Sunday’s sermon: When the Perfect Comes

when the perfect comes

Text used – 1 Corinthians 13:1-13



  • [READ SONNET 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning]

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

  • Ahhhh … love. How much ink, throughout the centuries, has been spilled trying to capture and describe and do justice to love? How many poems? How many songs? How many plays? How many artists have tried to capture the illusiveness of love in paint … in sketch … in sculpture … in any and every artistic medium humankind has ever used? And yet, have you ever encountered something – any type of artform – that truly made you say with absolutely certainty, “Yes. That’s it. That captures everything I’ve ever known and felt and believed and hoped about love in its entirety. That says it all. That’s perfect”? No? Hmmmm.
    • Love = elusive topic throughout the centuries
    • Love = difficult topic → lots of challenges and complexities and gossamer hopes and broken dreams wrapped up in all our experiences of love
    • Just the different words that we use for love – in English and in all the different languages spoken in the world today – reveal just how complicated and varying and yet positively and inescapably central the act of loving and being loved is to the human experience.
      • Fascinating article (World Economic Forum) – “The world’s languages contain 14 different kinds of love, research has found”[1] → types of love span everything from romantic love to familial love, from love you have for a place to that first inkling of love when you meet someone new (“love at first sight,” if you will), from love of self to love of other to love of the divine → Clearly, we humans were created to love – to seek love, to give love, to receive love in many wide and varied forms. Created to love … and yet, after centuries – after millennia! – we’re still working on getting it right. On getting it perfect.
  • And into that fabulous and frenetic fray, we add today’s Scripture reading – The Love Passage, right? The passage you’ve probably heard at more weddings than you can count – Paul’s description of love.
    • Picture it being read at a wedding in your mind right now (maybe even remember it being read at your own wedding)
      • Couple standing across from one another
      • Maybe holding hands
      • Maybe gazing lovingly into one another’s eyes
      • Maybe sharing a sweet, intimate smile
      • Maybe stealing a glance at loved ones in attendance, taking a moment to appreciate all the people who’ve come to show the couple their own love that day
      • It’s a moment dripping with affection and adoration and possibility. And we have to admit that Paul has some pretty good advice for anyone entering into a loving relationship, right? – text: Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth.[2] → I would say this advice is about as good as it gets, no matter what phase in the relationship you’re in or what kind of relationship you’re thinking about.
        • Good advice for romantic couples
        • Good advice for parents and children
        • Good advice for friends
        • Good advice for coworkers
        • Good advice for neighbors
  • BUT … I want us to take a step back from this dewy-eyed, romantic vision of love for a moment so we can dig into the realer, deeper meaning in Paul’s words this morning. → Paul’s understanding of love in this passage is much less sweet and sentimental and much more radical and revolutionary
    • First: context
      • Talked last week about the Christian community in Corinth to which Paul is writing
        • Community of extremes: very rich and very poor, higher-ups in society as well as lower classes, Jews and Gentiles, people from various cultures, citizens of the Roman empire (high prestige) and non-citizens alike
        • Because of those extremes → community that swiftly became divided – fractured into lots of smaller groups/factions within the church
        • So it’s into this tension and unease and in-fighting that Paul is speaking these words about how to love.
          • Important point: Gr. for “love” throughout this passage = agape → selfless, altruistic, lift-up-the-other, your-good-above-my-good kind of love
      • So Paul is imploring the people of Corinth to overcome whatever silly, insignificant boundaries have been put up between themselves and love each other. Paul is enveloping this bickering, divided community in his words and saying, “Whatever you’re doing – no matter what it is – doesn’t count for anything if honest love, selfless love is not a part of it. So get over it. Get along. And love one another.”
        • Hearkens back to Jesus’ directive in Mt’s gospel to love your enemies: You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.[3]
      • Lead to other important contextual element: Corinth was, indeed, a Roman city – a proud and dutiful part of the Roman empire → And being part of the Roman empire came with the expectation that you would put your loyalty – your community love – first and foremost in Rome. There should be nothing else. No other allegiance. No other devotion. And yet here’s Paul advocating for love to be the driving force – not loyalty, not duty, not nationalism or patriotism, certainly not allegiance to the Roman empire! – but a self-giving, barrier-shattering, other-recognizing kind of love. A Christ-like kind of love. Not a love for Rome, but a love for God and one another as fellow children of God. Devotion to Rome wasn’t even on Paul’s radar.
        • Makes this a radical idea
        • Makes this a revolutionary idea
        • Makes this a dangerous idea → going against the edicts and dominance of Rome never really worked out for anybody
  • Phrase that really caught my eye when I was reading this Scripture → really seems to drive home Paul’s view of love as radical, boundary-crossing, and all-in (probably my new favorite phrase in the whole Bible) – text: When the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end.[4]When the perfect comes.
    • Phrase appears after Paul has been expounding on the plethora of things that love does and how central love is and how steadfast and lasting love is – text: Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. We know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. [5] → When the perfect comes.
      • Gr. “perfect” = fabulous word – rich with meaning: brought to completion, fully developed/achieved, full grown, without shortcomings, having purpose, whole → This all-encompassing, all-surpassing, all-fulfilling kind of love is coming. A whole love. A complete love. A perfect love. A truly perfect love. And it’s not coming with the next changing of the Roman centurion guard. It’s not coming with the next visit Paul makes to Corinth. It’s not even coming in the reconciliation and relationship-building that Paul desires for the Corinthian church. This kind of whole and purposeful love can only come from one source: from God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
        • This is the kind of love that God has for us
        • This is the kind of love that Jesus embodied for us – the kind of love that ate with sinners and outcasts, went to the cross, shattered death, and left that finite tomb empty and irrelevant
        • This is the kind of love that the Holy Spirit kindles within us
        • A love that never fails
        • A love that remains
        • A love that eclipses even those pillars of the Church: faith and hope – text: Now faith, hope, and love remain – these three things – and the greatest of these is love.[6]
    • Radical nature of this love is that it’s already a part of the fabric of our being as children of God and yet it is coming still → When the perfect comes. When that love comes – that perfect, all-encompassing, whole love – we will know love like we have never known it before … like we’ve never even dreamed of it
      • Radical because no matter how hard we try, we know that “perfect” is not the way we love one another
      • Radical because knowing that that kind of love exists begs the question of us: What can I do to live into this love until the perfect comes?
    • Just like the Corinthian church, we sometimes need a bit of a wake-up call – a reminder to practice love for one another even (and especially) in the hard times. Love that is kind and hopeful, patient and trustworthy, humble and forgiving. And in the face of all that we are dealing with right now, couldn’t we use a little bit more of that? Couldn’t we use more love? Amen.

[1] Tim Lomas. “The world’s languages contain 14 different kinds of love, research has found” from World Economic Forum website: Posted Feb. 14, 2018, accessed May 16, 2020.

[2] 1 Cor 13:4-7.

[3] Mt 5:43-44.

[4] 1 Cor 13:10.

[5] 1 Cor 13:8-10.

[6] 1 Cor 13:13.

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