Yr C ~ Epiphany 4 ~ 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
It obviously is, but it really isn’t, but in the end it actually is. People who have never attended a Sunday worship service probably still have some resonance with 1 Corinthians 13. If you’ve been to a wedding you’ve probably heard it there. It gets used for weddings all the time because it talks about love so much. So it obviously is a passage about love – but it really isn’t – at least not that kind of love. It’s not about romantic love, it’s about holy, spiritual love. The Greek word is agape.
And when you put it in context, and remember that in the chapter preceding this, which we’ve been looking at for the last two weeks, Paul (the author) has been going into overtime wagging his finger at the people who make up the Corinthian church. Among a host of other problems in that congregation that we didn’t talk about, including class segregation, sexual impropriety, and taking one another to court, here Paul is in the midst of chastising them for privileging the spiritual gift of tongues over other gifts. Then in the next chapter (14) he says why that’s wrong. It’s because tongues are usually only used to build up oneself, whereas other gifts like prophesying, preaching, serving, hospitality, and whatnot are used to build up the body of Christ.
So we’ve got finger wagging on either side of chapter 13 here – but suddenly Paul takes a break and decides to write a wedding sermon? Not likely. Heck, even in the first verse he repeats that there’s a problem with how they’re using the gift of tongues. 1 Corinthians 13:1 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.
The problem with the Corinthians is that they don’t appear to be doing things out of love. I make a big deal about this every week at offering time. I talk about how God fills us with love and we respond by loving, by sharing that overflow of love. The Corinthians apparently weren’t getting that message. So Paul tells them exactly what love is, by telling them what love isn’t. Again, a curious choice for a wedding text.
He says love is patient and kind – but then we get a laundry list of all the things love isn’t – and apparently it’s a list of how those Corinthians are acting. They are being: impatient, unkind, arrogant, envious, boastful, rude, selfish, irritable, resentful, and celebrating others’ failures. Ouch! In contrast to how they’re doing it, Paul tells them that love – agape love, holy love, spiritual love, God-based love, Christ-centred love, Spirit-filled love – bears all things, trusts all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It’s self-less, not self-obsessed – it’s other-focussed (or better still, one-another-focussed), not self-focussed. And he closes with love never falls down.
God’s love never falls down. Human love? Well, that seems to be hit or miss sometimes. Then Paul surprises us. He says that prophecies, and tongues, and knowledge will all eventually fall down. Church and theology will eventually run their course – but God’s love, and loving in God’s way, never will.
And now we get to the heart of it. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
That’s a tricky concept – the complete. The Greek word means ‘perfect’, which is even trickier. It doesn’t mean perfect as in without ever making a mistake, and it doesn’t mean complete as in finished and done. The best single word to sum the concept up is ‘maturity’. Completeness, Christian ‘perfection’, actually means to be spiritually mature. And if you are spiritually mature you know that you’ll still make mistakes, and that you’ll never be finished growing and deepening. But you will know, and experience, and embody the fullness of God.
Here’s the million-dollar question: When does the complete come? Some folks interpret it as upon death – that only in death can we know the fullness of immersion in God. But I think there’s much more here. I believe with all my being that we can approach that fullness of God in the here and now, that spiritual maturity is possible in the here and now.
And that leads to the billion-dollar question: How? How do I become spiritually mature?
The answer is Jackson, Jason, and Jim! (Oh, and Jesus, of course.)
1 Corinthians 13:12 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.
Now we perceive, or discern, in a mirror, dimly. Then, when we’re mature, we will perceive/discern face to face. Who? God – one another – everything. Our whole perception will be made whole – we’ll see one another and God face to face – in full presence – in completeness.
But we can’t skip to the ‘then’, the perception part, without doing the ‘now’, the mirror part, first. Interestingly, a mirror in biblical times was nothing like our modern mirrors. Our mirrors render crystal clear reflections. That didn’t exist back then. Rich people had polished brass that they could see themselves in – imperfectly. Poor people could bend over a calm water surface for their reflection. That’s why Paul said ‘dimly’. I Greek that word is actually ainigma – an enigma, a riddle. That’s what mirrors show us. Even our wonderful modern mirrors. When we gaze into them we see an enigma, a riddle – that’s if we’re willing to do the hard work of really looking. (And no, you don’t actually need a mirror to do this – it’s a metaphor.)
The second half of verse 12 says: Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Even as I have been fully known. That is a heavy and deep sentence. It takes great vulnerability and trust to let down your guard and allow someone to fully know you. And here’s what makes it even harder – it’s hard to even do that for yourself. Do you fully know yourself? And that brings us to Jackson, Jason, and Jim.
Michael Jackson wrote a song about noticing the trouble in the world but not caring enough to do anything about it. In the second verse he talks about how he’s the victim of a selfish kind of love – sounds like the Corinthians! And then he gives us this remarkable chorus:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror / I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could’ve been any clearer / If you wanna make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself and then make a change
For now we see in a mirror, dimly – but clarity emerges when you look carefully and commit to seeing the world and her people as sacred – when you commit to loving. If you wanna make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself and then make a change. Sounds almost like scripture!
Alas, there are pitfalls. What if you spend so much time doing that mirror work that you get distracted by it and never get on to the loving part? Or what if you gaze into that mirror and get distracted by the surface reflection (the skin deep stuff), rather than diving in deeper. Preoccupation with navel-gazing is a real challenge when you start to do this deep kind of work. That’s what Jason wrote about – that’s Jason Mraz, writing whimsically about ridding himself of vanities so he can love more fully.
I’ve been spending way too long checking my tongue in the mirror / And bending over backwards just to try to see it clearer / But my breath fogged up the glass / And so I drew a new face and I laughed
And also, Well, open up your mind and see like me / Open up your plans and, damn, you’re free / And look into your heart and you’ll find love, love, love.
So, Jackson says commit to doing the work, Jason says take yourself lightly and seek the love – but neither of them is doing the hard and deep work yet. For that, we turn to Jim.
Jim is in the midst of being transported when something goes very wrong and he finds himself rematerializing in an alternate reality – a mirror image of the universe he knew. (Yes, it’s Jim as in Capt. Kirk from Star Trek – just go with me, you’ll like it!)
Jim’s first clue that something is amiss is that their uniforms were different – but the big giveaway that something was terribly wrong was that Spock, his first officer, suddenly had a goatee, and you know that spells trouble!
In this mirror universe all the evil, and narcissistic, and selfish attributes of humanity were celebrated. He saw a world that reminds me of Corinth – remember verses 4-6 – impatient, unkind, arrogant, envious, boastful, rude, selfish, irritable, resentful, and celebrating others’ failures. Of course, everything works out in the end and Jim makes it back to his ‘good’ universe – it is TV after all.
But life isn’t TV, and we aren’t characters, and the mirror concept requires much harder work than this. If we want to fully know ourselves, we need to look deeply and face those unsightly or embarrassing aspects of our own being – those things we’d rather avoid looking at. When we allow God’s light to shine into our hidden corners things may be revealed that make us very uncomfortable. The point of this ‘shadow work’ isn’t to make us feel bad – it’s to see ourselves deeply and bring those unloving parts into awareness – not so we beat ourselves up about them – and not even so we can eliminate them, necessarily (we will always have our shadow parts), but to address them – change them if we can (like Jackson), not get mired in the muck (like Jason), and navigate them while aiming for light (like Jim).
I am only barely scratching the surface of this ‘shadow’ concept, and I can’t do it justice in this format. The best I can do is acknowledge that this work of deeply and fully knowing ourselves, and letting God love us even with these things revealed in God’s light, is how we open the door to being fully known, and fully knowing God and one another. That’s the path to spiritual maturity.
But not everyone is ready to do that work. Some folks, in some seasons of their lives, probably shouldn’t try to do that work. It can stir up serious things – things that may need therapy to work through. Spiritual maturity is hard and heavy stuff. It’s not to be taken lightly. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t just about learning how to smile and be nice – it’s about being real with yourself, and letting your whole self be loved by God – and then loving God, the world, and others in response. Maybe that’s why the ‘completeness’ idea gets associated with dying – because it’s such a challenging journey in the here and now. Chesterton had a famous quote about this. He said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
So where does that leave us today? Here’s The Message translation of 1 Corinthians 13:13.
But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
In the end it really is all about love – and even loving imperfectly and haltingly is a greater thing than anything else. Turns out this really is a great wedding text – and a great worship text.
I’m going to end with a question. This sermon’s title is “Mirror, Mirror.” You can probably hear the rhyme in your head: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” That sounds like a Corinthian question. What would be a more spiritually mature question?
How about this: “Mirror, mirror on the wall – Who am I? And whose?”