1 Corinthians 13: The Ladder of Love

1 Corinthians 13.1-13 has been my preaching text at a number of recent  services. (It comes up in our lectionary at this time of the year.) I thought readers of the blog might be interested to see what I made of it:

1If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And 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. 3If 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.

4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 5 It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8Love 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. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When 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. 12For 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. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

“The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”

Little wonder then, in the face of such a famous saying by Jesus as this, that St Paul in perhaps his equally famous words to the Corinthians should place love at the very heart of the Christian life. We could hardly disagree; but it is a word that as we all know means many things to many people, from romantic affection to sexual attraction, fond friendship to dangerous addiction. The heart of its meaning here is none of these. It is the “most excellent way” because it is, as we are taught elsewhere, a fruit of God the Spirit working in us; and amongst those fruits it has primacy of place because it reflects the essential nature of God himself. “God is Love,” we read; and “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that all who believe in him might not perish but have everlasting life.” And as Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love another.”

This is quite a challenge, to live our lives as Christ lived his. Back in the days when I regularly prepared couples for marriage, a great discussion starter was to take verses 4 to 7 of this famous passage from 1 Corinthians and ask them to try it out for size with their own names inserted instead of the word “love”:

John is patient; John is kind; Mary is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. They do not insist on their own way; are not irritable or resentful; do not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth. They bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.

How are you doing? It’s tough. But if we don’t try and follow this most excellent of ways, consider the opposite. Would you like this as your next reference?

David is impatient and unkind; he is boastful and full of envy, arrogant and rude. He always insists on his own way, and gets irritated and resentful when it doesn’t happen. He is happy to break the law when it helps him and will lie when it suits his ends. I wouldn’t trust him to be loyal or stay with you if things go wrong.

Even if we start off with good in us and good intentions, if we don’t get them out of the larder and use them, they go off, just as surely as that special pâté that you bought for Christmas but then forgot about, until it walked out of the fridge the day before yesterday on its own green legs. Somehow, we’ve got to do better than that.

An old saint of the church, Bernard of Clairvaux who founded the Cistercian monasteries back in the Middle Ages, was an unusual man, a stern moralist but also a rhapsodic writer and, and in one of his books he tried to help his monks get to grips with this way of love. He described it as a ladder, with four rungs or steps. I think it can help us too, so I’d like to take you up them in the second part of this sermon.

The first step is love of self for self’s sake. It’s where we all start out; it is our human nature in this fallen world to stick up for ourselves, and follow our selfish genes. We and the world around us were made good, this is God’s creation after all, but we and it have got curved in ourselves, self-preoccupied, and all too often just plain selfish. That shows itself in lots of little ways, and in big ways too, most notably in our times in the way that as a species we find it nigh on impossible not to consume just as much as we can of the world’s resources for ourselves, quite possibly beggaring our poorer neighbours in world terms, and robbing our children of their inheritance. Ouch – but it’s true, isn’t it? It’s not the last word – we’re only on the first of our steps and God hasn’t finished with us yet – but it is worrying that some people seem content to make it so, either ending up as fatalists (we’re all doomed) or actually it seems making a virtue out of the idea of self-fulfilment on our own terms, and with impossible naivety believing that as long as we are all true to ourselves and full of love everything will come out all right in the end. Well yes, perhaps – but not if that truth and love is just each of us playing at being Frank Sinatra and doing it my way.

Thankfully, step two is not far away: not the love of self for self’s sake, but the love of God, albeit for self’s sake still. Just as we are uncomfortably aware of our own selfishness of the first-step sort, so too we should easily recognise something of this second step in ourselves too, if we are trying to follow a faith and believe in God. Perhaps precisely because we are aware of our own neediness, we naturally turn to God for help, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. It would be strange if we didn’t. We’re meant to. Churchgoers are sometimes mocked for using their faith as a crutch, but when you’ve got a broken leg, an aid sounds like a good thing, and grateful thanks to the A and E staff who sorted you out with it are well in order. There is a danger though: we are not at the top of our ladder yet. If churches are full of people who have realised their failings and been the victims of the failings of others, and have thankfully found help in the love of God, they are also places where people can still stay focussed on those needs. Being dependent on God is hardly a mistake if God is God and we are as we are, but we also know that there is a wrong sort of dependency, so that our love of God is little more than cupboard love, and then when things go wrong we can be dreadfully vulnerable to not childikeness but childishness, getting all upset with God and one another, as anger, fear, hurt, guilt and many other monsters wreak havoc with us and our church. One of the not-so-good things about being a bishop is that too many letters that start “Dear Bishop” go on to chronicle sad stories like this. So thank God that step three is just there to climb on to.

Love of self for self for self’s sake; love of God for self’s sake; can you guess what comes next? Love of God for God’s sake. It’s all right, I’m not swearing, Bernard means that literally: the next step on his ladder is when we glimpse and are held by God’s love not because we are reaching out to have our needs met, but simply because He is who He is. It’s like falling in love, I suppose: we can want to go around with someone because they meet our need, but as love goes it’s pretty shallow and vulnerable. As soon as they lose their looks, their money or their marbles we’re off. Or we can want to be with them simply because they are who are they are. Ahhhh! But don’t knock it: it’s how it’s meant to be, between us and each other, and between us and God. Relationships like this tend to come out of the blue, to surprise us, precisely because they are not part of our own self’s machinations and manipulations. So in spirituality we can as it were lie in wait for God, but we cannot entirely control just when the air will thicken, the barrier come down, the words come alive, whether that is in prayer or the sacraments, in singing or even in a sermon, in meditation or music, or in a moment of natural beauty. We cannot control it, but we know it when it comes: and in that moment we love God for God’s sake, we are glad to be with him simply because He is. Such moments pass, but a developed prayer life is not just about trying to regenerate them, but about learning to live in the light of them even when the humdrum has reasserted itself. It’s the work of a lifetime. Perhaps, even, it was always meant, from the beginning, to be the work of every lifetime, preparing us for eternity.

At that point you might think that’s it: that’s the top of the ladder. And in many ways it is. But Bernard keeps a surprise up his sleeve for us: a fourth step. We’ve looked at the love of self for self’s sake, the love of God for self’s sake and the love of God for God’s sake. Bernard now takes us back to the beginning and the missing pairing in his schema: the love of self for God’s sake. Here at the end of journey is not simply self-loss into God, or self-denial in service, but a new and deeper discovery of ourself. Now at last we have the resources to be able to love ourselves without that simply being an act of selfishness. We accept ourselves and love ourselves because we are accepted and love by God. We yearn to grow in ourselves not into our own self-creation, but as God’s creation, as the person he intends us to be.

And here, in worship together, in ministry and service together, we can recommit ourselves to this, the greatest work and way of all, to so let God’s love fill us, that we can give that love to others, and in that giving know that both we and they are becoming the best, the happiest, the most peaceful, that they could ever be.

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