Staggering Love

stunning red rose on green backdrop
Photo by Ivan Jevtic on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

Some of my favorite parts of Paul’s writings are the places where he admits just how little we know. The magnitude of Paul’s confidence in God’s faithfulness gets matched by the level of obliviousness we share when it comes to understanding God and God’s ways. From our perspective we can detect only murky reflections in a distorted mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our vision strains to peer into a riddle. We are wading knee deep in water with our backs turned to a vast ocean.

Most of us who preach understand that situation, which can present itself as both a predicament and a joy for anyone summoned to rise up in front of a congregation for fifteen minutes and say something. If we resist the strong urges to cobble together predictably formulaic sermons, recite our favorite doctrines, or share our latest self-reflections, we can use the pulpit to invite people into the beautiful and decentering mysteries of faith.

That doesn’t mean preaching is necessarily esoteric or reserved only for the most extraordinary saints. But it does require a preacher to admit, at least to themselves on a regular basis, just how delightfully weird this calling can be.

In that marvelous chapter about love, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul interrupts his thoughts about gifts (charismata) and the body of Christ to remind us that any gifts we’ve received for ministry are temporary and incomplete, meant to help us navigate our way through a dim world. It’s love that matters. Love isn’t a gift; it’s the point of all the gifts.

The awful truth about gifts is they cause great harm when not fueled by love. Perhaps you’ve seen gifted people in the church produce destruction because they scorn love and its challenges. I think Paul doesn’t go far enough in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. Charismatic and knowledgeable people who can’t or won’t love are more than loud annoyances or empty shells; they are dangers. They are unexploded bombs or poisonous wells.

Our God-given gifts exist for love, to direct the world toward love and to open it up to love. Love is the thing—along with its lesser companions, faith and hope—that will last beyond our time in these shadowlands.

So cultivate love now. Emphasize it now. Preach it now. Because it’s what’s going to carry us through.

As Paul puts it in the NRSV: “Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:8).

Some have translated the sentence: “Love never fails.” I prefer: “Love never falls down.” Love never stumbles. It never chokes. It won’t flop.

You’ve have had to summon a lot of creative energy over the last two years to figure out how to put your gifts to good use in a changed world. You’ve had to endure snarky complaints about the limits of your technological abilities and angry criticisms of your decisions about how to conduct corporate worship during a pandemic.

Covid made preaching more difficult. Often it has made loving more difficult.

Because of course love does seem to fall down from time to time. At least, it staggers. And people can fail to love. Love is not the kind of thing someone wishes into existence when supplies run low.

For me, one of the hardest lessons of the pandemic to stomach has been the clear and recurring realization that there’s so little love in American society. The selfishness. The lack of regard for people at risk. The callous policies. The contempt people show for their community. Clearly we need to learn how to do Christian ministry in a landscape in which a lot of people simply don’t give a damn if their neighbors live or die. In a world in which multitudes actually don’t long for a deeper sense of community. In a context in which love is a sign of weakness at best and an opportunity for exploiting a sucker at worst.

The kind of love Paul talks about, the love of God exemplified through Christ, sounds like a public liability in our current time. In a society that cultivates impatience, arrogance, self-centeredness, resentment, antagonism, and cynicism, Paul’s words about the agency and power of love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) reflect back to us the reality that we preach an unfamiliar and often scorned gospel.

Working Preachers, you come to this website for inspiration and knowledge, for tools and proposals that will help you be a better biblical preacher. That’s all good. Build your gifts as a preacher. But remember that without love, you and your sermons gain nothing.

A website isn’t going to teach you how to love more, or better, or with a gospel-infused recklessness. But let me urge you to take time to reflect on what it looks like to preach a sermon fueled by love. Side with love no matter what issues might present themselves to you in the course of your ministry this week.

Love, specifically Christ’s love, “urges us on” (2 Corinthians 5:14). So “let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14) as you lead others through this foggy terrain. When those rare moments of greater clarity visit you, take heart from the confidence that love won’t topple over, even though it may wobble.

People are counting on you, especially now, to be the one who reminds them in word and deed: love will remain.