The Greatest Legacy
I Corinthians 13
The air was electric. Feelings were running high. Anger was not politely disguised. Words were spoken that should never have been uttered, much less thought. You could almost smell the stinking odor of schism in the air. Some declared that they would only listen to Cephas. Some said that their allegiance was only to Apollos. Some insisted that the only leader they would follow was Paul.
It is to this fired-up, contentious Corinthian community that the Apostle Paul pens two lengthy letters. Toward the end of the first letter, he writes this ode to love:
1 Corinthians 13:1 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.
2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant
5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
In the new church in Corinth, each group was passionate about what they believed and were sure that what they believed was right. Each group was sure that the other groups were misguided or worse. That fact did not escape Paul’s attention and he knew that if he did address their division, then the church would soon be no more.
I have read aloud Paul’s ode to love many times, most often when love was in the air, after the groomsmen and bridesmaids had strolled down the aisle wearing their celebratory finest, after the congregation had smiled with delight at a ring-bearer trying to balance rings on a pillow with his tiny hands and at a flower girl tossing pedals down the aisle with reckless abandon.
While this ode to love is certainly worthy to be read whenever vows are exchanged or on this Valentine’s Day weekend, its most natural habitat is where love is strained or absent, when pain is tangible, the community divided, and when hard lines have been drawn. It is into this endangered and charged habitat that the Apostle Paul dares to venture.
The late Eugene Peterson paraphrases a part of Paul’s ode to love in this way: “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all God’s [his] mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”
The older I get, the more I find myself thinking about my legacy. I am not alone. Every congregation I have served has thought about its legacy, what gifts it has made to the world, what difference it has made in the world for God’s-good. So, this morning I want to wonder with you a moment about Cove’s legacy? Surely it is a legacy of faithful worship and service since the 18th century. Few congregations in Virginia or anywhere in the U.S. can make that claim. Cove also has a genuine legacy of hospitality to anyone who would want to come among us. Cove has the legacy of caring for the education of young children as is still witnessed Monday through Friday in the Covesville Child Development Center. Most recently, Cove has initiated a new legacy to care for God’s creation as solar panels produce power through the renewable energy of the sun.
All these legacies should be named and are worth celebrating, but they are not Cove’s greatest legacy, not even close. In his ode to love, the Apostle Paul argues powerfully and persuasively that “the legacy that matters most is love” (Galloway, Feasting on the Word, p. 306). No matter how grand our hospitality, how involved our mission work, how melodious our choir, how well managed our endowment, how fierce our care for the good earth, without love, we are nothing.
For Paul, love is not a warm, fuzzy feeling that leaves people happy all the time. Love is far more nuanced and tough. People who love each other sometimes get upset with each other, painfully upset, justifiably upset. Yet, love is the glue that holds us together, helps us to bite our lips, reminds us that despite our faults and failings, God’s mercy will not be withdrawn from us, reminds us that God’s love makes our love possible.
Paul knows that if the story of Jesus teaches us nothing else, it teaches us about love and that love is costly and being the community of Christ’s love always comes at a cost. Retired Duke preaching professor Richard Lischer shares that “Flannery O’Connor has a story about a little girl who loves to visit the convent and the sisters. But every time the nun gives her a hug, the crucifix on Sister’s belt gets mashed into the child’s face. The gesture of love always leaves a mark” (Richard Lischer, Open Secrets, p.115).
Costly love means caring fiercely for one another, even when we have had it up to here with the other. Costly love means caring for what is best for everyone in the church body more than seeking what we most desire. Costly love always means that we not confuse thinking we are right with believing we know all the truth. For, as the Apostle reminds the Corinthians and us, “now we see in a mirror, dimly.”
Lest we have any confusion about costly love, Paul makes it clear. Costly love is patient. Costly love is kind. Costly love recognizes that you and I need each other and it rejects the arrogance that sometimes leads us to think otherwise. Costly love includes uncanny patience with each other when we misspeak or fail to do those things we really should have done.
Costly love gives us a special eye to see those who are troubled but are trying not to show it, a special ear to hear those who are crying deep inside but who refuse to shed a tear. Costly love traffics in truth and truth-telling. It is not “arrogant” or “rude,” but it is honest and straightforward and refuses to confuse love with telling people what they want to hear. Costly love never ends, not because you and I are so loveable and are such loving people all the time, but because God’s love for us and for the world does not have a terminus.
Paul writes two lengthy letters to the church in Corinth because he loves them and he wants them to live into the legacy of God’s love. I cannot think of a finer legacy for Cove to leave than the legacy of costly love. I cannot think of a finer legacy for you, for me, to leave than the legacy of costly love.
A few years before they died, my parents’ pastor invited everyone in the church to say aloud I Corinthian 13 when they woke each day or before the first bite of dinner or before the lights were turned out at night. They were invited not to analyze Paul’s ode to love or to discuss it or to debate it, just to read it for the entire season of Lent. To my surprise, my parents did so religiously, though, neither one was especially religious.
I had not thought about that practice for years until this week. So, in honor of Paul, in honor of my parents, and in honor of a pastor whose name I have long since forgotten, as we approach another season of Lent, I plan to read the ode to love each day and I invite you to join me. I hope it will remind me, day after day, that “faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these, [the greatest legacy] is love.”