If I am the most eloquent of preachers, a poet and a speaker that moves people to tears, but don’t have love, I might as well be an annoying ringing alarm clock, and we should all stay home and save ourselves the trouble.
If I am the most generous giver, on all the committees, the first to volunteer and the last to go home, but don’t have love, I may as well not even be here, all that I do is so utterly pointless.
If I know the bible, and have faith that inspires people, and I diligently pray, and always fight the right fights, and stand up for the oppressed, and speak out for the voiceless, and share all I have with the poor, but don’t have love, it means absolutely nothing – and my life has no real lasting impact.
And what is love exactly?
Well I will tell you, Paul says. Then he goes on to describe love in very straightforward and descriptive ways. It is this, it does this, it is not this, and never this. He is talking in the same way that he describes the Body of Christ just before this, You ARE the body of Christ, not IF you do this or that you are, just your ARE, connected whether you like it or not, diverse and different from each other and also unified into one body, different gifts, same Spirit, one body, that’s the way God made it to be. So here, Paul is telling them about love. This is the way it is.
Not we hope it is this way, or we should aim for it to be, but this is how it is. It is the thing THE only thing, or one of three, that last forever. And without it, whatever else we do is pointless.
But as we heard from Lisa a couple weeks ago- he isn’t writing this to perfect people. They are in trouble. In fact, they are currently all the things he says love isn’t – arrogant, proud, comparing themselves to each other, keeping a list of wrongdoing, envious, jealous, insisting on their own way, celebrating each other’s failures, name-calling, bragging, you name it, and actually, Paul does. And he says, love – which is everything, is none of these things.
He says you all have a place in this body, all of your gifts are important and are necessary. But the lifeblood of the thing is love. Without that, nothing else works, nothing else matters. The only thing that sticks around is love. The beginning and end of all things. Faith and hope and love are not temporary or fleeting, they are absolutely eternal.
So just love each other, ok? Amen.
That’s where we often leave it.
But I, for one, come up against the impossibility of the text really quickly. And frankly, anyone who hears this at their wedding ought to be quaking in their fancy shoes because this is one darn frightening list of attributes; and anyone who is remotely self aware and really listening when the preacher rattles it off should be dismayed and worried if this is what is expected of them because the selfless perfection of this list is downright intimidating and completely impossible.
And to make things even more complicated and hopeless we’ve made love into a feeling. I can fall into it our out of it on a whim. I can feel it for chocolate and coffee and my car and it is somehow personal and self-guided and not at all communal and shared. Perhaps we’ve made love capricious and fanciful, because we try to avoid that what it really means is suffering. Love means getting so tangled up in each other, so committed that you have to watch them suffer and let them see you suffer too, that you have to feel their pain and their losses like your own. And, bonus, you will most likely cause some of the suffering as well!
So if I don’t love you, all the better, really.
I can’t just go around loving everyone, can I? How dangerous and exhausting would that be? If we all loved all the time? Frankly, it is far easier to make my following Jesus into a different kind of list, one that has to do with justice and equality, or with prayer and scripture memorization, or with pitching in and helping out. Anything to make it concrete and manageable instead of this risky and barely graspable, and completely vulnerable “love” thing.
But Paul is saying something different about love. He is saying it is something that exists outside of us, something we receive. It is a gift – like all these other gifts he just got finished talking about- a gift from the God of Love who Loved so much as to join us fully in life and death. Love belongs to God, and God shares it with us.
This means that it isn’t about our ability to continue feeling all loving towards each other. Or even our ability to have pure motives all of the time, to keep arrogance out of the picture, or stay clear of irritability and resentment. It isn’t about being people without a single self-righteous thought in our head or petty frustrations in our interactions. And it isn’t about quietly striving to bear all things and forgive all things and endure all things until we are all used up and dried out and nothing at all. We can’t conjure love, or achieve love or work hard enough to produce it.
And even though I will fail, still I love, because God loves, because there IS love, and we are part of it even if we don’t see or feel like it.
When I keep a record of wrongs, when I am arrogant or filled with envy – that very fact drives me towards love, which tells me, promises me, that these things fade away and love remains.
Our imperfect love doesn’t mean love isn’t real – instead it shows how real love is. So dimly we see, so faintly we taste – but it is enough to tell us there is so much more, enough to make us want more and feel acutely the inability to grasp or hang onto it.
The faith is that love endures, the hope is that love remains – that we can say I love, forgive me my selfishness, I love, pardon my envy and my arrogance, I love, heal me of my hatred and my jealousy. I love, I love, I love.
These things have no place in love and yet love has a place in me, claims me, clings to me, and I love, even with these things staring me in the face, I love. I can love because I am loved- I can love, can dip my toe in and dive in with all my unlove because there is love, because it doesn’t depend on me or come from me; it holds me and fills me.
And because love is forgiving I can forgive,
because love is kind I can risk kindness,
because love is patient I can stop and see you and take a breath and be patient with myself.
I am imperfect, but perfect love lives in me and claims me, so I have nothing to fear.
I can live honestly –and love even with my imperfection and it is not hypocrisy, it is a testimony of hope, of what is coming, it is a chance to share and spread something that I did not create, it is a chance to sink together with each other into the reality of all.
Love is a gift from God, who is love and the source of all love. Which means we can’t wreck it or lose it, we can’t just fall in or out of it; we can’t tarnish or ruin it. Love endures beyond anything else we can say or think or do, beyond all that is said or done to us, before and after every other thing, love remains.
And when we love, we are sharing in the eternal, our words or actions step outside the normal flow of things that seem always to go from life to death, new to old, shiny to decay, joy to disappointment. Instead, in the language of love our lives speak of the real reality, God’s itinerary, where things go from death to life, old to new, decay to redemption, sadness to joy. Love is an eternal reality that reaches backward into time and fills us with faith and hope, guides us with promise that in the end love wins.
So it isn’t about trying to love, making yourself love, or feeling badly for how badly you love. It is about loosening your grip a little, opening your heart to be loved and to share love, to participate, to join in what God is already doing and can do specifically through you in a unique and special way – love.
But know this: love will change you. It will make you realize that you may not know it all. It will make you humble. It will show you how capable you are of hurting another, how easily we are lost from one another, how painful it can be to disappoint this one you love. Love will make you do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient. It will make you give up things you like to let others have things they like. It will make you compromise and sacrifice, and cry.
Love will make you cry.
Love will make you see people, really see them and not just as the background to your own life, in fact they will be so woven into your life that you can’t be you without them being them. Even those you disagree with, those you don’t understand, those who misunderstand you. Even those far away or easily forgotten, you will see even them with love’s lenses and heart open.
Because love means your life is not your own, you belong to God, love is your origin and your destiny, fearless, selfless, believes all, hopes all, endures all love.
And now these three remain, faith hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.