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Home » Society » Religion » What is this thing called ‘love'? (A sermon on 1 Corinthians 13)

davidsmith197
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What is this thing called ‘love'? (A sermon on 1 Corinthians 13)

Submitted by davidsmith197
Fri, 1 Mar 2013

I wonder by my troth, what thou and I did, till we loved?
Were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den?
‘Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be ;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.

John Donne from "The Good Morrow".

Let me offer you another piece of classic verse:

"Ya it's you - it could only be you
Nobody else will ever do
Ya baby it's you - that I stick to
Ya we stick like glue

Hang on a second while I tie up my shoe"

(Sorry, I added that last line myself but I suspect it would have been a good one had the author needed one more)

It's Bryan Adams from "The only thing that looks good on me is you".

Let me offer you one more:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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 have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; 5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And I suspect that you're at least as familiar with that last piece as you are with the other two, and you've no doubt heard it read at many a wedding (even though preachers are always lamenting that it's an inappropriate reading for weddings because it's part of a discussion about spiritual gifts and not marriage). It is, at any rate, the classic ‘ode to love' of St Paul as found in 1 Corinthians 13.

Even so, of these three offerings, I must tell you that ‘one of these things is not like the other. One of these three just doesn't belong!'

I guess if we were talking about pieces of verse that will still be remembered in years to come, it would be Bryan Adams' piece that is the odd one out, but I'm really thinking about what counts as a love song, and in that regard 1 Corinthians 13 is the odd one out because, in truth, it's not really a love song at all!

This passage from St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is all about love of course - "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful or rude" - but it's obviously not about the sort of love that Donne and Adams are singing about.

How do we know that? Because St Paul says "Love is not jealous" and the love that Donne and Adams are singing about is a love that gets very jealous!

Love does get jealous - at least romantic love does - and it gets boastful and rude pretty quickly too, and this is a clear indication that, whatever sort of love St Paul is talking about, he is not talking about romance!

Is there another kind of love? St Paul thought there was, and indeed the ancient Greeks as a race thought there was too as they had four different words for love!
Many of you will be familiar with this because you've read C.S. Lewis' classic work "The Four Loves", but for those who haven't read the book and for those who've forgotten what love is, let's go through them:
• ‘Eros' (from which we get our word ‘erotic') is the most common word for ‘love' in Biblical Greek. It includes romantic love and all forms of natural attraction. The Greeks believed that the planets were held in orbit by eros. It is that natural force in the universe that draws bodies together.
• ‘Storge' is the second Greek word for love and it denotes ‘family love' - the type of love that you have for your parents or your children or your brother or your sister. It's a powerful form of attachment, but it is (thankfully) rarely erotic.
• ‘Philia' is the third word and it's a word that we often translate as ‘friendship', though in the Greek it denotes something more formal than what we normally mean by either love or friendship. It's the sort of love that the Godfather might show you - a love that carries with it a clear expectation that a service will be done in return
"A man who does not look after his family is not a man" - no, actually that ‘storge' (family) love.
"Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day"
When you receive a gift of love from Vito Corleone it carries with it certain formal expectations that you hope won't result in you sleeping with the fishes.
At any rate, these three words - ‘eros', ‘storge' and ‘philia' - were the three common Greek words for love at the time the New Testament was written, and what is significant is that when the New Testament writers chose a term for love they deliberately avoided all three of these standard terms and instead employed what was then a reasonably colourless Greek word - ‘agape'.
Is that important? Yes it is, because the word ‘love' turns up rather a lot in the New Testament. It is, arguably, what the New Testament is all about! It's all about love! Jesus was all about love! ‘Love God and love your neighbor - on these two hang all the law and the prophets', He told us (Matthew 22:40)!
It's all about love, and if it's all about love then we'd better try to have a solid understanding of what Jesus and the Apostles meant when they used the word!
"Did you learn anything at church today, dear?"
"Oh yes! I learnt that there were four different words for ‘love' in ancient Greek"
"Oh, that's nice dear! It's a good church, isn't it?"
Let's hope we can send you home today with something a little more useful than a more thorough grasp of ancient languages. I do believe that there is something very important here for all of us.
For a start, when you realise that ‘love' in the Apostolic sense of the word has nothing to do with eros (attraction) it leads you to the realization that while you do have to love your neighbor as a Christian, you don't actually have to like him at all, and this is frankly quite liberating!
God has commanded me to love you! He didn't tell me that I had to like you (though of course He didn't tell me that I had to dislike you either).
In truth though, loving in the New Testament sense of the word, is something different from liking. It's not about attraction. It's something different, and for the ancients it was something new, which is why they came up with a whole new word to speak about it.
It's the love that we see in Christ. "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us", the Apostle John says (1 John 3:16). That's not romance and it's not a family thing and it's certainly not a formality. It's something different, and it evidently has to do with sacrifice and commitment, and it seems to be more about what you do than about what you feel, and so when St Paul writes of love in such poetic verse in his first letter to the Corinthians, he's not eulogising about love. He's actually trying to define it.
4 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; 5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
It seems to me that as St Paul reflected on Christ and tried to come to terms with what love was all about he worked out that it had a lot to do with persistence.
Love is patient, Paul says, or as the older translations put it, ‘love suffereth long'. In other words, ‘Love puts up with a lot of stuff‘, and this same concept is reinforced again four times in this short passage: "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
Love, it seems, has a lot to do with sticking it out. Love goes the distance. Indeed, St Paul concludes this passage by reflecting on the fact that while life is transient and all things pass away in time, yet "Three things abide, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love."
Paul's focus here was on the church.
This passage about love comes up in the middle of a broader discussion about spiritual gifts and about how all the church is supposed to work together like one harmonious body, and Christ-like love, Paul says, is the key because Christ-like love is all about putting up with people and sticking things out for the long term!
It's an interesting reflection on the church but it's certainly one that rings true for me! I've been here for more than 22 years now and I've put up with a lot of stuff over that time! It means I must really love you guys (though, as I've said, that doesn't mean I like you).
In truth, I actually think persistence, long-suffering and endurance are the qualities that make every significant relationship work, and not just churches, which is why I personally think 1 Corinthians 13 is a splendid passage to have read at a wedding.
I remember being told of a 40th wedding anniversary where the couple chose to celebrate only with a quiet meal together, after which the wife proposed a toast: "in spite of everything".
And I do believe that when marriages succeed, they do succeed ‘in spite of everything'. Indeed, maybe it's true of all enduring relationships - that they succeed in spite of everything. I certainly think it's true of churches!
And what all of this brings home for me is that love (as understood by Christ and the Apostles) is something deeply related to that most other fundamental Christ value - forgiveness.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things because love forgives all things. And this is the key to real love - not erotic love, not family love, not godfather love, but real love - Christ's love, the love that comes from God and is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It's love that breathes forgiveness.
And Bryan Adams will probably never write a song about it, but when Bryan's songs have all passed away and all flesh with them, this love will still abide, along with faith and hope - these three - and the greatest of these is love.

 

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