Famed singer Tina Turner made her comeback to musical fame based on the 1984 hit song, “What’s love got to do with it.” I kept hearing the chorus of the song when praying about Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. She sang:
What's love got to do, got to do with it?
What's love but a second hand emotion?
What's love got to do, got to do with it?
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?
The song wasn’t written for Tina Turner, but she owned it perfectly. Turner released the song only a couple of years after her physically abusive relationship with her husband Ike ended in divorce. Can’t you hear the survivor singing in the song? “I've been taking on a new direction
but I have to say I've been thinking about my own protection.” It comes across as a song of strength and independence.
But would Tina Turner still sing that same song now? A year after the release of the song she met Ervin Bach and began a thirty year romance: one which allowed her to clearly soar, reinvent herself, and even led her to give up her American citizenship because she was never coming back. Turns out love had everything to do with it.
Paul would have understood. No matter how hurt we get, or how jaded we become; love remains the greatest. Of course Paul spoke of love differently than we do in our culture. We’ve turned Paul’s great commentary on love into a predictable wedding reading. Paul meant something more, and more challenging, than just advice for a sound marriage.
The key to understanding the famous chapter on love comes earlier in the letter, in passages like the one we heard as our first reading. The church in Corinth was a troubled, divided, contentious place. In that first reading Paul spoke of their divisions, saying, “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’.”
We’re familiar with divisions today, especially political divisions; don’t we all have a cousin or high school friend whose facebook posts make us cringe? One can almost imagine someone saying in our partisan society, “I belong to Bernie” or “I belong to Trump.”
But Paul was doing more than pointing out the division among the Corinthians. No one actually said “I belong to so-and-so” in contentious political debates. Instead, he lampooned the Corinthians, characterizing them as slaves identifying their masters or children expressing their dependence. The Corinthians were proud of their particular connection to one or another leader in the church; they wanted to create a hierarchy, in which they were more important than others. Paul’s critiquing the hierarchical mindset which labels some people as important and others as less than; the division of the word into us and them, the self-importance of in-crowds. The Corinthians wanted to be dominant over others, but Paul felt a system of self-important domination turns us all into slaves of someone. Instead, Paul spoke of the way of love.
He did this elsewhere in his letters too. In one of my favorite passages he said, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear; but you have received a spirit of adoption which declares you are children of God.” In Corinthians, Paul continued this distinction - with division and dependency as one way of life and love as the alternative.
Paul laid out the alternative way of love most beautifully in 1 Corinthians 13. His point comes in three parts, equally important, about the nature of love.
First, Paul knew the divisions in Corinth came from the various claims to authority people made. “I’m the best at speaking in tongues,” one would say; “I’m the best at rallying people for justice,” another would claim. In all sorts of ways people claimed a special honor and displayed a pronounced pride in their particular gift while looking down at others not equally gifted.
Paul undercut their divisive bragging. “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.” Paul named things he was acclaimed for and then made love the higher calling. Concerned about the divisions among the Corinthians, he sought to put everyone on the same, equal footing: love is the only yardstick.
But then, if love is the only yardstick by which we can measure ourselves, Paul made the calculations impossible. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” It all sounds wonderful until you stop to think about it. Patient. Kind. Bears all things. Believes all things.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t measure up. To read Paul’s description of love is to realize we all fall short. I love Jay, but I can be irritable. I love my kids, but I can be impatient. Indeed, whether it is a romantic relationship, a family connection or a friendship, or our regard of the community, we all experience the ability to love profoundly and the inability to love perfectly.
First Paul made love the only yardstick by which to measure human success; and then he made that yardstick an impossibility. He did this intentionally.
We humans can find so many ways to divide ourselves. It’s not just high schools that have an in-crowd. But what cuts against our division of the world into us and them is that realization: we’ve all come up short. At least that’s true for me: realizing my own limitations makes me so much more understanding of those of other people; to see my own compromises and complexity makes me less judgmental of those of other people.
Finally, Paul placed the importance and impossibility of love into the larger context of God’s eternity. “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.”
He spoke directly to the impossibility of perfect love. We can only love in part. But in the fullness of God’s eternity we will love fully and be fully loved. It places all of our irritability, our impatience, our arrogance, our quickness to judge, our inability to bear all things in a different light. We’re limited now because we can’t see ourselves and each other fully; but in God’s eternity we’ll see and be seen fully. Paul wanted the Corinthians to trust in God’s eternity: to believe, to hope that with a big enough perspective all their divisions would disappear, and all that would remain would be genuine love among them.
The Corinthians, like all of us, were busy organizing their world into the good, the better, and best; creating social hierarchies and claiming special authorities. All of it reflected a need for domination. Paul called them, and he calls us, to a more excellent way, the way of love.
He offers three steps along the way. Recognize love as the most important yardstick. Show compassion with each other because none of us measures up perfectly. And long for God’s own time, when our love will be perfected.
May we all learn this way of love because it has to do with everything.
Alleluia and Amen.