1 Corinthians 13:1-13 is one of the most recognizable pieces of Scripture identified in the Bible. It has sometimes been called the 23rd Psalm of the New Testament. A conservative estimate would say that most of us have heard this passage at least a half a dozen times, provided we have been to a wedding or two. And truly, it is a lovely passage – and can be quite fitting for a wedding. With its focus on the character of love and its hallmark ending “the greatest of these …” this passage seems to have been written for a worship service that celebrates love.
But it wasn’t. In fact, this passage was written to the church of Corinth in a time of crises – when there were conflicts, tensions, and strife throughout the very diverse church found in Corinth. The love that Paul speaks of is not the love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, complete with a cute little cherub Cupid. This love is not the fluffy, whipped cream on a red heart cake kind of emotion. Instead, it is the hearty, you-could-live-off-these-words kind of love that is the cornerstone of Christian living. “Paul is speaking about agape, the love embodied most visibly in God’s love for humankind in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (Lewis Galloway, Feasting on the Word) This love is not a feeling, but an action. “There is nothing sentimental about the image of love that Paul sets before the church. Such love is active, tough, resilient, and long-suffering.” (Lewis Galloway, Feasting on the Word)
There are three sections to this passage. Let’s walk through them and listen to what is said about love and life in Christ.
Noisy Gongs and Clanging Cymbals
The first portion of this passage is almost a continuation of our passage from last week that talked about the differing spiritual gifts present in the early church. Paul emphasizes three spiritual gifts (tongues, prophecy, and faith) that the community has elevated in importance to make the point that our spiritual gifts are not given in order for us to gain status. Spiritual gifts are divided within a worshipping body to complement the other gifts present so that a greater witness to Christ might be made. And after you strip away all the different gifts of individuals or congregations, what you should find, Paul says is love.
One of my all-time favorite television shows is M*A*S*H. I watched it so much when I was pregnant with Sam, that I’m almost positive that he entered the world singing its theme song. In one of my favorite episodes, one of the surgeons (Major Charles Winchester) has to make a decision during surgery between saving a soldier’s hand or leg. He saves the man’s leg and pats himself on the back that his patient will certainly walk again. After the patient recovers from the surgery, however, we find out that he was a classical pianist and he is devastated to not have full function of his right hand. The surgeon, Charles, a lover of classical music finds some classical music written only for the left hand and he counsels the young man to continue playing. The soldier is inconsolable and cannot imagine playing again. Charles pleads with him and tells him “I would love to play piano. I am a surgeon. Technically, I have the skill. I can play the notes, but I cannot make music.” Ministry without love is like music without passion.
Any person or machine could accurately play a piece by Mozart if they practiced enough or were programmed well, but just playing the right notes is not enough to make music. There is an element of passion and personal involvement that cannot be duplicated by a machine. A really good singer (particularly or jazz, gospel, or R&B) who taps into this mysterious well is said to have soul. In athletics, we would say that such an individual plays with heart. Any person can go through the motions of ministry, but if that ministry does not have the love of God as its compass, it will become lost. Love is an integral part of our lives and when it goes missing, we are missing the mark (God’s mark) on the purpose of our lives. We must look deep within ourselves and ask several important questions – What motivates our decisions, our actions, and our words? If love is not part of that answer, we may need to reevaluate things.
A Recipe for honest and authentic love (vv. 4-7)
The second section of this passage speaks to the character of love. What does love look like? One reason a lot of seekers are turned off by church is because the church (maybe even this church at times!) has been hypocritical. There is a tension between who we are and who we were made to be or between being human and striving to become more divine. Paul is basically telling us here that there needs to be a consistency between what the believer thinks and believes and how the believer acts in the world. The reason the church has sometimes become hypocritical is because we are human. Indeed, the church is a human institution prone to all the weakness therein. All churches fall short of this presentation of love at some point. This definition of the loving way by Paul, then, is the still more excellent way that he is proposing we strive for in our life as a church. Falling short of this love does not make our strivings toward excellence less valuable. Instead, it should lead us to our reliance on one another and the Holy Spirit to keep up our efforts.
What is Love?
Verses 4-7 read like a poem, which makes it easy to read. It’s important, however, to look into the content of these lovely words. What is love?
Patient, kind, rejoices in truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things
I’ll be honest, this kind of love sounds rather wimpy. If this is all that love is, how do we do all these things and not become a doormat? It seems foolish to keep believing in someone just to be continually let down. What about those times when loving a person and being you seem completely contradictory?
What is Love Not?
Perhaps it will help to look at what love is not. According to this enchanting prose, love is not:
Not envious, not boastful or arrogant, does not insist on its own way (stubbornness? In the church?), not irritable or resentful, does not rejoice in wrongdoings
Of course, we’d like to avoid all of these things, but we all have bad days. I’ve certainly gotten irritable or wished that I had won an award that my friend won instead. Why does Paul say these things are bad? How do they run counter to love? Earlier in his letter, Paul says “Knowledge puffs up an individual … Love builds up” (1 Cor 8) Love is supposed to be mutual and self-propelling.
All the negatives are about self … about not trusting others enough to believe in you, hope for you, and be patient with you. When we are arrogant or resentful, we are secretly thinking that others do not or cannot appreciate or love us enough. This approach to love is almost like hoarding love and believing that it is scarce and must be guarded. Love is not about self. When it becomes about self, it is only serving one purpose – the feeding of human insecurity.
All the positives do not exclude or debase self, but they are concerned about all parties involved. They hope for the best possible circumstance for all. There is a mutuality to love, here. The positive character of love is patient because it knows that people are continually growing and we, individually, can never fully know where they will end up. Our job is to continue to build up … to build up each other’s confidence and to build up the church in such a way that the world may see the foundation of God’s love in our work together.
I said earlier that the positive aspects make love sound kind of wimpy, but in truth, we come to realize that it takes the strongest of individuals to think of others and believe that the love they give away will come back to them full circle.
Love Never Ends
Everything else will fall away, but love will remain. This is not just some hierarchy between faith, hope, and love. It is recognition that other spiritual gifts are really God’s way of guiding us until we are completely attuned to God. We don’t often talk about the end times, but it was understood in the early church that they would see Christ’s return within their lifetime. When we talk about seeing in a mirror dimly, all I can think of is talking a walk through the woods in the dead of night. Your flashlight can only spread light on the next couple of footsteps you need to take, but you can make a whole journey like that – following the little bit of light in front of you until you step fully into the light at the end of the journey. Our spiritual gifts and our fellow brothers and sisters in faith may give us that bit of light that we need to keep moving through the dark night. Paul reassures us, too, that love is the one piece of Christian living that will always be there, even after time.
Just as Jeremiah was known before he was born, so too, we are fully known and intimately loved by God. It is our responsibility to live into that love – to believe in our own worth, to share the warmth of that love with others, and base all of our ministries on that foundation of God’s love. Love is … essential, effective, and eternal, and it resides within each of our hearts providing us with light for the journey ahead.
Let us pray: God of unending love, Thank you for your hopeful message that renews our faith. Help us to find true love in the way we live so that can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. Give us light for the journey and eyes to see that light. Amen.