Our New Testament reading for this morning is probably Paul’s all-time “greatest hit.” Among other places, it is common in weddings. Lots of couples use it, Carrie and I used it, because it is such a beautiful statement of what love should be: patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
For this morning, I am interested especially in the beginning and the end of the passage, the part that doesn’t always make it into wedding ceremonies.
Paul begins, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith enough so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Let that sink in for a minute.
If I have great spiritual gifts, and if I do really wonderful things, but I don’t love, it is all worthless. If I give a couple of dollars to a person on the street, but do it without love, he may still have the two dollars, but I gain nothing. It makes me think about all the many things I do thoughtlessly, without love, and I wince at Paul’s words.
But what does Paul mean by love? What is the love that we should have for a homeless person we see just once? What is the love we should have for people we never see at all, or for our enemies, as Jesus commands us to do?
We get a clue at the end of our passage. Paul says there, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now,” Paul continues, “I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
In God’s kingdom, when our love is made perfect, we will see each other clearly, and we will know each other fully. That is at least part of what it means to love.
Unfortunately, for now, our love remains imperfect. We see others only dimly. We know others only partially. That’s the sad truth.
As Christians, we are called to love better. To get at what it means to love better, we can begin with some of the ways we fail to see clearly, to know fully, to love rightly.
We have an obvious example of failure to love in our Gospel reading.
Jesus has just preached his first sermon at his home synagogue, and it went great. But Jesus keeps going. Jesus reminds the congregation about the Bible story where God healed Naaman the Syrian rather than any of the lepers of Israel.
The people listening to Jesus were furious. Clearly, they did not love Syrians. As best we can tell from our passage, they couldn’t even handle the idea that God loved Syrians.
The people listening to Jesus saw the Syrians as enemies, pure and simple. Which is to say, they did NOT really see the Syrians. They couldn’t see the Syrians as the Syrians really were, as complicated people, partly good and partly bad. They could not really see the Syrians, they therefore could not know the Syrians, and most of all, they could not love the Syrians.
That’s all clear enough. But our inability to see others for who they really are can be less obvious than hating them.
When I was young, I had crushes on lots of girls. I thought of the objects of my affection as beautiful and charming and smart and talented.
I wanted these girls to think the same about me. But there was my problem. I thought of them as very nearly perfect, and I knew I wasn’t perfect. I didn’t want them to know I wasn’t perfect. So, I didn’t speak to them.
I can say first, that was a poor strategy for courting young women. Thankfully, the best of the bunch finally took matters into her own hands.
I also now realize that my crushes could not be true love, not in the Christian sense of the term that Paul is talking about. I was so caught up in my image of those girls as very nearly perfect that I couldn’t see them for who they really were. I saw them only very dimly, through the haze of my projections. I knew them very partially, if at all. And so I couldn’t love them, not for who they really were.
The love Paul is talking about in our reading obviously isn’t hate. But it’s also not some kind of romantic projection that sees the other person as we want the other person to be, rather than as the other person actually is. Paul’s love is not blind to the reality of the beloved.
Paul longs for the day when he will be fully known, known for who he is, warts and all, and still loved. That is the kind of love we all want.
I want the people in my life to think I am great. But I don’t want their love to depend on me being great all the time!! If it does, I am out of luck! And the love that I want is the love Paul is telling us to extend to others, to people who are not perfectly bad or perfectly good, but are in fact a mixture of both.
I think about the early days of my relationship with Carrie, the best of those nearly perfect women I had a crush on all those years ago. When we began dating, I was projecting a lot of imaginary perfections onto her. She was probably doing the same to me.
The work of marriage for us, I assume for every couple, has been letting go of those projections, of coming to see each other more clearly for who we really are, of coming to know each other more fully as the flawed and complicated people we really are.
Over the years, Carrie has seen me in all of my impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant, rude obnoxiousness, despite the promises I made to her on our wedding day. And somehow, thanks to God’s grace, and some work on our part, and a fair amount of luck, love happens anyway.
Our task as Christian people is to extend to everybody that kind of love: generous love based on clearly seeing and truly knowing the other person.
Christian love requires us to see the real strengths of the other person. That’s where the people hearing Jesus’ first sermon failed. Christian love requires us to be willing to see beneath the surface appearance of the other, to see his or her real weaknesses, too. That’s where my youthful crushes failed.
And Christian love requires us to go deeper still, beneath the good and the bad, to the truest thing about any of us. We are God’s creation, created in God’s own image and likeness. We are redeemed by Christ and claimed as God’s beloved children. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are the body of Christ and individually members of it. That is God’s love for us.
God’s love for us is what makes us loveable. God’s love is what makes it possible for us to love others, to love them as they are and as they will be in God’s kingdom.
My prayer today is that God will give us the grace and courage to see each other, to know each other, and still to love each other as God’s own beloved children. And I pray that in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan