“Giving Love, Giving Life”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, November 5, 2023
Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
First Corinthians 13 may not have been the scripture passage you were expecting for a Remembrance Sunday service. You’re probably more accustomed to hearing it at weddings – like every wedding you have ever attended! I send out a whole list of scripture options to brides and grooms to choose from. They ALL, with very few exceptions, pick this one. In case you’re wondering, NO, Chris and I did not choose this for our wedding (or more specifically, I nixed it, and Chris had no say in the matter).
I can’t honestly say that I blame these couples for choosing it. It’s a beautiful passage of scripture, very poetic, with a truly lovely meaning behind it. It’s too poetic, in fact, to have actually been written by St. Paul. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it doesn’t really match the writing style of the rest of his letters that we’ve been looking at this fall. Paul’s style is less poetry, more: “You foolish Galatians! Have you taken leave of your senses?” (Gal. 3:1-3)
Paul probably just inserted a familiar poem here in this part of his letter, the way we preachers use quotes and stories to illustrate the point we’re trying to make: It was probably a familiar poem of the time, something most of them would already know and understand, and so he included it in his letter to the Corinthians. It’s like if I started reciting:
“Some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reed;
Some say love, it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed;
Some say love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need;
I say love, it is a flower, and you, its only seed.”
You all know I didn’t write that, although modern copyright standards are much tighter now than they were in Paul’s time, and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you. But you probably already recognize it as the well-known song sung by Bette Midler in the 1980 movie, “The Rose.” This poem that Paul used was probably similarly familiar to the Corinthians.
And just as DJs probably got sick of playing “The Rose” at every wedding in the 1980s, I confess that I keep hoping that one day a bride and groom will choose a different scripture passage! It’s very selfish for me to wish that though – of all the people in the room, Joanne, Stephen, and I are probably the only ones who have heard it at 500 weddings, and – in all fairness – the service is not about us!
It’s an important passage for a wedding, for sure, as it’s a good reminder of what love truly means and how we express mature, faithful love, beyond all the sentimentality of the wedding day. Because of that, I have also used it for funerals on occasion. But it is absolutely appropriate to hear on Remembrance Sunday. To understand why, though, we have to consider it in koine Greek, the language in which Paul originally wrote the letter.
The word “love” is used a total of nine times, but the single English word “love” is insufficient for us to really understand what Paul is saying. I always joke with wedding couples that in English we use the single word “love” in many different ways: for example, you can say, ‘I love pizza;’ ‘I love my dad;’ “I love my husband, Chris;” or ‘I love my job.’ But you can also say, ‘I’d really love to choke that person!’ These uses of “love” express very different sentiments, all using the same word! But Paul’s use of the Greek word that we have translated here as “love” is much more specific.
Ancient, Koine Greek had about four words to signify the various types of love we can feel in different relationships and situations, three of them being the most common: Eros, Philia, and Agape. “Eros” is passionate or romantic love; it’s the root of our English word, “erotic.” Interestingly, this word is not used in the New Testament at all. The two Koine words for love that are used in the New Testament are “Philia” and “Agape.” The word “philia” refers to the bonds of affection that we each feel for any number of close friends and family members. The name of the city “Philadelphia” combines this word, philia, with the Koine word “adelphos” – which means “brother.” Hence: “the city of brotherly love.”
The word that Paul uses throughout this passage – a total of nine times, actually – is “agape.” Agape has a different meaning altogether, which is what makes this passage so appropriate for this day of solemn remembrance. “Agape” is self-sacrificial love; it’s the love of unconditional, unwavering commitment to another; it’s the kind of love that puts other people’s needs ahead of our own; it’s the kind of love that lays down its life for others.
It's certainly appropriate in the context of a marriage, but that’s not exactly what Paul was talking about. Immediately before this passage, in chapter 12, Paul is talking about how to get along with one another in a Christian community. He writes about being the Body of Christ, of bearing one another’s burdens, of giving honour to all the rich diversity of gifts that people bring to the community of faith. Then he says, “I will show you a still more excellent way.”
