"And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
I was nine years old the first time I remember hearing First Corinthians 13 read. I was in church at the time, at a wedding, and serving as an acolyte – for which I remember getting paid $5. That part seemed kind of awesome at the time.
I remember trying to imagine what it looked like, to see something through a glass dimly (and wondering why you wouldn’t just go ahead and shine it up like my dad would have with the handkerchief he kept in his back pocket, so you could see whatever it was more easily.) I remember the priest, Fr. Waldron, warning the couple ahead of time, sternly, not to kiss for too long.
There’s a part missing, though: a piece of a verse that doesn’t show up at the end of the scripture passage from the first letter to the Corinthians that Bryan preached last Sunday, the same piece of a verse that doesn’t show up where today’s reading from that letter picks up today. It’s the very last half of a verse from the twelfth chapter, and for some reason it just gets dropped:
“And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
Bible scholars will tell you that Paul would never have intended for today’s second reading to take the place of honor that it has, as the customary reading at weddings. It has become a standard, after all – lots of nice, good-feeling stuff about love (appropriate for a wedding, it seems), and no angry God language about who gets in and who suffers eternal condemnation (also helpful for a wedding, especially when there may be lots of visitors who might have in fact avoided church because of such things). Scholars would say that Paul’s letter was written as a warning and a corrective to the church, not as the safe adornment of a romantic moment, or as the text of greeting cards and coffee mugs.
But a still more excellent way? Love is more than ornamentation, Paul would say. God’s love is more. God’s love is the shape and substance of that excellent way.
Bryan talked in his sermon last week about the fights that the people of Corinth were having at the time of this letter. They were valuing some gifts above other gifts, which led to valuing some people above other people…and you can imagine the fallout from that.
The Christian faith, which was called The Way during Paul’s lifetime (a still more excellent one, right?), drew all kinds of people. Sure, it included the Jews who had followed Jesus from the early days of his ministry, and also the Gentiles who had up to that point led pretty separate lives, and other groups of people as well. There was great disparity between the groups themselves, too: wealthy and poor, landowners to homeless, lepers and those who had been healed, women, men, children, slaves, tax collectors, soldiers. It was a diverse group, almost from the outset.
They didn’t all always get along.
They didn’t all always value each other’s gifts, or always act in ways that could be described as kind, or patient, or helpful.
They didn’t all always wait for dinner until everybody got to the table.
The trick of this text is that it invites people to seek that still more excellent way – a way which is neither saccharine sweet sameness where everything is always awesome and everybody thinks alike and dresses alike and talks alike; nor can it be the sniping and Darwinian segregation of cafeteria mean kids on the first day of freshman year. No, that still more excellent way commands something more of us. It promises, instead, that those who follow Jesus would practice the kind of radical love for everybody that possesses a fierce and steadfast imagination of what is possible. It calls us to be the kind of beloved community in which unity and difference can flourish together.
My own academically guilty confession, which might scandalize my Bible professors, is that I don’t actually have a big problem with this passage being used at weddings. Sure, it fits nicely among the baby’s breath and pink carnations of that wedding I remember serving in 1980. But this letter from Paul, it also has muscle and grit.
Anyone who has been married or partnered knows that relationships where we match our lives with another require those very things. Marriage is hard. However much a person believes, bouquet in hand or buttonniere on lapel, that they will think and act and live in similar ways with the person opposite themselves throughout the whole of their lives…well, there are few things like living together to bring our differences into sharp relief. Without much notice, we can find ourselves in moments when we don’t always value each other, or see what the other brings as gift at all, or feel like holding dinner until that other person has gotten to the table. Sometimes, everything is not awesome. And our faces are up against that glass now smeared with our tears, and seeing dimly indeed. Yes, Paul’s letter fits here, too.
It takes muscle and grit to find that more excellent way, whether in the lived reality of marriage and partnership and family, or honest and committed life in community. Especially when everything is not awesome. Especially when we can’t see the other side. To choose the practice of love again and again and again as our shape and substance requires more than platitudes and superficiality; it takes more, sometimes, than we might realize we have.
Because, let’s face it - when we’re hurt or tired or frustrated or scared, it’s easier to be impatient or unkind. But God’s more excellent way offers something different than that to the people who were the church at Corinth so many years ago, to the people who are the Church today: what abides is faith and hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.
God’s love, robust and determined and persistent and active love, is what bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God’s love is the love that never ends.
And that still more excellent way gives us the shape and substance as people and as a people, in “God’s unshakeable grasp (of love) on our lives. (That) is the source of our greatest security and, (so), our freedom to actually be patient and kind, to bear all things and not insist on our own way.”
We live the modern translation of this letter’s call in a hundred different ways and more at St. Augustine’s. In a little while, we’ll gather in the parish hall to talk about what that has looked like over the past year, and what we envision together for the future.
Before we do, though, I want to thank you for the honest and determined and practical and deep, deep love that you show for one another in this church, and for a world that starves for the very thing that you are.
As we enter today’s Annual Meeting conversation, thank you for choosing love as the shape and substance of our life together, for recognizing that all we do and everything we will talk about today grows out of that context. Thank you for trusting that without love, our planning and mission campaigns and buildings and budgets and advocacy in the service of justice all lose their meaning. Yes, these are righteous and worthwhile things for us to do. And before and after and throughout it all, this beloved community is called to be a community that practices love.
That piece of a verse that got lost from the reading between this week and last is not lost at all at St. Augustine’s Church. I’m grateful…so very grateful…to be in your company as, together, we continue to find God’s still more excellent way.
 Jerry Irish, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 306.