What’s Love got to do with it?

The Feast of the Annunciation (transferred)

1 Corinthians 12:27—13:13

After explaining the body analogy in the previous passage, Paul makes it clear that this is not just a metaphor; the Corinthians are the body of Christ and should behave accordingly.  He then lists the various roles that God has appointed within the church community: apostles, prophets, teachers, etc.  Paul lists these roles in sequence rather than order of importance.  His assumption is that apostles must come first to establish the community, followed by prophets who discern the Spirit moving through the body, followed by teachers who help to build up the Church.  No role is qualitatively more important than another within the Church.  It is significant, however, that Paul places “various kinds of tongues” at the end of his list.  As it will become clear in just a few chapters, the Corinthians who could speak in tongues believed that their charisma was evidence of the fact that they were much more spiritual and valuable than their brothers and sisters.  By placing glossolalia at the end of this list, Paul implies that speaking in tongues is not nearly as important as the Corinthians imagine it to be.  Paul goes on to ask several rhetorical questions: Are all apostles?  Are all prophets?  Are all teachers?  Do all work miracles?  The appropriate grammatical answer to all of these questions is “No, of course not!”  Paul is stressing the point that he has made throughout chapter 12: there are a variety of spiritual gifts in the Christian community.  If there weren’t, the community could not function.  After listing all of these charismata, Paul encourages the Corinthians to strive for gifts that are greater than these, which he will explain in the very next chapter.

Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is one of the most familiar and oft-quoted passages of Scripture.  Some scholars raise questions about whether it was written for this letter, or even if it is original to Paul.  Even if it was written for another occasion, however, these 13 verses are extraordinarily pertinent to the argument that Paul has been making throughout the letter.  He has already made hints about the importance of love in the Christian community, including the reminder that “love builds up” in 8:1.  In other words, it seemed inevitable that Paul was going to meditate on love at some point in his argument.  Moreover, this passage places love in opposition to several of the specific issues that have been plaguing the Corinthian community.  Even if this passage was not composed for this letter, therefore, it has unquestionably been folded into Paul’s overall argument.

From the outset of this passage, Paul sets love (agape) in opposition to the spiritual gifts that the Corinthians valued so highly, including “tongues” (13:1), “prophetic powers” (13:2), “knowledge” (13:2), and “faith” (13:2).  Paul even suggests that dispossession, his own willingness to give up his freedom for the sake of the community (the reason for his boast in 9:15), is worthless if it is done without love.  After observing that all spiritual gifts pale in comparison to the gift of love, Paul extols the virtues of love: it is patient and kind; it is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  Furthermore, love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.  In other words, love transcends the vagaries of human disagreement that have been plaguing the Corinthians.  Their disputes about trivial matters can hardly be compared with the enormously powerful gift of love.

In many ways, the next verse is a hinge point for the entire letter.  While prophecies, tongues, and knowledge (all of those things that the Corinthians valued above all else) will come to an end, love never ends.  Paul observes that all of our spiritual gifts are partial, but that these will cease to exist “when the complete comes” (this can also be read “when the end comes”).  In a few chapters, Paul will attempt to explain what the this looks like, but in the meantime, he implies that all of our manifestations of spiritual maturity are mere glimpses of the “complete.”  While the Corinthians may have valued their spiritual gifts above all else, Paul makes it very clear that these are childish playthings when compared with what they will encounter “face to face.”  Right now, we see in a mirror dimly (Corinth was a center of glass manufacturing; Paul may be nodding to that with this metaphor) and we know only in part, but we will know fully and be fully known when the complete comes.  When the partial ends, the only three gifts that will remain are faith, hope, and love; the greatest of these is love.

“Love is most nearly itself when here and now cease to matter.” —  T.S. Eliot

When we were planning our wedding, my wife and I asked a friend if she’d be willing to read one of the lessons.  Her response was, “I’d love to, but I don’t want to read that one from 1 Corinthians!”  When I questioned her about this position, she said that she felt like “everybody” chose 1 Corinthians 13 and that it was somewhat “overplayed.”  There is certainly some truth to my friend’s sentiment.  Paul’s meditation on love shows up almost every time a wedding is depicted on television or in the movies.  People who have never read the bible or been to church can rattle off verses from this famous passage without breaking a sweat.  It’s no wonder that many of my friend from seminary, including me, chose not to include this passage at their weddings.  Our culture treats this chapter from 1 Corinthians as a thumbnail sketch of the love between two people, but this interpretation completely misses the point.  The ubiquity of this passage has drained it of its power.

And this passage is indeed powerful.  When it is placed in broader context of Paul’s entire letter, it becomes clear that Paul is talking about a love that is much deeper than the love that exists between a married couple or friends or family.  The love that Paul describes is the love that has been from the foundation of the world and will continue even when this world comes to an end.  Though human relationships exist within this love, this love is beyond human relationships.  This love is even beyond time, because this love is eternal; it is the love that is within the very life of God.  T.S. Eliot alludes to this eternal love when he notes that love is most truly itself when time ceases to matter.  All that we experience in this life will come to an end, but love, the eternal expression of God’s own being, will continue even as this world comes to an end.  The next time you hear this passage at a wedding, think about the enormously powerful statement that this passage makes: the love that exists among people is a participation in the very life of God.  This is why love is a greater gift than any knowledge or spiritual charisma.  While we can only glimpse the life of God through our spiritual gifts, we can actually participate in the life of God through love, and that will never be overplayed.

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