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The Greatest of These

Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., on Feb. 14, 2010.

                                       

Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

                       

It’s interesting – ironic even – that the two most popular passages of scripture recited at weddings have nothing to do with marriage or the love between a woman and a man. But I dare say you can’t attend a wedding without at least one of these passages being read.

I admit, I do it myself when I officiate a wedding. I often read these two scriptures. I used to resist doing so in a vain, and perhaps silly, attempt to be true to scripture… the context of scripture, and all that. But, I finally gave up and gave in.  There were simply too many people who wanted it read at their weddings and, frankly, I got tired of battling with them.

And then I thought, why not? What’s wrong with taking a passage out of context as long as its message conveys what needs to be expressed?

One is the passage from Ruth. Are you familiar with it? Ruth says to Naomi, according to the King James Version,

Intreat me not to leave thee,

or to return from following after thee:

for whither thou goest, I will go;

and whither thou lodgest, I will lodge;

thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:

where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried:

the LORD do so to me, and more also,

if ought but death part thee and me (1:16-17).

Beautiful, isn’t it? Absolutely beautiful. It’ll bring a tear to the eye quicker than just about anything else in all of scripture. And it’s one of those passages, like the Twenty-Third Psalm, that people want read from the King James. Adds to the poetry of it, you know? Apart from that though, what a wonderful sentiment it is, especially in light of the desire for all couples entering matrimony to do so with the pledge that they will be together through thick and thin until they are parted by death.

But marriage isn’t the context for this passage of scripture. In fact, it’s not even close. These words are spoken by a widowed daughter-in-law who is expressing her devotion and commitment to her widowed mother-in-law. Both of them, because they have lost their husbands and live in a male-dominated culture, are in a desperate state. They have nothing to offer one another except despair and grief. Naomi can do nothing for Ruth, cannot offer her anything, especially any kind of a meaningful future. Yet, Ruth pledges her support and devotion to a woman who is not even of her own race. The only thing that would otherwise hold Ruth to Naomi is that she once was married to Naomi’s son, and that bond is now gone.

It was quite a remarkable devotion that Ruth expressed to Naomi, considering the circumstances, but it has nothing to do with a wedding, nothing to do with a bride expressing her love and commitment to her groom or vice versa. Yet, try to get through a wedding without this scripture being read.

The other favorite wedding scripture is the passage from 1 Corinthians, the one we read earlier. I know why – we all know why – this scripture is so popularly used in weddings. It may not be quite as poetic as the passage from Ruth, but in its own way it speaks of an undying devotion. Listen to a portion of it once again…

Love is patient; love is kind;

love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

It does not insist on its own way;

it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,

but rejoices in the truth.

It bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends (13:4-8a).

Boy, that’ll quicken the old heart every time, won’t it? Especially when the church is dimly lit with candles and decorated from floor to ceiling, with two young, beautiful, impressionable people standing amongst their best friends expressing their love and devotion to one another. This passage, written by the Apostle Paul, will make the heart beat just a bit faster and cause even the oldest couple in the place to reach over and take each other’s hand.

But it has nothing to do with marriage. Paul did not write these words in preparation for a wedding. As far as we know, he had nothing like that in mind. Not at all. But I’ll tell you what he was thinking about. Those folk in the church at Corinth have been squabbling to beat the band, and everything is out of whack. The imbalance of their fellowship has manifested itself in virtually every aspect of the church, and Paul is telling them these things about love in an effort to get them to straighten up and fly right.

Hardly romantic, is it?

You wanna know the context? Here’s the real context…

Some in the church at Corinth thought they were spiritually superior to others because they had spiritual gifts the others did not possess, or did not profess. Primary among them was the gift of speaking in tongues. And whenever they had the opportunity to rub it in the noses of those who were not so gifted, they did so… with a vengeance in their heart and a smirk on their face. As you can imagine, that’s causing some real heartburn in the church, and if there’s one thing Paul couldn’t abide it was ecclesiastical indigestion.

So, he expresses his feelings about love in one of his letters to the church. It is commonly thought among biblical scholars that Paul wrote the Corinthian church more than any other congregation, that the two letters we have included in the New Testament are fragments put together and that Paul probably wrote the church a bunch of times. Why? Because they need all the attention he can give them. Paul is trying to get through their thick skulls, not to mention penetrate their hard hearts, and make them understand that the love embodied in Christ does not lord it over others. In fact…

If I speak in the tongues of mortal men 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 all faith, so as to remove mountains,

but do not have love, I am nothing.

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 (13:1-3).

Folks, there’s not a hint – not a scrap of thought here – about the love between a man and a woman that leads to marriage. Have we got that straight? I just want to make sure we all understand that. Okay, good. Whew. Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I feel better. But where do we go from here? Well, how about the context? It never hurts to consider the context.

