“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And how many of you when you heard that thought, “Aww!” Aww! We heard that at our wedding, or at our daughter’s wedding, or our grandson’s blessing ceremony. How many of you heard this text and found yourselves picturing white lace and black tuxedos, imagining the scent of pale roses, remembering the smiles of your own wedding day? Love is patient and kind; it bears all things, believes, hopes, endures all things. Love never ends, because it’s stitched into a needlepoint with your wedding date and hanging in your kitchen.
All of which is lovely. Because the text is lovely and what it says about love is lovely and so why not have it read at a lovely occasion like a wedding. But hearing it today, in the context of a regular, green, ordinary Mass, we are reminded that this text is much more than merely lovely. This iconic passage, this beautiful Ode to Love, longs to lead to a much deeper place. It wasn’t intended to inspire a sense of “Aww” as much as a sense of “Oh!”
Remember that Paul is writing to a group of contentious Christians in Corinth who have been doing nothing quite so well as fighting with each other about who Abba likes best and whose gifts matter most. He has already reminded this factious bunch that they need to start functioning as a whole, like a body does, that a preacher can’t lord it over someone who speaks in tongues any more than an ear can lord it over a pinky toe. Their gifts must work together for the kingdom. And besides, Paul tells them, there are even greater gifts to be had, the gifts of faith, hope, and love. These are gifts anyone and everyone can have in equal measure, and without these gifts, especially the gift of love, all of the other spiritual gifts aren’t worth the paper to wrap them in.
And just in case there is still someone sitting out there in the crowd who remains convinced that her gift of healing actually is far grander than her sister-in-law’s gift of teaching because after all how hard is it to teach and her sister-in-law isn’t that good at it anyway, Paul provides some practical, and pointed, illustrations. Even though he rather generously uses the first person throughout this passage, there are implied parentheticals all over the place. If I speak in the tongues or mortals and angels, but do not have love (like, say, all y’all over there), I sound brash and ugly. Love is patient and kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant…or rude. (Ahem. Stephanus.) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways (hairy eyeball to the ladies in the back row).
So in light of the general grumpiness in Corinth, it’s pretty safe to say that 1st Corinthians 13 isn’t just a love song intended to conjure up the warm-n-fuzzies; it is a manual to check bad behavior. Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to hear this passage and say aww! isn’t love sweet – he wants them to say oh! We’ve got to get down to business loving for real: loving with patience and generosity, no matter who we are dealing with; loving in right action, no matter what we are feeling; loving by bearing, believing, enduring for the good of all, for the good of the Church and of the Gospel. Oh! And for Paul, if that oh! is a little bit of a surprise, if it’s a little bit of a shock, that’s okay. Because Paul clearly feels that the oh! of a shock is more than worth it if it leads to more love.
Jesus feels this way too – that’s the only way to explain what looks at first glance like some very unloving behavior from our Lord in his hometown synagogue. Remember that Jesus has just returned to Nazareth after ministering throughout the Galilee. He has gone to the synagogue and read a powerful passage of redemption from the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when the eyes of the people fall on him, looking for an interpretation, a word, an insight, he powerfully grafts himself into the text: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the people are impressed. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Unlike the crowds in Matthew and Mark’s version of this story, who are immediately offended by what they see as Jesus’s ridiculous presumption, the crowds in Luke are quite pleased. They are proud of this local boy made good. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they cluck one to another. And then the trouble begins. Aww. Look at Jesus, all grown up. I remember when he was knee high to a locust. I remember when he used to follow Mary around holding on to her skirts. Do you remember the time he and little James chased each other right into the mikvah? And now he’s the Messiah! Aww. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t he wonderful? And isn’t it wonderful that we already know every little thing about him?
And right here is where Jesus gets a little testy. He pushes back, and he pushes back hard. He actually goes so far as to put words in the crowd’s mouth, forecasting demands they haven’t even made yet, predicting that no prophet can be accepted in his hometown, reminding them of prophets before him who overlooked their neighborhood crowd to offer grace and healing to outsiders – to a widow and a leper, both Gentiles. The crowd is hurt by these barbs, deeply hurt, a hurt that quickly turns to fury. They lash out at Jesus, sweeping him out of the synagogue, so desperate to throw their hometown hero down that they find themselves raging at the top of a cliff before they realize that he’s disappeared.
And really, who could blame them? They thought they were on Jesus’ side. They offered him acceptance; they offered affection, even love, or so they thought. Why the harsh words about how un-special they are? Why couldn’t Jesus have just said, “Well, thank you all very much. I’m so glad that you approve. By the way, there’s a lot more to come about the whole mission-to-the-Gentiles thing, but for now I’m just thankful for your support.” Where is the all-bearing, all-enduring love here?
But Jesus is not looking for Aww, he is looking for Oh! He does not wish for the people to blithely and unthinkingly accept his assertions about himself; he loves them too much for that. And he does not want them to assume that they understand every little thing about him; he loves his Father too much for that. He is the Son of God, and he will not be tamed; he will not be hemmed in, labeled, or limited. You think you understand my mission, he says, and you are charmed by it. Will you be so charmed when I tell you that my mission is not only to you, that, like Elijah and Elisha before me, I will gather in the Gentiles and fold them into the flock? Will you be so charmed when I challenge you to see a bigger picture of what God’s kingdom looks like, when I invite you to live in a much, much, much larger tent? Don’t be charmed by me; be changed by me! I don’t want just Aww – I want Oh!
Oh! is transformation; it is revelation and redemption. Oh! checks our bad behavior, keeps us from putting God in a box of our own making. Oh! is the wildness of the Holy Spirit breaking in to show us something new, something big, something beautifully and achingly true. It is the reminder of the promise that God has done, will do, and is doing something new in your life, in my life, in the life of the church, right now. That new thing may be surprising. It may even be shocking. But that only means that it will really and truly of God, who always offers us more than we could ask for or imagine.
And that is love, is it not? That nudge, that challenge, that blinding new truth is the voice of the truest true love, the love that precedes all of our loving, the love that bears all and believes all. This is love on God’s terms, a love that demands our all and rejoices in the truth, a love that pushes us to know Christ more fully, to have the humility to know what we don’t know, and to offer love ourselves with a clarity of vision and a strength of purpose that is about far more than simply being nice. So if you find yourself in your life, in your prayer or study, in your worship or ministry, in your joys or in your sorrows, if you find yourself saying oh! – know that is a great gift of God. That is what love sounds like.
Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs
3 February 2013
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia