January 30, 2022
“All You Need Is Love, Love Is All You Need” – Rev. Brent Gundlah

         When you just heard Paul read those familiar verses from our first scripture passage, the first thing you might have thought was: “Wait, there’s a wedding today!” And then you may have looked around the sanctuary in search of flowers and rental clothing, clip-on bowties and bridesmaids’ dresses. I hope you weren’t too disappointed when you didn’t find any of that stuff. I’m sorry to have tell you this, but no one’s getting married at HUCC this morning.

         It would be totally understandable if you jumped to that conclusion, though, because if you’ve ever been to a wedding where the liturgy was even remotely Christian, then there’s a better than average chance that this was one of the readings you heard there.

         It’s definitely one of the New Testament’s most memorable passages — in fact, people typically recognize it even if they can’t actually tell you the book of the Bible from which it comes (the answer, of course, is First Corinthians — try to remember that so you can dazzle your fellow wedding guests with your knowledge at some point in the future).

         I must say that I’ve always enjoyed hearing Paul’s poem about love at weddings, and now, since I’ve gone pro, I really like reading it at weddings too. For starters, it’s beautifully written; and because Paul mentions the word “love” nine times in thirteen lines (and then uses the word “it” to refer to love another four times) it seems to be a perfect choice for celebrating the beginning of a marriage.

         But I have to be completely honest with you — this passage was never intended by Paul to be used at weddings and it is not really about marriage.

         Sure, we may hear it now, two thousand years later, and picture two people gazing into each others’s eyes, testifying to the connection they feel to each other and proclaiming how patient and kind and endless their love for one another is — and that’s wonderful. But that’s not even close to being the context in which Paul was writing.

         Like most of Paul’s other letters, this one was written to individual communities, to address specific issues at a particular time. Paul typically reaches out to churches because they’re having problems — ones they are not handling particularly well on their own — and the Corinthians are no exception to this rule.

         Paul isn’t congratulating the Corinthians for the great love they have been showing towards one another; he’s actually chastising them for doing the exact opposite. In other words, love is patient and love is kind; but they are not. Love is not envious or arrogant or rude; but they are. Love does not insist on its own way; but they do. You get the picture; and trust me – the Corinthians did too.

         They would have understood exactly what Paul was saying, and they wouldn’t have been too happy to hear all these horrible things about themselves. I mean, if you asked them, they probably would have told you they were doing a pretty great job of being a church. After all, they’re willing to give away what they have, at least a few of them have prophetic powers — heck, some of them are even able to speak in tongues.

         But Paul doesn’t care about this kind of stuff, because God doesn’t care about this kind of stuff; these are earthly things, human things, that will inevitably go by the wayside at some point (as all earthly things do). They simply won’t last and they just don’t matter.

         Love, however, is an entirely different story. It is the one thing that does matter. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for your entire life, you’ve heard it all before: Love makes world go ‘round. All you need is love. What the world needs now is love, sweet love. And it is the one thing that actually will last; as Paul himself tells us, “Love never ends.”

         And yet, as important as love is, Paul doesn’t ever explain what love means. Oh, he definitely talks his way around it — love is a of bunch things (essential, patient, kind, believing, hopeful and enduring) and love is not a bunch of other things (envious, boastful, arrogant or rude). And yet, we don’t ever get an actual definition of love from Paul; it is just one of things that we must, at least for now, see in a mirror, dimly — or, if you prefer the King James Version, through a glass, darkly.

         But how we actually understand this word, “love,” has tremendous implications for interpreting what this passage is saying, not only to Paul’s original readers in the first century, but also to readers in every time — including us in ours.

         At this point, it might be helpful for us to jump back into the King James Version, which translates the word we see rendered in our pew Bibles as “love” a bit differently. There, the word isn’t “love,” it’s “charity.”

         We need to remember that the entire New Testament was originally written in Greek, and the translation into English in honor of King James was done over a millennium and a half later, in the seventeenth century. Because that was a long, long time ago, some modern readers find the words of the King James a little too old fashioned for their liking; “spake” instead of “spoke,” “thou” instead of “you,” “leadeth” instead of “lead,” can sound odd to twenty first-century ears.

         But, with respect to this particular word (the Greek word agape), the King James seems to be on to something pretty revolutionary here — and it invites us to look at this passage very differently.

         We tend to think of charity these days as being a mere handout, something that is dispensed, quite literally, with hand out —and by this I don’t mean the recipient awaiting alms with open palms; I mean the giver remaining at arm’s length and never getting too close.

         But in the seventeenth-century, charity was thought of very differently. It was, quite literally, the act of doing good for someone else. Charity, in this sense, is more a leveling of the playing field between people than it is a handout to someone from someone else who is understood to be their better.

         Charity, in this sense, is an expression of the idea that the giver and the recipient are more alike, more equal, than either may have previously realized. It is the seemingly lovely reminding the seemingly unlovely that they are, in fact, lovely — that they are worthy of love — just because they are.

         And this is what Paul is getting on the Corinthians case for here — for thinking that they are better than other people or, looked at from the other direction, for thinking that other people are somehow inferior to them. Listen to what Paul says to them: “If I give away all my possessions… but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

         Call it love, call it charity, call it whatever the heck you want — for Paul the implications are pretty clear. Give away all the money and stuff you want, but if you don’t actually see the recipient as your equal, then you’re missing the whole point of what it means to truly follow Christ:

if you disagree with someone and allow that disagreement to divide you, then you’re missing the whole point of what it means to truly follow Christ;

if you don’t recognize your common lot with everyone else here with you on God’s green earth, then you’re missing the whole point of what it means to truly follow Christ.

         As I said earlier, despite the fact that Paul didn’t write this letter to address marriage, I really do believe that this passage is well-suited for weddings. And I believe this because two people who have chosen to spend the rest of their lives together probably ought to understand from the outset what love calls them to do and how love calls them to act, because they are, at the end of the day, equals in relationship.

         But what about all of those other people out there:

the ones you haven’t made the choice to spend the rest of your life with;

the ones you don’t seem to have much in common with;  

the ones who are difficult, for whatever reason, for us to be around?

What about them?

         Paul’s whole point is that we are equals too, that we are called to love them too — even when that proves to be challenging, even when that stretches our capacity to love to what seems like its absolute breaking point. It is worth noting that, for all the things Paul does say about love, he never says that love is either easy or enjoyable.

         And so the next time you hear this passage read at a wedding, try to remember that it doesn’t just apply the relationship between those two people on that specific day; it applies to all of our relationships for our entire lives.