Today we heard the beautiful passage on love from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. You’ll often hear this reading at weddings.
Ironically, Paul didn’t have marriage in mind when he wrote those words.
No, he was writing to a group of people who were tearing each other apart.
In this case, it was the Christian community within Corinth, a city in southern Greece. Corinth was once a major city along the Mediterranean coast. As many as 700,000 people may have lived in Corinth when Paul was there.
Paul founded the community in Corinth around 51 or 52 AD, living there for about 18 months. He poured himself out for the community, teaching them the gospel, leading them in worship, and showing them how to live like Christ.
Then he moved on to found Christian communities elsewhere … and that’s when the trouble started in Corinth.
The rich and powerful began mistreating the poor and powerless, even at Mass.
The Corinthians started to define themselves by their differences rather than what they had in common. In particular, some people thought they were better than others because of certain spiritual gifts they had received, such as knowledge, or speaking skills, or prophecy. And they were using those gifts for their own benefit, rather than to serve the community.
Some in the community were eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. And sexual immorality was rampant.
There were other issues … but you get the picture. They were calling themselves Christians … but weren’t acting like it.
And so, Paul is very critical of his old friends. They were spiritually immature and needed to grow up. He didn’t dispute that they had received spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit. But they had overlooked the greatest spiritual gift of all – which is available to everyone – and that is love.
Love is the more excellent way. Prophecies, tongues and knowledge have limits, but love does not.
Any gift without love is really nothing. It’s an illusion. Even almsgiving and martyrdom are nothing without love.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians is this: The only way to heal their wounds and end the divisions among them is through love.
Was his message effective? We have two signs that it was. First, in his letter to the Romans some years later, Paul mentions a major sticking point between him and the Corinthians as being solved. And second, and most importantly, the Corinthians chose to preserve his letters, which at times were quite critical of them. If Paul’s message didn’t have an impact, why else would they keep the letters?
Love was the answer then, and love is the answer today.
For the past two years, we’ve endured a pandemic that has fractured our country. Most of us know someone who died from COVID, and many of us have experienced COVID ourselves.
We’re tired, frustrated, angry. We’ve just had it.
We’ve lost faith in our institutions. We don’t know who to trust any more. The truth seems to be up for grabs. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who knows?
Disagreement has now become tantamount to an act of violence – and has actually led to violence. If you don’t agree with me, you’re my enemy.
We see that mindset in our gospel reading.
Jesus’ own people turned on him after he told them something they didn't want to hear. They were outraged that he would show love and mercy toward the Gentiles, people they considered inferior.
We’ve seen this kind of attitude play out during the pandemic. People have been called “cowards” or “Nazis” or “science-deniers” or “tyrants.” Some have even taken great satisfaction in seeing someone they disagree with contract COVID – the feeling that, “Well, they had it coming to them.”
The fact is, no one has gotten everything right over the last two years. We’ve all been wrong about something at some point. In time, we'll have a clearer view of who was right and who was wrong … what worked, and what didn’t.
That’s for the future. For now, there are wounds to be healed.
The only way to repair the damage is through love. But are we willing to love those we disagreed with, sometimes vehemently? Because choosing to love means addressing some difficult questions:
Are we willing to forgive those whose decisions hurt us or someone close to us? If our decisions ended up hurting others, are we willing to apologize?
Can we be patient and kind to those who called us names and accused us of being irresponsible? What if we’re the one who sent nasty emails or snapped at someone?
Will we be able to resist the temptation to gloat over those who were wrong? Will we be willing to admit where we were wrong?
We can’t do any of these things without the Lord’s help, because He is the source of love and mercy.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen said there are certain things that we have within us, that once they’re given out, are never meant to be taken back.
One is the air we breathe. If we take that air back into ourselves, it poisons us.
Love is another. When love is breathed out to another human heart, it is never meant to be taken back. If that love's taken back, it also will poison us.
In our first reading, we heard the words of Jeremiah, who was a reluctant prophet. He was a quiet, peaceful man who didn’t want to stir up trouble. God reminded Jeremiah that he would not be alone in the face of opposition. God was with him.
God is with us, too.
Our country is broken and needs healing. Pointing fingers and angry words aren’t the answer, even though it’s easier. God is asking us to set aside our anger and frustration.
Let us lead with love. This is the more excellent way.
This is the only way.