Christians talk a lot about love. This weekend offers an opportunity to assess whether or not we have anything useful or insightful to say.
All over the world this coming Sunday preachers in churches that use the readings appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary will step into the pulpit in front of congregations who have just heard the reading of I Corinthians 13. It is hard to listen to these thirteen powerful verses in praise of the virtue of love without feeling the need to offer some comment during the sermon time.
But what is there to say about Paul’s meditation on love? He uses the word, or the pronoun “it” to refer to love, thirteen times in the thirteen verses that make up I Corinthians 13. Unfortunately, Paul does not offer a tidy definition of the word “love”. What Paul mostly offers in I Corinthians 13 is a description of what “love” does.
This observation in itself is a healthy corrective to much popular belief about the nature of love. In popular usage, “love” is often thought of as a state or a condition. It is viewed as feeling we possess, or do not possess. We can have love one minute and not have love another. We can “fall” into this feeling of love, or we can “fall” out of love. It comes and goes. This state of love is unpredictable. When love is present relationships work well, when it vanishes relationships falter.
For Paul, love is not primarily a state; it is more accurately a choice. Love is an action word.
There are things love does and things love does not do.
- live with patience
- behave kindly
- rejoice in the truth
- bear all things
- believe all things
- hope in all things
- endure all things
Love does not:
- act out of envy
- take a boastful attitude
- adopt an arrogant attitude
- behave in a way that is irritable
- give in to resentment
- rejoice in wrongdoing
These actions run contrary to a prevailing romantic view of love. They are not particularly glamorous.
Most people probably are not going to sign up with enthusiasm for a life characterized by the need for patience. We may not leap eagerly for a life that at times just puts up with whatever is going on. (“Love bears all things.” “Love endures all things”) It is such ordinary dull advice to suggest that love will avoid envy, boasting, arrogance, and rudeness.
But these are the mundane choices out of which a loving life is built. Love comes dressed in the simple humble garments of our daily decisions to choose to be kind to one another, to delight in the goodness of life, and to avoid irritability and resentment.
The beauty of Paul’s vision of love is that it is lies within the reach of every person. It is always possible for us to “endure” just a little bit more. There is never a time when we need to abandon all hope. We are always capable of choosing to be patient just a moment longer and of letting go of our determination that things should be the way we have determined they should be. (“Love does not insist on its own way.”)
Paul’s vision of love offers life-transforming choices we can make. He holds out a noble vision of life in which we are always free to choose the highest qualities of our nature as children created in the image of God. Paul offers a vision of life in which we do not live constantly as the victim of our feelings. He encourages us to see that we are always able to manifest the actions of love and to respond to life from that deep place where “faith, hope, and love abide.”