Frederick Buechner Weekly Sermon Illustration: Agape (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

In our blog post each Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. Here is this week’s reading from the book of 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

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. And 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. If 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. 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 rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love 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. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

When 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. 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. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Here is a passage from Buechner’s sermon called “Paul Sends His Love”, first published in The Clown in the Belfry and later in Secrets in the Dark.

Not even in the Gospels is there a more familiar passage than the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels ... when I was a child, I spake as a child ... through a glass darkly ... " (KJV). Words as familiar as these are like coins worn smooth with long handling. After a while it is hard to tell where they came from or what they are worth. Paul has been speaking about spiritual gifts—prophecy, tongues, healing, miracles, and so on—and making the point that they should not be the cause of still further divisiveness, people gifted one way disparaging people gifted another. He sees all Christians as parts of Christ's body and each part in its own way as necessary as every other. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you.'" Each gift is to be cherished. "But," he says then, "earnestly desire the higher gifts" (12:21, 31) and at that point sets off into what turned out to be perhaps the most memorable words he ever wrote.

The highest gift of all is agape, he says. Without it even faith, almsgiving, martyrdom are mere busyness and even great wisdom doesn't amount to a hill of beans. The translators of the King James Version render the Greek word as "charity," which in seventeenth-century usage was a happy choice—charity as the beneficence of the rich to the poor, the lucky to the unlucky, the powerful to the weak, the lovely to the unlovely. But since to our age the word all too often suggests a cheerless and demeaning handout, modern translators have usually rendered it as "love." But agape love is not to be confused with eros love. That is what Paul is at such pains to make clear here.