And chapter 13 is “the better way.” It’s the way of agape, of self-sacrificial love. Agape is the love lived out in Jesus Christ, who laid down his own life for the salvation of the world; if we are his body, then we too lay down our lives for each other. Many of the men and women who went to war and sacrificed their lives, those members of our church whose names David read out earlier, went offering their own lives, expecting nothing in return. They did so as an expression of their faith in the one who had given His life for them. They gave their all for God, for their country, for their families, and for their friends, trusting that The One who laid down His own life for them would come for them and take them home should the ultimate sacrifice be required of them.
A story was written a few years ago of one man, a very old man by this time, but he could still hold himself at attention before the cenotaph at the Remembrance Day parade. His war, “the one to end all wars,” was now just a fading part of history. He knew that very few people now could remember, first-hand, the savageness of the ordeal that had sent millions of young people to their deaths. The old man at the cenotaph was haunted by the faces of the boys he'd had to order into battle, the ones who never came back. Yet one nameless ghost was able to bring a measure of comfort to his mind. At the sound of the gun signaling the eleventh hour he was mentally transported back to the fields of Flanders:
The battle had raged for over two hours, he remembered, with neither side gaining any advantage. Wave after wave of soldiers had been dispatched from the muddy trenches and sent over the top. So many had died already that day that he decided he could not afford to lose any more men before reinforcements arrived.
There came a slight lull in the battle due to the sheer exhaustion of the men on both sides. During this interval, a young soldier came up to him requesting that he be allowed to go over the top. He looked at the boy who couldn't have been more than nineteen. Was this extreme bravery in the face of the enemy, or was the soldier so scared he just needed to get it over with? "Why would you want to throw your life away soldier? It's almost certain death to go out there."
"My best friend went out over an hour ago, captain, and he hasn't come back. I know my friend must be hurt and calling for me. I must go to him, sir, I must." There were tears in the boy's eyes. It was as if this were the most important thing in the world to him.
"Soldier, I'm very sorry, but your friend is probably dead. What purpose would it serve to let you sacrifice your life too?"
"At least I'd know I tried, sir, he'd do the same thing in my shoes. I know he would."
He wanted to order the boy back to the ranks, but the impact of his words softened his heart. He remembered the awful pain he'd felt himself when his own brother had died. He'd never had the chance to say goodbye. "All right soldier, you can go." Despite the horror all around them, he saw a relieved smile on the boy's face. "God bless you, sir," said the soldier.
It was a long time before the guns fell silent for the last time and each side was allowed to gather their dead and wounded. The captain remembered the young soldier. He looked through the many piles of bodies. Young men. So many as to give an unreal quality to the scene before him.
When he came to the makeshift hospital, he looked carefully through the casualties and soon found himself before the prone body of the soldier, alive, but severely wounded. He knelt down beside the young man and gently laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, son. I knew I was wrong to let you go."
"Oh no, sir. I'm glad you did and I'm glad you're here now so I can thank you. You see, I found my friend. He was badly wounded, but I was able to comfort him at the end. As I held him dying in my arms, he looked me in the eyes and said: "I knew you'd come."
The young soldier faded between consciousness and oblivion for some time before he finally slipped away. The captain stayed by his side until the end. Only in war could the happy endings be so terribly painful.
As the bugle sounded "Taps" the old captain at the cenotaph envisioned once again the young soldier's face. Looking up, he could almost hear the stone monument calling out to him: "I knew you'd come."
The bravery of so many women and men like this one, humble people who were willing to sacrifice it all, not for personal gain but completely for the sake of others, the ones who demonstrate the true agape love that is so rare in our world nowadays; these ones remind us of the love of our God, who stood to gain nothing at all and yet He gave it all, the ultimate sacrifice, so that on that day when He returns or calls us home, we can look on His face with assurance and say, “I knew you’d come.” Amen.