By Keith E Gatling Sermon for February 3, 2013
Lessons for Epiphany 4 in Year C
1 Corinthians 13:1–13
Ah…First Corinthians, chapter 13. The classic love passage. The one that’s been the mainstay of weddings for as long as I can remember. You know, the old “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not a selfish butt-head.” Is there anything new under the sun to be said about this old chestnut?
Well, if you’ve known me for any length of time, and know that I was a teacher for almost 20 years, you know what the answer to that question is. Of course there’s something new. There’s always something new. Even if it’s something that’s old news to me or even to you, it’s very likely new to someone sitting nearby.
It’s funny what our familiarity with a passage can do to it. It can totally change its meaning. And that’s not even because we intended to do that. Sometimes the language changes over the years, or the culture, so that something that obviously meant one thing to the original hearers is interpreted differently by people of a different era. We’re so used to the words as we use them now that unless we’re historians or linguists, we don’t stop to think that maybe something else was meant.
Take for example Thomas Jefferson’s famous “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” First of all, he didn’t say that we had a right to happiness, he said that we had a right to pursue it. But more important, his idea of happiness is not what most people would consider happiness today. He was not talking about life, liberty, and the pursuit of a hot blonde, a fancy sports car, and a case of beer.
He, and the other Enlightenment thinkers had a different word for that: hedonism. And had he meant that, he would’ve used it. What he meant, according to an article by James Rogers, was the practice of such things as made the Enlightenment mind happy, such as religion, morality, and the pursuit of knowledge.
Or to use the quote from Helen Keller, that just appeared in this month’s King’s Crown:
Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.
So much for the blond, the car, and the beer.
I’ve been reading, or rather skimming, a book called Biblical Literacy, by Timothy Beal. It’s an annotated guide to the Bible stories that everyone should know. In his notes on the book of Proverbs, he talks about the line “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” a paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24 first coined by Samuel Butler in 1662. In his comments, he writes:
Indeed, many children have felt this verse before ever hearing it! Too bad their parents didn’t know, as most scholars now argue, that the “rod” in this verse was not for spanking, but for guiding – like a shepherd’s staff.
Hmm…I guess that the rod my parents used was supposed to be more like the one referred to in the 23rd Psalm. But as we got farther and farther from an agrarian society that would’ve recognized the context of that passage, many parents used the rod to give discomfort rather than comfort.
And these are just the misinterpretations we’ve made with the meanings of words in our own language.
So then imagine the problem when you’re reading something that was translated from a totally different language. It doesn’t have to be a matter of what some have referred to as the human mind being deceitful in matters of theology. It can just be a matter of us not knowing, or not understanding, or honestly misunderstanding.
Which brings us back to First Corinthians.
When it comes to this passage, Pastor Paul has been saying for years that in Greek there are four words that we translate into English as “love.” Those words are “philia,” which is the brotherly love that Philadelphia is based on; “eros,” which is the erotic love that we tend to think of with romance, and that you can find more of in the Song of Songs; “storge,” which is the natural affection felt by parents to their children; and “agape,” which is often translated as meaning a selfless love that is concerned more with the well-being of the other person.
English really doesn’t have four different terms, and so we have to tell the difference either by the context or by the modifiers used with the words. When I say that I love Cheryl, that I love Sofie, or that I loved my students, you know…or at least you hope…that I’m talking about different forms of love. But when you hear “Love is patient, love is kind,” because you’ve heard it so often at weddings, you assume that it’s talking about romantic love, or eros.
Except that the word used in the original Greek was “agape.” In the Latin version of the Bible, this word was translated as “caritas,” the word from which we get our English “charity.” And indeed, the King James version of the Bible uses “charity” for this passage. Now, if that doesn’t change the way we understand it, then the circumstances under which it was written should.
