Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8
There are times when we read or see or hear something and it makes us wince. We feel – known. Called out, even though no one has said our names. For me, the passage in 1 Corinthians 13 is many things at once: a marvel. An inspiration. An ideal. Something I want to emulate. And at the same time, it’s an “oof”. An “ouch”. A flashlight on my shortcomings. Yet it is also a true north where the compass of my faith points, where my actions and words and emotions need to be realigned toward. A prompt that tells me, ‘Oh, I see here. I can see where I’ve been going in a direction that doesn’t match this. Where do I need to turn around?’
It’s interesting to me that this compass and redirecting imagery came to mind, because in the Hebrew scriptures (or Old Testament), the word for repentance, shuv, literally means to turn. How can we turn towards our truth north, to the model and example of what love looks like, which was seen in the flesh in Jesus and is written here by the Apostle Paul?
This passage is beautiful and recognized as such by secular and spiritual folks alike. While it is used frequently in weddings, the setting of the text is not a wedding but a letter to a church. Sometimes I try to imagine Paul’s letters being read aloud to a group of people, which scholars say was likely the context of how the letter was shared. The church in Corinth was a group of people gathered together, figuring out what it means to follow Jesus, in 1st Century Corinth. Corinth was a Greek city in the Roman empire, known for its “anything goes” approach to morality and sexuality. The church in Corinth was in the midst of culture that lauded people for being super religious, fancy folks who could impress you with their speech or their philosophy or their words about some spiritual mysteries. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth because they were in conflict about several issues. One piece that Paul writes about is spiritual gifts. Last week, we looked at a passage that talks about many different gifts and different body parts being essential, with different functions. The Corinthians were stuck thinking certain type of spiritual gifts, that of prophesy or tongues, were the end-all, be-all gifts that everyone should aspire to have. Paul explains in chapters 12 through 14 why that is wrong and in the middle of his argument, we have this passage about love.
Our text starts off pretty heavy. It’s poetic but also sobering. Paul teaches that religious actions without love are meaningless. For religious folks in general – and for clergy in particular, perhaps, the gravity of these words fills the air when this text is read aloud.
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.
If I eloquently talk of God but do not have love, I am just a gong or a cymbal. I might get people’s attention but not substance or complexity. While it’s fun to crash a cymbal once or twice on its own, it would certainly get abrasive and annoying after a while. Should we test that?
And 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.
Prophesy, knowledge, and unimaginable faith that leads beyond belief—to moving mountains. But even when if I could accomplish such good things, without love, I am nothing.
If 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.
Even if I make great sacrifices for God, choosing God over money or material things, or even sacrificing my own life, if I do not have love, it is all meaningless. I gain nothing.
I am noise. I am nothing. I gain nothing. That is, if I do not have love. We are noise. We are nothing. We gain nothing – for all of our religious or spiritual efforts, if we do not have love. For churches in discernment processes or, really, at any other time, these words are essential. I could be a little more profane here, but I will just be mildly so: what the hell are we doing, if we don’t have love? Love as a group, together, as a church. Love as individuals, following Jesus in our own lives and environments. What the hell are we doing, if we don’t have love? I imagine someone reading Paul’s letter aloud to the church and these passages have utter silence.
Brother Paul continues on and shares what love is—and, importantly, what it is not.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
Patient. Kind. Paul starts with two words to show what love is. One commentator points out, quite helpfully, that here, love is a verb. Many English translations miss the mark. Melanie Howard (2022) writes, “what most English translations fail to capture is that all these descriptors are verbs, not the adjectives with which they are often translated. So, these descriptions might be better translated along the lines of, ‘Love waits patiently; love acts kindly’ and so forth. What might seem like a pedantic grammatical point is actually quite important. That is, the love that Paul is describing takes action; it is not a passive feeling toward another.”
Love looks like treating someone with patience. Love looks like kind words and kind actions, even in response to unkindness. So, these are two positive ways that love looks like. Paul then goes on to list eight different actions that are not what love looks like. Love does not act with envy. Love does not boast. Love does not act haughty or arrogant; it does not think it knows best. Love is not self-important. Love does not respond rudely or act in ways that demean or belittle or shame others. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable. Love doesn’t lash out, get easily annoyed or angry. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing. Love does not relish bending the rules or lining one’s pockets. Paul closes these 8 negative attributes with a positive attribute here, saying that love acts with integrity and seeks truth and transparency.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love can hold up against a lot. Love looks like forbearance, hope, perseverance. At the same time, knowing the history of churches encouraging people to stay with abusers, let me just say that, while love involves forbearance, safety is important to love. Love does not look like sticking with an abusive relationship. Vulnerable people are not asked to “endure all things” and get thrown across a room. This passage is written in the context of a congregation, of relationships characterized by mutuality. I shouldn’t have to say this, but history indicates that we do. This passage does not say that people should remain in abusive contexts. Abuse isn’t love. Escaping abuse is not failure to love; it is finding safety—something crucial in order to be able to, once again, give and receive love.
In relationships where there is not abuse, love means sticking with it, finding a way forward, hoping that we can get through a rough patch, learning how to trust, and learning how to forgive and transform relationships. As the Bible tells us again and again, love is hard work.
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.
Paul continues. Love never ends. But other things, they will. Paul says, ‘You know all these religious things we might feel are important? Those will end. All those spiritual actions you are trying to do? They’ll end.’ Remember, the Corinthians were idolizing the gift of tongues as the pinnacle of spiritual attainment. They adored prophesy, gifts of speech. And Paul is just like, “Yeah… that’s gonna end. What won’t end? Love. So, strive for the greater gift.”
As is often the case, the passages that I end up being assigned are exactly the words I need to hear.
Several things stand out to me from this passage, and I’d like to summarize before we listen to the scripture again and move to a sharing time:
- Religious actions without love are meaningless. For church folks, this is huge.
- Paul described what love is like using 2 examples, then went on and used 8 more examples of what love doesn’t look like. What are the implications of that, as we assess our own love or lack of love?
- Wholeness and self-care are important to love. For me, patience and kindness flow more easily from a place of health. Stress and burnout lead to me to slip into rudeness, resentfulness, irritability, arrogance, and more.
- Forgiveness and repentance are important to love. For me, these are tied to hope, forbearance, endurance, and truth-telling.
- Sometimes, we need to disrupt our patterns characterized by lack of love. The church in Corinth is getting an intervention from Paul. There is conflict and lots of issues going on. Whether as churches or as couples or as individuals in other settings, sometimes we need to have an intervention, of sorts, to disrupt negative patterns or trajectories. This can look like mediators or therapists or other strategies. If the greatest thing to strive for is love, as Paul says, then sometimes we must take drastic measures to transform negative patterns and cultivate love.
Read the scriptures again.
- What words or phrases stand out to you from these passages?
- What do those words or phrases mean to you?
- Share how God may be calling you or the church to respond.
Siblings and kindred in Christ, sisters and brothers, living out the love of God can seem like a daunting task. Yet we do not do this work on our own but are filled and empowered and transformed by the Spirit of Jesus, at work in our hearts and our lives. We go in the power and love of God. AMEN.
Howard, M.A. (2022, January 30). Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Retrieved from