The Gospel for Bad Boys (and Girls)
I Corinthians 13 is the Common Ecumenical Lectionary’s epistle reading for this Sunday. “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; it does not not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Many people associate this with weddings because it is so often read at such occasions.
Truth is a wedding/ marriage is very far from the original context of this text. Paul was not addressing a goo-goo eyed couple on a romantic mountaintop. Not even close. He was writing to a deeply conflicted congregation, where people made arrogant claims about who’s a real Christian, with the implied corollary, “you’re not a real Christian.”
Years ago, when I was on the staff of a church summer camp, a much venerated older man (probably about the age I am now) who had been on the camp staff for years, was brought in for what was to be an inspirational worship service with camp staff prior to the incursion of a couple hundred eager campers the next day. Dr. Bob (we’ll call him) was an avuncular figure. Camp vets told us newbies “Dr. Bob’s so wonderful. You’ll love him.”
Dr. Bob took I Corinthians 13 and instructed us to insert our name wherever we read “love.” So (your name) “is patient and kind . . . not irritable or resentful . . . bears all things . . . hopes all things . . . endures all things.” This led to earnest nods and heartfelt sighs from the assembled, save one. The bad boy among all the good boys and girls now prepared to be patient without end, never the least bit irritable and unfailingly kind.
A couple weeks ago I commented on the Old Testament lesson for the coming Sunday, and suggested an insertion of one’s own name where the names “Jacob” and “Israel” appeared. So (your name) “I will be with you when you pass through the deep waters.”
There are some biblical passages in which insertion of one’s name is appropriate. I Corinthians 13 is not one of those. Back at that camp meeting, such an insertion was intended to be inspirational. For me, it kind of had the opposite effect. Why?
What beloved Dr. Bob had done was turn the gospel into law, grace into demand. “You must be the perfect embodiment of love . . . then camp will go fine.” Funny, that didn’t sound like good news. And yet that, or some version of it, is what is preached Sunday after Sunday in Christian churches across the land.
The gospel — the good news — is not an invitation to delude ourselves about our virtue or encourage our perfectionist tendencies/ illusions. The gospel is that, imperfect human beings that we all are, God knows us, loves us, and comes to us with grace and mercy precisely when we are irritated as hell, resentful about this that or another thing, and have behaved with a notable lack of kindness.
If I were to put a proper name into this text in place of the word “love,” here is how it would sound.
“Jesus is patient; Jesus is kind; Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He does not insist on his own way; Jesus is not irritable or resentful, he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” . . . even and or especially when you are conflicted, grumpy, angry, inappropriate, short-tempered, full of resentment, irritable or not all that kind.
That, my friends, is the good news. That is gospel. Hearing this word of mercy, we have a better chance of being loving. The final work of grace is to make us gracious.