It All Comes Down to Love
“It All Comes Down to Love”
A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
February 3, 2019 – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (C)
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
For most people, this reading immediately evokes wedding memories – I always see people smile when I read this one. My brain works a little differently. My first thought when hearing 1 Corinthians 13 is always of the movie Wedding Crashers. If you’ve never seen it, it’s basically a movie about two best friends who crash weddings as a way to pick up women. They do so by developing elaborate cover stories to charm the crowd and become the life of the party. They do it so often, in fact, that they become wedding experts. In an early scene, when the pastor announces that the bride's sister will now read scripture, John says to Jeremy, "Twenty dollars, First Corinthians." To which Jeremy replies, "Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12." The bride's sister comes to the lectern and begins, of course, "And now a reading from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Love is patient, love is kind…"
We call it the love chapter, and it is certainly all about love. But even though we often read it at weddings, Paul wasn’t describing romantic love when he wrote this chapter; he was actually writing about how to be a church – how to be faithful Christians in a challenging world. If you’ll remember from last week, the church in Corinth was having a problem with unity. They were divided, and needed help with discernment. And so Paul says this: it all comes down to love.
Let me back up a little bit. When I say that the Corinthians needed help with discernment, I mean that they needed help deciding what was the Christian way and what was not. Their religion was brand new, and their identities as people of faith just beginning to take shape. Now, I grew up being told that the life of faith is black and white – there are holy choices and there are sinful choices and that’s that. But as an adult, I find that to be untrue. When we look at the world trying to discern the way of Christ, it’s hard to see. Paul calls this seeing in a mirror, dimly – first century mirrors were, after all, just highly polished pieces of bronze that gave back murky reflections. We need a way of seeing that sheds more light, that guides our eye toward what we need. But that hard, on our own.
In pastoral care, the question I hear most often is usually something along the lines of “What is the right thing to do here?” Human beings ask that question of all sorts of things – what healthcare choices to make, what job to work, what lessons to teach our kids, what political party to join, how to best steward our finances. For Christians, the question “what is the right thing to do” is often shorthand for “what is the most faithful thing to do – the most moral, the most righteous, the most Christian?” And when people turn to me with that question, I know that we sometimes wish that our pastors had an easy, black and white answer. I want you to know how deeply I privilege hearing those questions from you, and how tenderly I hold their weight. But I also want you to know that, sometimes, there isn’t an obvious answer. It is hard, sometimes, to discern what God would have us to – as much for pastors as for everyone else.
What Paul tells us is that when it comes to doing the right thing, it all comes down to love. Everything else will fade away in time, he says, but love never ends – love is the greatest thing. And so when deciding what to do or who to be, we have to ask ourselves this question: is it love? Is it patient, is it kind? Is it envious or boastful or arrogant or rude? Does it insist on its own way, is it irritable or resentful, does it endure all things? And if what you’re discerning doesn’t have feelings of its own – like how much you should recycle, or whether or not to join the PTA, or whatever – ask yourself which choice brings out love in you? What will make you more patient and kind, what will teach you to not be envious or boastful or insist on your own way? When we have tough choices, my friends, it all comes down to love.
Let me give you an example. Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian whose family rescued and hid Jews in their home to help them escape the Holocaust. Eventually, she and her family were arrested and transported to the concentration camp in at Ravensbrück. Her sister, Betsie, died there, but Corrie was freed at the end of the war. She returned to Holland to set up rehabilitation centers and a variety of charities; she also wrote and spoke about her experiences, often through the lens of forgiveness.
Her forgiveness was tested in 1947 while speaking at a church in Munich. At the close of the service, man stepped forward to greet her. Corrie froze. She knew this man well; he’d been one of the most vicious guards at Ravensbrück. She writes about this encounter in her book Tramp for the Lord, and since she is a far more excellent writer than I, let me read it to you in her own words.
I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush…I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin…
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course — how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face to face with one of my captors, and my blood seemed to freeze.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard there… But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein” — again the hand came out —“will you forgive me?”
And I stood there — I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven — and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us.”
“Jesus, help me!” I prayed. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” I thrust out my hand.
And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart.”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then. But even so, I realized it was not my love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit recorded in Romans 5:5, “…because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” [i]
“I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.” Corrie ten Boom had a choice in front of her – whether or not to offer forgiveness and love to someone who had tortured her and been part of something unspeakably evil. The right answer would be clear, to some – spit on his shoes and run. That’s probably what I would have done. But Corrie ten Boom chose love – and experienced the love of God in a new, life changing way.
Acting through love can put us in some interesting situations, and it can make us make some unusual choices. That’s ok, God chooses us over and over again, no matter how off-kilter we get. When love is our priority, we see the world more clearly, we experience God more closely. The Corinthians were so focused on the mysteries of faith – like prophecy, tongues, and knowledge – that they forgot their primary goal was to love each other as a community. The church has fallen into the same trap over the years – we shift our focus to budgets and activities and programs. And those things are all great – but they just don’t matter if we do them without love. It all comes down to love.
Love isn’t just something we talk about at weddings. It is our whole lens for being Christian in the world. God is love, and when we get to discern how we are to be God’s people, then our discernment must always come down to love. What is patient, what is kind, what does not boast? It’s not sentimental Valentine’s stuff, it’s our whole walk as people of faith. God loves us, and so we live in that love. And far more than just creating happy couples, God draws us together as an entire family of love. It’s not always easy, but love is always right. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Corrie ten Boom, Tramp for the Lord. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975), p. 217–218