Thursday, January 28, 2016

Paul's Wedding Speech


I'm willing to bet that most of the people in our congregations this Sunday will be as familiar with 1 Corinthians 13 as they are with almost any other biblical text. It is, after all, the go-to reading for weddings. And, in all the years during which I have been paying attention at weddings, I have heard it read well only twice. But, as they say about fishing, golf, and other, um, pleasurable activities, a bad reading of 1 Corinthians 13 is still pretty good.

"Love is patient; love is kind." The biggest challenge for our congregations and their preachers, of course, is to ground this "love passage" in a context other than a wedding. Paul wasn't making a wedding speech. Paul wasn't writing to couples about their marital problems. Paul was writing to a church community that was struggling to hang together despite differences is ethnicity, class, culture, and post-Baptismal Spirit-led ministry. Last week's reading from 1 Corinthians 12 was Paul's use of the body image to explain how the members of the body--individual Christians--are inseparably bound together. It's a beautiful metaphor and one worth revisiting over and over until it truly becomes inescapable. But this week's lesson is how Paul sees the body image coming to fruition. Love, for Paul, is what makes it possible for an eye to say to a hand, "I really do need you," or for an conservative African Anglican to say to a progressive American Episcopalian, "We belong together."

In his post from yesterday, Steve Pankey reminds us of the transition from chapter 12 to 13, writing a beautiful and brief post on the half of a verse the lectionary left out last week: "I will show you a more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31b). Go read his post. It will take less than five minutes and is totally worth it. As Pankey points out, this is a key verse. It's what helps us see that the "love passage" isn't a wedding speech; it's a recipe for the Christian life.

But I want to invite preachers to consider letting Paul's unintended wedding address be the foundation for a sermon on Christian love. Yes, I cringe every time a bridal couple tells me that their 13-year-old cousin will read 1 Corinthians 13 at their wedding. Yes, I think Paul would be unpleasantly surprised that this part of his letter is read primarily at weddings (shocked that it was read at all and baffled that it has become the go-to reading at weddings). But I think Paul (and the today's preacher) could use the familiar context for this chapter as a bridge into the call to be bound to one another in love.

Marriage is still among the most familiar images of a loving commitment that we have in contemporary society. The union of husband and wife is a testament to the same sort of deeper, non-sexual Christian love that Paul has in mind for the entire Christian community. As I tell couples during premarital counseling, when they are 65 and are still holding hands at the cinema, they will be an unspoken testament to the world of selfless, sacrificial love. No couple endures the ups and downs of marriage for 40 years without being committed to the union that ties them together. Sure, marriages fail, and church relationships fail, too. We are human after all. But we are called to enter those relationships with the same lifelong commitment, and we are called to maintain those relationships with the fuel of love that keeps them possible.

Without love, a marriage falls apart. It's just too hard to live with someone for that long unless you love her or him. There must be a commitment to the other that transcends one's priority of the self. The same is true in the Christian relationships. No matter how good the preaching is, no matter how powerful the miracles are, no matter how insightful the prophecy is, it's too hard to stay together without love. Love is what ties us together. Perhaps Paul's message for today's church is that we should take our Christian relationships as seriously as our marital relationships.

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