Five years ago, when my husband moved to serving a church in Philadelphia, he enjoyed getting to know the other clergy in the neighborhood. One particularly fine colleague was the pastor of the Mennonite church in the area, and recognizing the breadth of the Mennonite tradition my husband asked her, “So, what kind of Mennonite are you?” To which she replied with a smile, “The kicked-out kind.” Apparently her congregation had run afoul of others in the area for its willingness to ordain women and to welcome the LGBT community.
That pastor was in very good company, though – our Lord Jesus Christ got kicked out of his home religious community of Nazareth, where he had grown up. He apparently made them very mad. Perhaps it was because they had heard that he had performed miracles in Capernaum, but he wasn’t doing any among them. As fellow Nazarenes, they certainly deserved many more healings and other privileges than anyone else! Perhaps he made them mad with the teaching that precedes our passage for today – he had just announced to them, in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah, good news to the poor, release to the captive, justice for the oppressed. Maybe that did not sound like Good News to them? Or maybe it was that he had just suggested to them, by invoking the examples of Elijah and Elisha’s miracles and ministries to gentiles, that he, too, did not intend to limit the blessing of his wonder-working powers only to his particular community, but rather to reach out for the salvation of all persons. At Princeton, as at many other colleges and universities (and, I imagine, institutions of every kind) we are very concerned about inclusion – about every member of our university community knowing that they belong here, feeling affirmed in that in every moment, knowing that they can be their fullest selves here without editing a thing, feeling known and understood and valued. One of our great, self-appointed challenges at this moment in our history is to achieve this kind of inclusion. Jesus told his townspeople that he was going to be practicing radical inclusion in his ministry, and they did not like it at all. It must have challenged a sense of privilege that they felt they deserved, highest rank in a hierarchy of their own construction. They didn’t just run him out of town, they tried to run him off a cliff.
The Apostle Paul is facing some similar challenges in the Christian community he had founded in Corinth. Our passage from I Corinthians for today is one of the Bible’s best-known pericopes, thanks to its common use at weddings. I think the Apostle would be stunned to know that this is how it is so often used – he was writing to a community that was not starry-eyed in love but coming apart at the seams. I happen to think it’s a perfect lesson to read at weddings, but not for the reason most couples choose it!
The Christians in Corinth are being torn apart by the assertions of some that their own spiritual gifts were superior to those of others. In short, they were simply better and more gifted people, “naturally” located at the top of the hierarchy of the Corinthian community. Like the Nazarenes, they have constructed a social and religious hierarchy and defined the criteria for superiority so that they themselves come out on top. We’re not immune to this today, of course. It’s what makes real inclusion at places like Princeton so challenging – our deeply-held lists of who really matters, featuring ourselves. We would never say that we are simply better than others; we justify our superiority with quiet references to inherited values, innate understandings, thoughtful priorities.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians must have made them just as angry at him as Jesus’s teaching did with the Nazarenes. The center of Christian community is love – and that is not what the Corinthians are exhibiting. Love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude – but the Corinthians sure are! They insist on their own way, they are irritable and resentful, they rejoice in wrong-doing rather than the truth. They do not bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things.
Status conflicts aside, there is much about love that we can learn alongside the Corinthians if we read Paul’s words in their original context. First, there is, I think, a warm opportunity here for us at the Princeton University Chapel to identify with those individual believers 2,000 years ago who were sure they got everything right. In Corinth there were some who lauded their own ability to speak – to do public speaking and preaching, to speak in tongues, to channel God for other people. But if love is not the center of all of that communicating, those people are just clanging noisemakers. Some people in Corinth felt that they were gifted with deepest faith, understanding, wisdom, prophecy – they get the content right every time! They are really, really smart! But Paul tells them that if they don’t have love at their center, they are empty of mind, heart and spirit, and wrong about deeming themselves wise. Others seem to have been pretty proud of their inclination towards charity, generously giving away their property and denying their own needs. Paul says that if this isn’t an act of true love, they and we are nothing but a puddle of hubris. For us at the chapel, if the glorious building and music, the liturgy and preaching, the community and the fellowship are not manifestations of love, we are a big expensive building filled with people who prattle on. Paul was always a tough critic!
What is this “love” that he is talking about? It’s certainly not the eros that draws people into getting married. When Paul concludes our passage by saying that love is greater even than faith and hope, he is not proclaiming it to be the highest of the virtues. He is saying throughout his letter that love is not a feeling or an action, it is a state of being. The translation “Love is patient, love is kind” doesn’t do justice to Paul’s point – he says that love itself practices patience, love itself practices kindness. When our state of being is one of Christian love, we can not help but practice these things ourselves. They are us, we are them, because we are in the state of being that is love. When we truly live as the image of God, we are in the state of being that is love, for God is love.
Inhabiting love, having that as our state of being, is very difficult. Paul knows that. Like him, we are “fully known” to God, and so we are shown how to inhabit love, and so we can do it. Love is hard work – between individuals, in community. Sometimes love hurts – not because we are spurned but because it can be so hard to get right, because we misunderstand and offend each other in the process of trying to get it right. I appreciate one pastor’s comment on this passage; which is that the measure of love – real love – isn’t how good it makes you feel, but its capacity to hold people together in times of tension and test. That’s why I think this is a great wedding passage! The true measure of love isn’t how good it makes us feel, but its capacity to keep us bound together, and committed to one another, when times are challenging.
Both of our texts for today leave us with much to think about concerning love – love-in-action, inhabiting love. From Christ’s words to his fellow Jews of Nazareth we can ask ourselves if we show love unlimited – love until it may hurt – to the poor, the captive, the oppressed? These are people we are not necessarily “in love” with – people with whom we may have no existing relationship. They are “other.” Also, like the Nazarenes, do we think that Christ should do more for us, or for the church, than for other people? Are we more worthy? While we’re thinking about hierarchies, perhaps we should be honest with ourselves about who we don’t think should be offered salvation, or shown grace?
And from the Apostle Paul, how can we make love not an attribute or virtue that we have on our list of personal goals and strivings, but even make it the very state of being that we inhabit? Those goals will fall in line if we do! Faith and hope, kindness and patience, endurance, integrity, prophecy – they start in love, they end in love, they are the manifestations of a first cause, which is love.
Feasting on the Word, eds. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, Year C, Vol. 1, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2009), pp. 302-313.