Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Setting the Context
Ah, the “Wedding Text.”
How many of us have preached on this text in the context of a wedding, and probably most often for weddings at which we would have rather not presided. The irony, of course, is that this text has little to do with the love that is associated with marriage. Directly following chapter 12 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the more accurate contextual or situational occasion for this chapter is better understood as a discourse on the meaning, purpose, and necessity of love within the Christian community that Paul has so painstakingly described in chapter 12. That is, unity and difference can be acknowledged, respected, and celebrated only when love is in the center of what we do and who we are as a Christian community.
Against all popular opinion, this is not a passage about romantic love, but about a radical communal love that enables individuals to imagine life in a community where unity and difference can co-exist. It may be a sermon worth preaching that offers such a corrective to the common experience of this text, but more importantly, that helps our congregations envision a kind of love that can have such extraordinary power so as to create, sustain, and build Christian unity.
It is worthwhile to question the lectionary boundaries of this passage. In this case, I would suggest continuing the passage through 14:1a, “Pursue love.” To include this exhortation implicitly (or explicitly in the sermon) might suggest that the “Wedding Text” is not a passive, observable event that seeks our affirmation and support, but something that calls for our participation. This is not a text where we are asked to look on as guests, dressed for a party and seated dutifully in the church pews, but rather necessitates our involvement, not only to make the kingdom of God possible in general, but also, to activate and nurture the kingdom of God in our immediate communities of faith.
We are called to seek out, to strive for love, and all of the characteristics with which Paul associates with love. Perhaps one of the more exigent aspects of this text is that while this chapter has love at its center, the manifestations of love are equally weighted, and in many respects present more of a challenge to our notions of love than the concept of love itself. If love is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; if it does not insist on its own way; if it is not irritable or resentful or does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. If love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things and never ends, what exactly does this say about love?
Preaching this text well demands that the preacher take seriously the particularity with which Paul works out his description of love in this context of a divisive congregation. A sermon on the general idea of love that does not adequately tend to the specificity of Paul’s functional presentation of love will have the effect of yet another bland wedding homily.
Paul’s familiar triad, “faith, hope, and love,” resounds as a summation of the chapter. It is interesting to note that in 1 Thessalonians, Paul reorders the triad for the sake of pastoral and contextual proclamation to the members of the church in Thessalonica: faith, love, and hope. The Thessalonians needed to hear a message of hope in the midst of facing the deaths of their loved ones. The Corinthians needed to hear a message of love in the midst of their divisions.
This text is chosen for 4th Sunday of Epiphany. While I tend to resist the need to find connections between the lectionary’s designated texts for each Sunday, the relationship between Paul’s words to the Corinthians and Jesus’ first words of his public ministry according to Luke affords an interesting direction for preaching. After Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, his first stop is his hometown, Nazareth. There, he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2). This is what it can mean to pursue love: to bring good news to the poor, to look for ways to bring freedom to those in bondage, to announce God’s acceptance of the undeserving, unwelcomed, and unexpected.
In what sense might these claims function as communal mandates for a Christian community, not as command but as promise? That is, the love for which Paul asks the Corinthians to strive is the kind of love that Jesus pursues and proclaims as the acting out of God’s love for the world. Our pursuit of love, therefore, is not only for the sake of our own Christian communities, but also for the sake of God’s mission in the world.
In this season of Epiphany, our pursuit of love can bring the light of Christ to those in darkness — to the poor, to the captive, to the blind, to the oppressed. As a community of Christ, we are called to bring this good news. When we are truly a community in Christ, a community that knows its unity and celebrates its diversity, a community that knows the reality of division, and yet has in view the cross that binds us together, we will be able to join Jesus in Nazareth and walk along him in his ministry to those who so desperately need to hear his love for them, including us.