagine with me a marketplace where hundreds of craftsmen would be working with brass at the same time. Could you imagine the overwhelming noise that would create? The Corinthians would know it for sure, so Paul uses an image familiar to them to drive home his point. Our best efforts are vain and just a noisy show if they are not rooted in this kind of love. Interestingly, Paul hits on metal work three times in this short chapter — at its beginning, middle, and end. Mirrors in their world were made of brass. Often the faces of deities like Aphrodite were inscribed in these brass mirrors, so the person looking into their dim reflection would see themselves and the deity. Gives a whole new sense to, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face,” right?

I want to turn my attention to verse 4-7,  Paul’s hymn to love. Let’s glance at each aspect of love. Paul begins with two positive descriptions of what love is, moves through eight negatives about what love is not (each countering something he’s seen in the Corinthian church), and then closes with four positive all-encompassing descriptions of love. We’ll go through them in order.

First, love is patient. This is so much more than just waiting around. Patience here comes from the a word that literally translates as “far away anger.” It’s the ability to say, “I don’t have to react to this hurt because I have the power to wait for love to come to bear on this situation.” It’s the ability for love to play the long game. It’s the ability to hold back in the moment even though you want to take that shot at someone who hurt you or who you think is wrong.

Next, love is kind. Kindness is not the same as being nice, that overly bland adjective. Kindness actively engages with hurt. Kindness sees suffering and acts. Kindness hears the cries of someone who is hurting, listens deeply, and comes alongside of that hurt.

But then Paul moves into a series of eight things that love is not. Love is not envious. That is, love does not look around at others and wish it could have what they have at their expense. Jealousy produces envy, and envy produces resentment. Love does not envy.

Love is not boastful. In our world, boasting gets you attention. Boasting is a way of trying to control the narrative. It is pounding your chest to draw attention to yourself. I am the best. I am the winner. I am the smartest. Love relinquishes control by avoiding attention. It just is quietly, faithfully there. The boastful have not really learned love. Also, people can use boasting to butter someone up. A student tells the teacher, “You’re my favorite teacher,” before asking for an extension on a paper. Love will not use flattery to advance itself. Love refuses to control another.

Love is not arrogant. The Greek word here is related to inflation. Like a balloon that inflates until it explodes, arrogance believes its own hype until the whole world comes crashing down on it. Love is not that way. Rather, love takes that which builds itself up and shares it with others to build them up.

Love is not rude. Rudeness destroys good order. It is shameful behavior. Have you witnessed any of the rudeness that has come from the public comments at school board meetings even here in Grand Haven? While people have a right to have opinions about masks or books, insisting on their own way has led to anger and rudeness. It has led to a breakdown of community. Rudeness is not the way of love!

This leads right into the next one: Love does not insist on its own way. It makes space for the way of another. This is about justice. We must learn to care about each other’s rights, not just our own. Lesslie Newbigin writes, “If we acknowledge the God of the Bible, we are committed to struggle for justice in society. Justice means giving to each his due. Our problem (as seen in the light of the gospel) is that each of us overestimates what is due to him as compared with what is due to his neighbor.[2] Just think about how our conversations about justice would change if we set aside our grievances to listen to those of others.

Love is not irritable. I know this is one I struggle with. I can be really irritable with things that seem to never change for the better. But imagine this one like this, love has a long fuse. It does not explode quickly. It takes a long, long time for that fuse to burn, giving plenty of opportunity to extinguish that which is leading towards the explosion.

Love is not resentful. This word is an accounting term. Some versions translate this as “love keeps no record of wrongs.” Ken Bailey, who spent his career in the Middle East where feuds between people have lasted centuries, tells us, “Love can absorb evil….Love manages to erase the ledger of wrongs suffered which the mind, unprompted, all too readily recalls.” This does not mean that we don’t notice wrongs. Rather, we learn to remember them well. That is, we learn that loving well means not letting these hurts occupy space in our lives rent-free. The memories drive us to do and be better. Resentment doesn’t belong because love will ultimately win.

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. We live in a post-truth society. Everyone has their own truths. People gaslight others into thinking objective reality isn’t what they think it is. People have gotten so enmeshed in their own perceptions of the world that they can no longer see reality as reality. Love, on the other hand, cares about what is true.

Paul closes with four more positives about love. These are all-encompassing. Love bears all things. It is trustworthy. I can trust it with my vulnerability. It won’t run away with my brokenness. Love believes all things, particularly when it comes to trusting the God who created love. Love hopes all things, meaning that even hard things like resurrected life after death are possible. Love endures all things. This is a bookend to love being patient, which opened the passage. It is the patience of waiting until God makes all things new.

I know that was a breathless glance at Paul’s great hymn to love, but I felt it so important to drive these things home. Agape love is the journey through the mountain pass. It is something we have to strive for. We have to seek it out. It is so absent from our world these days. As Christians, we are to strive for this kind of love in every aspect of our lives. We are to bring it to bear at church, at home, at work, at school board meetings, in conflict, in doubt, in concern. The world desperately needs us to live with agape love.

Part of journeying to love is knowing in our hearts what love looks like, so we’ve given everyone here today a card with the words of Paul’s hymn to love on them. I encourage you to keep them in your wallet or purse or anywhere you’ll come across them regularly. Knowing these words by heart is a piece of knowing how to love in the manner of Jesus — with agape — and remember to live in that manner everywhere, all the time.

[1] Basically this whole sermon is rooted in chapter 4.4 of Ken Bailey’s Paul Through Middle Eastern Eyes.

[2] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, 124-125. Italics mine.