Beal mentions First Corinthians 13 in the introduction to his book, and says that Paul wrote it to a community that was suffering from tensions and divisions. And in this letter he called on them to get over their childish divisions through love. What kind of love? Well, as we now know, the selfless love that is more concerned with the well-being of the other person. Consider this possible translation:
Agape is patient, agape is kind, agape is not a selfish butt-head…and…agape does not assume that the other person is a stupid butt-head, but ascribes to them the best intentions and motives until proven otherwise… even when they disagree.
Wow. What would our churches be like if we all followed that example? Heck, what would our country look like if we followed that example? And let’s face it, our history, both recent and ancient, has been filled with a lot of un-agape-like behavior, as people jostle to get their own way, or to prove that their particular interpretation, either of the Bible or the Constitution, is the only viable one, while those who hold to any other interpretation are being deliberately pigheaded. And through the ages we in the church would rather divide for the misguided sake of some mythical doctrinal purity than to stay together in a spirit of agape, and consider that the other person might have a valid point or two.
Is this what Paul thought we should do? Is this what Jesus would want?
Somehow, over the centuries, despite its being used elsewhere in Greek literature, agape has become one of those trademark Christian terms. It has come to be almost synonymous with Christian love…or at least the love that we Christians are supposed to aspire to. And yet, as I’ve already mentioned, we know that Christians can be some of the nastiest people on the planet.
I’ve had to explain to someone how it was the “good Christians of Birmingham, Alabama” who turned the firehoses and dogs on people during the Civil Rights marches, and planted the bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls. I’ve had to explain to Sofie how back when I was a kid, and before, it was “good Christian people” that made unmarried girls who found themselves pregnant feel such incredible shame that many felt that abortion or suicide were their only options. And let’s not even talk about the “good Christians” of Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.”
It may be a trademark Christian term, but have famously not always lived up to our trademark.
So with that in mind, is agape strictly a Christian thing? Or to phrase it a little more interestingly, are only Christians capable of “Christian love?”
I’m still active in the lives of many of my former students, advising them on all kinds of things in their personal and academic lives. Often, when it comes to their personal lives, we talk about the characters I’ve written about in my stories. Stories that I’ve written as a way of helping out my former students and other young people of that age.
One of these conversations centered around the character of Jamie Pushkin, a non-observant Jewish girl, who was dating Dan, a guy who was heavily involved with his local Lutheran community. After a three-month relationship, Pushkin decides that they need to break up when she graduates, even though Dan offers to follow her when he finishes a year later.
Why does she insist on breaking up? Not because she feels that Dan isn’t good enough for her; he’s the best thing that ever happened to her. Instead, because she doesn’t feel that she’s the right one for him. She figures that there’s a girl out there who’s a much better match for him than she is, and she doesn’t want to get in her way.
When I wrote that three years ago, agape was the farthest thing from my mind. I needed a way to end this relationship amicably, without either person seeming to use the other. But as I looked at it recently, in the context of the conversation with one of my former students, I was struck by the fact that this Jewish girl who claims that she doesn’t even own a menorah, is showing the kind of love to Dan that we Christians are supposed to show on a regular basis.
Was how I handled this character unconsciously informed by my own Christianity? Possibly. But it’s more likely that I looked at what I was about to have her do as being an example of great love that anyone could demonstrate, Christian or not.
And what is the good news here? The good news is that love is important. Not just any love, but this particular kind of love that puts the well-being of the other person first. But it’s also hard news, because it means that when we disagree with someone, we’re not necessarily allowed to just pick up our toys and storm away. It’s hard news because it means that we have to come to grips with the fact that very often it’s not about what’s technically right, or even about our rights, but about the well-being of the other person.
So where does this leave us? Now that we know the actual background behind the “love chapter,” does this mean that we should stop using it at weddings?
By no means! What Paul writes to the entire community at Corinth is just as applicable to a couple deciding to spend the rest of their lives together.
And if you ask me if I think that what Paul writes to the community at Corinth is something we should all strive for in our everyday lives, you know what my answer to that will be:
This is most certainly true.