Paul is not trying to get the folks in Corinth to clean up their act by offering a bunch of high-sounding pious platitudes, no matter how wonderful they may come across. This passage may appear to us to be a bit warm and fuzzy, but that doesn’t fit what we know of Paul, does it? No, he’s an “in-your-face” kind of guy, and true to form, that is what he is doing here. In other words, he’s reading them the riot act. You’ll notice he talks as much about what love is not as he does about what love is. And what love is not, that is what they are doing. What love is, they are not doing. They’ve got it all backwards (or as they say where I come from, “cattywampus”), and if there’s anyone who can get this mess straightened out, it is Paul.

“Love is patient,” he tells them., and everybody knows they are about as impatient as anyone can get. “Love is kind,” he says. They are anything but, especially toward one another. “It is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” Look in the mirror, Paul is telling them. What you will see, embodied in who you are, is everything love is not.

It may be couched in beautiful, poetic language, but Paul has taken off the gloves and is ready to land his biggest punch. Talk about “in your face.”

Imagine what it would have been like to be sitting in those Corinthian pews hearing Paul’s letter being read for the first time. They can see themselves in his remarks, you can count on that. If they can’t, they are as dim as that dark mirror he talks about. It may not be that all of them were envious and boastful and arrogant and rude. But those who were thought they had things pretty well figured out, especially when it came to love and all things eternal. Paul tells them otherwise.

Except, isn’t it true that when it comes to such things, those who are the worst, in terms of their attitude and behavior, are the ones who generally can’t see it? There’s too much forest for the trees. I can’t help but have this feeling that when that letter was first read in the church at Corinth, those to whom Paul was speaking probably sat there thinking he was pointing his finger at someone else. That is the nature of such things.

Why? Because our vision is skewed. That’s why.

What we are able to know and see, Paul says, comes to us only in bits and pieces. One day, when God will bring all things together in God’s final redemptive plan, the completeness will come. But it won’t be anything we do, it will be what God does for us. Only then will we understand, certainly in ways we cannot right now. In the meantime, we can only see as if through a dim and dark mirror. There are images there, but exactly what they are, it’s hard to say. But one day, when we are able to see God face to face, then we will be able to see in all of God’s glory.

We mentioned that it is best to consider scripture in its context. Well, guess what the Corinthian context was, other than the problems in the church, I mean. One of the leading industries in Corinth was the manufacture of mirrors!

Paul knew what he was doing, didn’t he?

Having a clear vision of things as they will be, if I understand Paul correctly, is not the point. If we could see all things clearly, what would be the point of giving our lives to Jesus? Where would faith come in? If we had the same vision as God, there would be no need for our salvation, no requirement for grace. Our vision, our understanding, is indeed partial at best. So what do we do? If we’re stumbling along in this world half-blind, what is our compass?

That’s where love comes in. It’s good to have hope. It’s wonderful to be filled with faith. But when it comes to really doing something with this life we have been given, love must be our guiding principle.

It may not be necessary to tell you this, but I think I better. The love to which Paul refers is agape. It is self-giving, selfless, love that takes the needs of the other into account before our own. It is the nature of God’s love toward us, that love which compelled Christ to die for us, the love that rises above all else.

But for now, there is only thing that will help us get through the darkness of our not-knowing. It is love, taking into consideration the needs of others over and above our own needs.

That sounds good, doesn’t it? It may not bear the poetic flavor of Paul’s passage to the Corinthians, nor certainly the passion with which Ruth swore her allegiance to Naomi. But I think it is important that we understand this; namely, that the kind of love God would have us show toward others is God’s love… selfless, giving, and if need be, sacrificial.

Except, that just comes across as a concept and not reality. How can we make it more concrete, more real? Well, consider this: think of the time – and there may be several occasions, but think of one in particular – when someone was Christ to you. Maybe you haven’t thought about it in awhile, maybe you have never thought of it quite that way before, but someone came to you in a real moment of need, lifted up a hand, gave you his or her heart, and in doing so was the very presence of Christ to you.

Think about it. Let it soak in and flood your heart. Remember that person’s face, but if you cannot do that, recall what that person did. After all, that’s the most important consideration, isn’t it? Now, when our worship is over and you have the opportunity, tell someone else that story. Let the elements of it wash over you and embrace you. Warm yourself all over again in the glow of the love and grace that was extended to you at a time when it was the most important thing you needed.

And after having done that, when given the opportunity, do it for someone else… and someone else… again and again and again. Make it your mission in life to be Christ to those you meet, and I think what you will find is, that as you do, your spiritual vision will become clearer and clearer, your understanding stronger and better, and God’s kind of love will invade your life and heart.

And in that journey you will indeed find that the greatest of these is love.

Speak to our hearts, Lord Jesus, speak that we may clearly hear… even when we cannot clearly see. Make love the aim of all we do, and lead us to be your presence to others. Amen.