If Love Were Math
May 15, 2024

If Love Were Math


Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Let’s get it out of the way right off the bat: even though the most common place to hear this passage is at a wedding, it is not about romantic love. It could be applied to a relationship between two people - and God knows it has been a million times - but it is primarily written for a community. And not only a community, a community that’s been dividing up into factions. A community that is competing and conflictive. 

I talked about this a couple weeks ago when we heard about the Corinthians making claims about whose baptism was greater and which leader was the right one to follow. Paul nipped that competition right in the bud. It seems there has also been some competition about which kind of Spiritual gift is the best and most valuable. We’re skipping around in this letter a bit but we’ll come back to that specific part in a few weeks. What Paul wants to emphasize is that people are given different gifts and ways of being in the world, and that one is not better than the other. In fact they’re all important to the body that is the church.

That’s the background for this text here, when Paul comes in hot with the gifts of speaking in tongues. Same with prophecy. Or extravagant shows of generosity and self-immolation. These are some showy gifts. Probably made a person who could express them look pretty good in a worship gathering. But without love it’s all just a performance: clanging gongs and clashing cymbals. 

And even worse, not only are people using their God-given gifts for status, making claims about who’s doing it better. The gifts of speaking in tongues and prophecy and faith and generosity are being used not for the common good, but to sow division. Paul won’t have it.

Not unlike the church today, the Corinthian church was made up of people who had some things in common: they wanted to learn more about and follow Jesus, they lived in the same general area, they wanted to be a part of a community of people who worshiped and learned together. But they, like churches now, would have been varied in gender and background and family of origin and education and socio economic means. 

Paul needed to school them in what it means to experience and enact love as a centering and primary force in their community life together. Not just performance but responsive emotion and action.

And so we get that beautiful list of what love is: 

4 Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, 5 it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 6 it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. 7 Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.

You can see why people use it at weddings. It’s poetry! 

But just because it’s beautiful, doesn’t mean it’s not hard. And complicated. When Paul says, "Love is patient" or "Love does not make lists of complaints." or "Love trusts" I think of all the ways that in my relationships - with my family members especially - I am impatient, that I let the complaints stack up, that I am suspicious or untrusting. 

And I can’t in good faith straight up put up with everything out of love. Or believe everything because of love. Or endure everything out of love. Really? Everything? That’s a recipe for abuse and harm. It’s the reason that women have been told to stay in abusive relationships and injustice has prevailed for too long.

But what if that was flipped on its head. Instead of reading this definition of love as a way to tell people experiencing harm we don’t believe it’s that bad, or to tolerate the abuse or to have patience with injustice because maybe it will get better, maybe we’ve understood the invitation in the wrong way.

What if we instead say that love means believing people - especially vulnerable people - who tell us they’ve been harmed and abused? What if love means believing queer people when they share their identities? What if love means enduring the discomfort that comes from learning about something unfamiliar, or unjust and trusting that the discomfort will lead to growth?  What if love means trusting ourselves when we see and experience all the things that love isn’t: unkindness, impatience, jealousy, arrogance, injustice, untruth.

None of that is easy. And I don’t necessarily think that’s specifically what Paul had in mind. But I do think that’s what God has in mind. And I think Paul’s intention is to make love as expansive and connective as possible. I also think that God as the epitome of love, is the example that Paul is holding out before his people. And ideal to reach toward.

This may be the only time I will ever use a math analogy in a sermon. And the math teachers and engineers can correct my understanding if I’m wrong in how I present it. I offer you the image of an asymptote. An asymptote is a straight line that constantly approaches a given curve but does not meet at any infinite distance. Always approaching each other but never quite meeting. 

Love - God’s love especially, the ideal of love in general - is an asymptote. We are not going to reach the ideal. We are, after all, human. When I was reading this passage with young people a few years ago, we got to the part where it says, “Love never fails,” and one teen interjected, “Ugh. Yeah it does!” Not wrong. Human love will never reach the ideal. But God’s love truly never fails. And we humans can continue to reach for the unfailing line of God’s love, can continue to grow closer to it.

That striving to meet God’s way of love is what Paul is inviting the Corinthians to act on. I suppose if there’s another semi-math analogy I could make it would be that love should be an equation of addition or multiplication or both. Maybe something like Love(human + human + human + human + (as many people are in a church)) = one in Christ.

Neither of my mathematical analogies may hold up. I am, after all, not a mathematician. Math is hard. But so is love! Poetry though this passage may be, the work of loving is difficult but worth it in the effort to be the body of Christ. Those of us who choose this way of Jesus in community are called to experience the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts, but even more than faith, more than hope, we are to struggle toward love. May we receive the grace to respond to that call. Amen.


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