Carlos Wilton, February 2, 2013; 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Love never ends.”
– 1 Corinthians 13:8
“How much do you love me, Mommy?” asks the young child.
It’s a familiar question: part of a game they both know very well. The mother stretches her arms out as wide as she can. “I love you this much!”
The child giggles with amusement — and relief. For the point of the game is to be reassured, to know the mother’s love is bigger than big, and can be trusted.
The question, “How much do you love me?” is not limited to childhood. It’s a question a great many people find themselves asking at other times in life, as well.
Picture the teenager, who finds himself at the police station. He’s been picked up for some petty act of vandalism. The police officer hands him the phone. Does he want to call his parents?
“Dad, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m down at the police station. I’ve done something I shouldn’t have. I’m scared. Could you come down and help me?”
In that moment, the teenager’s tough-guy exterior crumbles, revealing the frightened child. That phone call is just another way of asking the question, “How much do you love me?”
A husband and wife are having a bitter argument. It’s not unusual, the way their marriage is going these days. They know each other just well enough to find the chinks in the armor, the places where the thin dagger-blade of criticism can be inserted, and draw blood.
It’s a deadly dance they’re engaged in: close enough to be intimate, but frightened enough to express that intimacy only by attacking one another. If they keep it up much longer, the casualty in the battle will be their marriage itself. Underneath it all is the fundamental question: “How much do you love me?”
I don’t think any of us ever outgrow that childhood question. In any intimate relationship there is still that nagging doubt: Is it for real? Can I truly trust this person? Can he or she see me as I really am — all my flaws and imperfections — and still say with sincerity: “I love you this much!”
In the First Letter to the Corinthians, that famous “Love Chapter,” Paul is reassuring the Corinthian Christians. For he has correctly divined that all their quarrels, all their contentious behavior, all their struggles for power and dominance of one faction over another, are — at their very root — but another example of the little child, asking hopefully, “God, how much do you love me?”
God, of course, is not inclined to part the heavens and answer in a great, booming voice, “I love you this much!” The Lord has other ways of answering that question. Paul would probably say it was Jesus, arms outstretched in agony on the cross, who was telling the world: “I love you this much!”
Love, Paul teaches the Corinthians, is everything. It’s the great, beating heart of the universe. Line anything else up against love — knowledge of all mysteries, faith that moves mountains, material riches, the courage of the martyrs — and every one of these precious treasures is revealed for what it is: a gaudy piece of costume jewelry compared to the gleaming, flawless diamond that is love!
“Love,” he tells them, “never ends.” The literal meaning of the Greek verb is “Love never falls,” or “love never falls to the ground.” In the marathon race that is life, the one runner who never trips, never stumbles, never fails to reach the finish line, is love.
There’s a pop song by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross called “Endless Love.” It was a blockbuster hit back in the Disco era of the early 80s, but now it’s faded into the background of our culture. It’s gone to the place where all pop songs go to die. It’s become elevator music:
There’s only you in my life
The only thing that’s bright
My first love,
You’re every breath that I take
You’re every step I make…
A little later comes the chorus:
You mean the world to me
I’ve found in you
My endless love
Take away the music, and those words sound awfully sentimental, don’t they? (Sentimental isn’t the half of it. It’s more like gnawing on a giant lump of sugar ‘til you go into a diabetic coma.)
But never mind. The pop singer’s only voicing the aspirations of the entire human race, those of the little child asking, “Mommy, how much do you love me?” Endless love, it seems, is what we’re all looking for. Am I right?
Sure, we like the romantic ideal of endless love. It looks good on a greeting card. It sounds alluring on the lips of someone we happen to love back. At a wedding, as two people stand here and exchange their vows, there’s often something in those sacred words about love that never ends. “For better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” Just another way of saying “endless love.”
How bold, how brash, how courageous that is to make such a promise! “I will love you, and I will never stop loving you.”
That’s the ideal. The reality, as many of us know — in the nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty dailiness of our all-too-human relationships, can be very different.
As much as all of us desire that ideal of endless love, we’ve got some pretty good ways of sabotaging it. How often do we cynically say to one another, “This is the boundary: the place where love ends!”
Let’s look at a few of the ways people often say as much.
“Love only those who love you back.” That’s a popular one. Lots of people have come to regard love in cold, hard pragmatic terms, as a sort of business proposition: an exchange — if not of goods — then of certain services. When it becomes less than an even exchange, when the love trade seems to be moving only one-way, those cynical folks are out of there.
There are others who say, “Don’t let love get too big. Fence it in. Love your family, but no one else.” Rather than being the open, porous communities God intends — places of hospitality and service to others — some families function more like fortresses. Far from welcoming strangers in, they regard everyone outside the family circle with distrust. Their purpose is to preserve the love at the center like some precious jewel. (The sad truth is, if they take that approach, they’re likely to lose it altogether: for love is not some hothouse flower, but a species that thrives in the wild.)
Then there are those who draw lines around love according to age. “Love belongs to the young,” they insist. At mid-life or beyond, there are certain widowed or divorced people who insist, “I’ll never love again”. Well, there are plenty of older folks who have seen second-time-around love blossom and grow throughout their lives. They beg to differ!
Still others see love as an instrument of control. Dole out your love to others when they meet your expectations; withhold it when they fall short of the mark. There’s a perpetual calculation going on in this kind of love, a compulsion to train the other to meet one’s own needs.
Finally, there are those who put another kind of boundary on love. They insist that love ends with death. The death of a loved one, according to this perspective, is the ultimate tragedy. Love has died with them, and there’s no getting it back.
From the Christian perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. Those who have been through the experience of bereavement, and believe in life after death (by the grace of God), know that the flower placed on the casket is no final farewell — but rather an “until we meet again.”
“Love never ends,” says Paul. In these ways and so many more, we who trust in Jesus Christ for our salvation come to learn that love has no limits. As Paul says a little earlier in that chapter, it “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
There are other things, the apostle continues, that loves leaves behind, lying in the dust. Among these are all the things the Corinthians have been fighting over. They’ve been arguing over who has the gift of prophecy — “as for prophecies, they will come to an end.” They’ve been fighting over whether or not it’s proper to speak in tongues in their worship services — “as for tongues, they will cease.” Some of them have maintained that at the heart of Christianity is secret, mystical knowledge, revealed only to the true believers — “as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to understand that there will come a day when all their disputes and disagreements will mean nothing. Everything superfluous will have been stripped away. The only thing that will remain, then, is this bright reality known as love: and, one day when we leave this earth and go forth to meet our maker, each of us will joyfully move towards that eternally shining light. All our lesser lights will be caught up into it: “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.”
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright puts it this way:
Prophecy? Who will need it in the world to come? Tongues? Why would we need to speak them in the world where everyone understands everyone else at once? Special knowledge? We shall all know everything we can know and need to know. These are things which belong to the country we live in at the moment. Love is God’s river, flowing on into the future, across the border into the country where there is no pride, no jostling for position, no contention among God’s people. We are invited to step into that river here and now, and let it take us where it’s going.
[N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2004), p. 177.]
That’s the love of God, my friends, greater even than faith and hope. It is the one thing that endures, when all else has fallen. The pursuit of that love — and the sharing of it with others, for that is indeed the only way to pursue it — is, quite simply, the greatest adventure of our lives.
Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.