Stay with me. I'm bringin' the love in just a minute. But let me set the stage.
One reason I practice a boring, uncool style of Christianity - a reason I share readily with church newcomers, adult classes, incredulous non-denominationals, and others - is the calendar of the church year.
Huh? Well, it's the calendar that moves the church through the whole message of Jesus, not just our favorite parts. To give but one recent example, it is the calendar that gives meaning to the Christmas message when we are willing to keep it "lite". When all the cultural looky-loos have gone back to the mall, remembering little more of Jesus than the pageant's tin-foil halo, the folks who return to the church on the the first Sunday after Christmas receive the eternal, spiritual message: And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, always assigned for the First Sunday of Christmas.)
The Anglican Reformers wanted church services to be a kind of stable platform on which the people were braced to to receive the transforming power of God's Word. The calendar was part of this vision:
...the common prayers in the Church, commonly called Divine Service... they so ordered the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) should be read over once in the year, intending thereby, that the Clergy, and especially such as were Ministers of the congregation, should (by often reading, and meditation of God's word) be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able to exhort others by wholesome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the truth. And further, that the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion. (Preface to the first Book of Common Prayer, 1549)
But there are holes in our platform. We don't have a season or day that really sets the Christian vision of love (See? Told ya I'd bring it) apart from cultural abuses of that amazing word. And abuse might not be a strong enough term - if God is love (I John 4:8), then most of our proclamations of "love" are truly blasphemous.
When it comes to "love," our church calendar aids and abbets the culture instead of the Gospel. The great Christian exposition of love, I Corinthians 13, drifts onto the calendar this Sunday, but it is just visiting from its usual assignment as a reading for weddings.
Most people hear this lesson at marriage ceremonies and associate it entirely with romantic, sentimental notions of love - pop love songs and cake smashed in faces for the camera. Given the 50% divorce rate, the calendar's use of I Corinthians 13 makes Christian love seem weak and shallow.
Let's look at what this chapter of the Bible really has to say.
First off, it was not written about marriage, but about the church. Certainly, the qualities of love in these verses are apt (and essential!) for marriage and all relationships, but this chapter was written to correct the bad actors in a really messed up church - to show them "a more excellent way."
The church in Corinth divided into factions at the drop of a hat. Personalities, social status, and even "gifts of the Holy Spirit"...
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.
Certain people believed that their supernatural prayer language made them better than the other people in the church. In the preceding chapter, Paul had instructed them that even unsexy, earthbound gifts like "administration" were as much a part of God's design as miracles. Here, he says that the supernatural gifts are just noise if love isn't keeping them in rhythm with others' gifts, for the common good.
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.
As John Maxwell says of church leadership, "They won't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Self-proclaimed visionaries, mystics, scholars, prophets, miracle workers and the like are just legends in their own minds if their gifts have not connected people to God and other people in love.
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.
Even great sacrifices and martyrdom can become meaningless if they do not proclaim the love of God. "Generosity" can be a mask for condescension and paternalism. Martyrdom can be a dressed up version of suicide or even a manipulative tool by one who likes to "play the victim." Unless the sacrifices really represent love, they are useless, because...
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;
Paul teaches a similar message in Philippians 2. Christian love is meant to imitate - no, more than that - to participate in the divine love lived out by Jesus. Jesus sacrificed every privilege of divinity to accept every hardship of humanity. To love is to put others' interests ahead of our own, understanding that we are simply sharing what Christ has given us. The same patience by which God gives us time to become holy; the same kindness with which Jesus dealt with our lost souls, the same humility with which Christ walked in our reality, the same renunciation of our own agenda that Christ made to save us; his same example of attention to others' struggles instead of our own grievances. (Pretty far from commentary on the bridesmaids' dresses now, ain't we?)
...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 is not fickle. The love that the Apostle describes has nothing to do with a spendy ceremony leading to an unceremonious divorce. Love is not the assertion of "my needs" to the abandonment of yours - but the recognition that we are of equal and enduring value in God's eyes. It is not the craving for novelty by which churches jettison long time members or the insistence on familiarity with which they reject newcomers. It is the willingness to go the extra mile with someone when the extra mile sucks.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
All the earthly stuff that makes us feel good? "You can't take it with you." Even our "holy stuff." Only love lasts forever, because God is love.
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 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.
Real love is defined from eternity, from a vantage point where we see it all with God. Just as God looked at the uncorrupted creation, those joined to God can look at the new creation with love and say, "It's all good!"
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Can there be love? No, not if "love" means somebody coming along to give you your way when you want. But faith assures us of a God-sized delight in others that is elusive in this life but permanent in the life to come.
Can there be love? No, not if "love" means a short reprieve from your whining about how "All the good men are taken" or "Why can't I get a girl like that one?" But hope connects our hearts to the One who loves us beyond measure, even when expected consolations let us down.
Can there be love? Yes, always yes. Because love is not an abstract idea or a passing emotion, but a life. A life in flesh and blood that shows us the eternal life of God. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)
A life given for us and to us, in which we can come alive in love. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (I John 4:12)
This is the high calling of I Corinthians 13 - that there be people so connected by love that they become the body of Christ at work on the earth. Whenever and wherever that takes place, the true church exists.