One of my favorite television shows is “How I Met Your Mother.” I enjoy watching Ted Mosby’s ongoing story to his children about how he met their mother. Ultimately, what the show has focused on is how a close group of friends became a family.
The show is entering what could be its final season in September. There are several episodes I love to watch when they come on. That includes a special episode from its second season. The entire season focused on how Marshall and Lilly, two of Ted’s best friends and roommates, reunited, after separating at the end of the first season, and got married. Their wedding is a two-part episode with the second part titled “Something Blue.”
The focus is on the events leading up to the wedding, including Ted’s break-up with Robin, another main character in the series. One of the scenes shows the friends gathered in Ted’s apartment. They are working on a list of “overused wedding cliches” for Marshall and Lilly to avoid, such as dancing a conga line and doing a photo slideshow. The joke is these cliches end up part of the wedding. As the friends discuss the list, Barney, the show’s lovable womanizer, enters and suggests 1 Corinthians 13. After Marshall recites the passage, the entire gang pans it and the passage is placed on the list.
Perhaps we have placed this passage on our own list of “wedding cliches.” Much in the same way as the group of friends from “How I Met Your Mother,” we approach 1 Corinthians 13 as if it only speaks to the love between a man and a woman. This passage is most often read during the wedding ceremony as the picture of what “true love” looks like. Because of this, it is one of the most recognizable passages of Scripture. Paul’s words are familiar to us regardless of what translation of the Bible we use. Think of the prose of Paul’s thoughts beginning with verse 4: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”
It is simply beautiful. What Paul writes may, indeed, be a wonderful expression of what should define a marriage. Too bad that is not Paul’s focus is in this passage.
By seeing 1 Corinthians 13 as only a description of romantic love, we limit what Paul is truly trying to tell us. It has been disconnected from its context and the depths of Paul’s thought. Paul’s expressions of love cannot be limited to just marriage. Sure, his thoughts are applicable to this area, but they go deeper than that. Marriage should be defined by love that is patient and kind, among other identifiers, but so should our entire lives. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 cannot be limited to a context that is appropriate for this passage. Paul is specifically addressing situations that were occurring in Corinth and continue to plague our churches, where something was missing in their devotion and fellowship. With these words, Paul gives us a deep picture of what it means to follow Christ. The way of follow Christ, Paul says, is to be defined by love.
This path of a life defined by love goes along with what Paul has been said throughout 1 Corinthians. Paul’s thoughts on love are not disconnected from the entire letter, but are central to his thoughts in 1 Corinthians and in all of his writings. Love must be our guide. It is an appropriate follow up to what he says in 1 Corinthians 12.
In that passage, Paul writes that we have various gifts, or talents, that God has given us. He also says we are connected to each other as the body of Christ. This is crucial to understanding what Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul is reacting to a situation in Corinth. The people there believed that because they had these gifts or that they did some great things that they were special in their fellowship with Christ. Paul will have none of this thinking. Gifts and our actions do not define our walk with Christ. Love must be the ultimate definition of what it means to follow Christ.
Paul walks this out beginning with 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. He lists some of the same gifts that he mentions in 1 Corinthians 12. What Paul says is that doing these things is not enough. Love must be a part of our ministry, lives, and acts of giving. Paul is alerting us to the fact that the absence of love limits the potential of our gifts and acts of service. No matter what good we do in our lives, if it is not done in an attitude of love something is missing.
Paul is speaking to specific attitudes in Corinth, but we can bring this forward to our time. When we pray, if we do not do so out of our love of God then we are missing something. If we give to the poor because it is an “expectation,” and not because we want to show our love to the “least of these,” then something is missing. If we try to help someone through a difficult situation and do not show love, then we are not helping the individual. No matter how good our intention might be, if our acts and life are not lived in a posture of love then we are missing the point.
We are also missing the nature of who God is. The biggest definition we can use about God is this: God is love. This is the definition we see throughout Scripture. It is love that led God to create this world. It is love that led God to continue caring for humanity, even after it has been disobedient. It is love that led God to send Christ. God is truly love.
Paul builds on this and gives us the beautiful words we see in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. He is building on the characteristics of God’s love and calls each of us to be defined by these things. God’s love is patient with humanity, so we are called to be patient with others. God’s love is kind, so we are called to be the same to those around us. The love of God is everything and more that Paul describes in these words. Paul could keep going and add in other descriptions, such as hospitality and giving. Paul isn’t intent on building a lasting definition, but only a glimpse of the quality of love and the ways we are to as we love others.
It is a quality that should define who we are as followers of Christ. We’ve seen what happens when love is not what defines us. When we are defined by anger, hostility, resentment, frustration, greed, power, or anything else, we are fall short of the beauty of God’s love. As followers of Christ, we are to reflect the love of God in our relationships with others, whether it is with members of our families, the people in our communities, or the person whom we may never meet. If we are not defined by love, then we are distorting the message of the Gospel that has love as one of its key aspects.
It’s also the only thing that will never fail. God’s love will never fail. Everything else will fade away, but the love of God, the presence of Christ, will return and last forever. The kingdom will come and our love of others points to this moment. Even more, the things we do in this world are for a moment. The gifts we share with others are for a specific moment. Love has no expiration date. It can lead to moments of transformation and reflection in someone’s life. It can also serve as a reminder of Christ’s love when someone is struggling in their life. Nothing that we can ever give is more important than sharing the love of Christ with those who need to feel that they are loved.
Of course, love is not easy. We all struggle with loving people. There are people in this world who are difficult to love. If we were honest, there are times when we are difficult to love. When it is difficult to love, ask the Holy Spirit to guide your heart to be loving. Take the challenging step to ask God to transform your heart so that you can be love to someone who needs to be loved. Even more, ask God to transform you so that you will be able to be loved. The Spirit is our guide to love others and to be loved ourselves.
God’s love calls us to a life of love. It reminds us that we are loved and in return we are called to love others. In a world that can be so often defined by hostility and bitterness, being a people who are defined by love might be the most important witness of Jesus Christ that we can share with others. Our communities and our world need to see people living as a people of love.
As we conclude, I want you to take a moment to reflect. Most likely, there is someone that you know who needs to know that they are loved. There is probably someone who you need to love better in your life. Maybe it is someone you know and maybe it is someone you only met for a second. Perhaps, maybe you need to be a person more defined by love than the attitudes of this world. Whoever it is as we prepare to pray, give that person, or yourself, over to God. Ask God to define for you what it means to love that person or yourself, so that you may reflect God’s love.
Take this all in. We can be a community defined by love. You can be a person defined by love. It is not hard. All that is asked is that we reflect the same love that characterizes who God is and how God relates to us. Love is important and it is central to the kingdom of God.
If we get love wrong, then we’ve missed what it means to be the church and followers of Christ.