Week 3: The discipline of love
“The Greatest of These”
Vicar Jessica Christy
Texts: 1 Corinthians 13:1-3; John 15:12-17
The church in Corinth was barely formed when things started to fall apart. Economic divisions had appeared in the community. People were anxiously squabbling over which spiritual gifts were the best. There were fights about how worship should be conducted. All around, people were jostling for power and prominence. And so Paul writes to them to remind them what it means to be in community. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses some of their concerns about proper worship, and tries to show them the way forward in their disputes – but here, he gets to the heart of the matter. The problem isn’t that the Corinthians haven’t figured out the proper doctrine; it’s that they don’t know how to live together. They don’t seem to want to live together. They’re so concerned about who’s in the right, who’s in control, that they’ve completely lost sight of why they came together in the first place. And so Paul tells them about love.
This text is famous as a favorite for weddings, and of course it’s beautiful for that purpose, but when Paul writes, he doesn’t have a relationship between two people in mind. He’s talking about love in a community, the love that knits together the body of Christ. This love is a commitment to one another as we try to show the world what the kingdom of God looks like. Even if we disagree with each other, even if we’re in community with people who we don’t naturally like, we’re called to care for one another, and to lift up each other’s needs above our own. We often use the phrase “sacrificial love” to describe how we try to practice love in the church. Our ethics and our theology lift it up as the kind of love that Christ shows us, love that gives of itself for the good of others. It’s good and beautiful teaching – but Paul here tells us that those words, “sacrificial love,” are redundant. He writes that love is sacrifice. It’s that which acts for the sake of others. It does not insist on getting its own way, but rather lowers itself for the sake of treating others with patience and kindness. We say “sacrificial love” because we need the reminder that that’s what real love looks like, but you can’t have love without self-giving. That’s what the Corinthians had forgotten. The Corinthian church was in turmoil because its members were worried about asserting their status relative to each other. They wanted to know who was coming out on top in all their debates – so Paul tells them that, if you love someone, you have to be willing to let that person take the win. You have to let go of your desire to be proven right or get your way. The very notions of winning and losing are foreign to love, because it doesn’t keep score. There is no competition or calculation, only care.
This is so hard to do. It takes discipline, practice. We are social creatures, trained to be attentive to where we stand in relation to others. We hunger for victories and are deeply cut by defeat or insult. We are satisfied when we can assert our will, and we begrudge those who have wronged us. We all experience this in different ways and about different things, but all of us know what it’s like to insist on our own way over others, and to become resentful when we can’t have it. But love means learning to let that go. It means learning to lose, at least by the standards of our world. But in that loss, we discover something far greater and far more joyful than anything our earthly striving could give us. We find each other. We learn what it is to know each other, and to be known. When we’re fixated on who wins and who loses, we cut ourselves off from each other. We can’t be in community when we treat each other as obstacles to be overcome. But when we let that go, when we stop keeping score, we break free of our self-imposed isolation and discover what it means to be one in Christ.
For this is how Christ led his disciples. He taught them that the greatest among them was not the one who could win the most converts or collect the most offerings or perform the greatest miracles. It wasn’t the one who knew the most about scripture or who could pray the most fervently. He taught them that the greatest thing is love, and that the greatest love is in laying down your life for others. He shows us this on the Cross, but martyrdom isn’t the only way that we can die for the sake of others. We follow Christ when we die to our arrogance, to our need to control, to our need to be right. We follow the commandment to love when we let go of our grudges, or our cliquishness, or our hierarchies and dare to simply call each other “friend.” We die to ourselves when we learn to live for each other. When we do this, not only do we follow Christ, but we become the body of Christ, living together in love.
This is the entire reason that we are here on this earth. As Paul reminds us, everything that we value is meaningless unless it is done in love. Deeds that are done without love, even if they look good on the outside, are as empty. The wisest and most beautiful words are, without love, as meaningless as a clanging cymbal. Whatever accomplishments we achieve, whatever virtues we foster, they are nothing on their own, because without love, our actions are about ourselves and our status. Even things like prophecy and faith can be hollowed out until they are nothing more than a way to score points over each other. Paul says that a person could give away all their possessions, even their life, and it would mean nothing if it were done for acclaim instead of done for love. Love is the only thing that is good in itself. It’s what gives all other things meaning.
Love is also the only thing that endures. As Paul tells us, all other things will pass away when they become complete in God. Prophecy, knowledge, hope – they are tools for seeking God in the here and now, but there will be no need for such spiritual gifts when we see God face to face. We will not need to place our hope in God when we know God fully. But love, love is forever. It will not be completed when we are made one with God – it will only be made more perfect. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” Knowledge and prophecies and tongues are how we peer through that dark mirror, but love is the image shining through on the other side. It is the very essence of God, which God longs for us to know. God who knows us fully wants us to fully know love, here and now. That means learning to lose. It means learning to let go of the things that keep us apart. It means learning to die. But in that death is where we find the abundant and everlasting life that God has planned for us. It’s where we find ourselves, it’s where we find each other, and it’s where we find Christ.