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An Unfinished Scale

Thomas J Parlette

“An Unfinished Scale”

1st Corinthians 13: 1-13


There are some pieces of scripture that have such a well-established setting in the life of the community of faith that it’s hard to hear them in any other context. The nativity story is like that – it would be hard to hear that story at any other time that Christmas Eve. The passage from Ecclesiastes, “ a time for everything under heaven”, brings to mind a funeral service. And the story of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection stays in the context of Holy Week.

This passage from 1st Corinthians is one of those passages. Paul’s immortal words describing love have been a part of so many wedding services – its hard to hear it any other context. In fact, I’ve actually sat with more than one couple, planning for their wedding, and they’ve actually asked NOT to use 1st Corinthians 13, because they feel like it’s been OVERUSED, it’s been done to death at weddings. And that’s a shame because although it is familiar, almost rote – it remains a gorgeous and lyrical piece of scripture.

I think Paul would be surprised to learn that his words about love are so commonly used at weddings these days, because these words were actually written to a church in deep conflict. The Corinthians didn’t like each other much. They were divided over whether they should all be eating kosher meat – the very expensive kind – or whether they could eat meat that had been sacrificed at one of the pagan temples and was much cheaper, and easier to get. There were various factions in the church who claimed to follow one of the celebrity teachers of the day, and others who wanted to jump on board with the latest popular philosophy sweeping through the city. Apparently there were those in the community who had a relaxed view of sexual ethics and there were members who were filing law suits against each other in court. To top it all off, just gathering for the Lord’s Supper was becoming quite a contentious issue. Last week, we talked about the mix of the “have’s” and the “have-not’s” in the Corinthian church. Well, it seems that the wealthy people who didn’t have to work were showing up at the Lord’s Supper before everyone else and eating and drinking all the food and wine. When the working class people finally arrived, there wasn’t much left. In the early church, the Lord’s supper was a full meal, not just a cube of bread and a little glass of juice. It was a weekly fellowship meal for the whole community. But it wasn’t being practiced that way in Corinth. And it was causing a lot of bad feelings, as people jockeyed for position and status in the faith community.

Last week, Paul encouraged this church in conflict to appreciate each other’s gifts and abilities. He pointed out to all of us that we all have a place in the body of Christ – we are all a part of the whole. In the last verse of last weeks passage, Paul provides a perfect lead in for this passage about love. He says, “ strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” Thus Paul moves into his description of the greatest of all spiritual gifts – Love.

Paul’s description of love is not meant to describe romantic love. For Paul, love is not a feeling or an emotion. Love is an attitude toward life. Paul speaks of love as the motivation behind everything we do. How we live our lives should not be directed by greed or pride or success in the form of financial gain, growing numbers or public acclaim. How we live our lives should be guided by love. Love should be our underlying attitude toward life.

In the novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – which takes place in occupied Greece during World War II – a doctor offers some timely advice to his daughter. She has fallen in love with Captain Corelli, a dashing officer from the Italian army unit that is occupying their village. In the village doctor’s words, there is a lifetime of experience:

“When you fall in love, it is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake, and then it subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots are to become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not desire or lying awake at night dreaming that he is kissing you. For that is just being in love; which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over, when being in love has burned away. Doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? But it is!”(1)

Love is what is left over when being in love has burned away. What Paul talks about here to the Corinthians is not the warm, fuzzy excitement of falling in love or being in love, but the kind of love that is left after the passion fades. The kind of love that wants the best for other people.

I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message:

“Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, and isn’t always “me first.”

“Love doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others. Love doesn’t celebrate when others suffer, but takes pleasure in the flowering of truth. Love puts up with anything, trusts God always, and always looks for the best. Love never looks back, but keeps going to the end.”

This kind of love, agape love, never ends, it never fades. It is the kind of love that endures. Victor Hugo wrote about this kind of love in his novel Les Miserable, he wrote:

“The future belongs to hearts even more than it does to minds. Love, that is the only thing that can occupy and fill eternity. In the infinite, the inexhaustible is requisite.”

“Love participates of the soul itself. It is of the same nature. Like it, it is the divine spark; like it, it is incorruptible, indivisible, imperishable. It is a point of fire that exists within us, which is immortal and infinite, which nothing can confine and which nothing can extinguish. We feel it burning even to the very marrow of our bones, and we see it beaming in the very depths of heaven.”(2)

This is the sort of love that Paul writes about to this church in conflict. Appreciate each others gifts, and above all, treat each other with love. It’s not about being right, it’s about who is better than someone else, it’s not about winning, it’s not about placing blame and handing out punishment. Life as a community of Christ is about loving each other – wanting the best for every part of the body. Do you want your church to be healthy? Do you really want your church to grow?- not just in numbers, not just in financial resources, but really grow. If that’s what you want – then love each other.

M. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, writes that self-discipline is love translated into action, tangible deeds, lived attitudes. If we love one another, we will obviously order our behavior in such a way as to contribute the most to the spiritual growth of one another. Then he writes, “The more I love, the longer I love, the larger I become. Genuine love is self-replenishing. The more I nurture the spiritual growth of others, the more my own spiritual growth is nurtured. I never do something for somebody else but that I do it for myself. And as I grow through love, so grows my joy.”(3)

Do you really want your church to grow? Then love each other. Nurture each other. Love each other like you mean it. People are attracted to a community like that more than a building or a program or a great publicity campaign.

That’s what Paul is talking about here. That’s the kind of love that we are called to practice, always and forever. Someday, as Paul points out – we will know in full. But for now, we know only in part. So until then, we have three things to do – Trust steadily in God. Hope unswervingly. Love extravagantly. And the best of these three is Love.

The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright reflected on this passage in his book Paul for Everyone: First Corinthians. He told about a practical joke that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used to play on his father Leopold – who was also a musician. After a wild night out on the town with his friends, Wolfgang would stumble into the house, sit down at the piano and pound out a rising scale of notes. But he wouldn’t finish the scale. He would just get up from the piano bench and go to bed.

Wolfgang knew the unfinished scale would drive his father crazy. Leopold would toss and turn in his bed, sleepless, until he had to get up, go to the piano and finish the scale his son had started.

“What we’re concerned with in this passage,” Wright explains, “is the way in which Paul describes the call of love, and of life itself, as an unfinished scale, going ahead of us into God’s future. The music of love, which will one day be completed, is therefore not just our duty, but our destiny.”(4)

May our lives be an unfinished scale of love – one day it will be complete. But not just yet. For the time being, trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly and love extravagantly. But the greatest of these is love.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Homiletics, Vol. 28, No. 1, p43.

2.    Ibid… p44.

3.    Ibid… p43.

4.    Ibid… p43.