A reflection on 1 Corinthians 13 for the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, January 30, 2022.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13 (NRSVA)
No doubt you have attended a wedding where the above passage was read. After all, it is beautifully poetic and known widely as The Love Chapter.
The word translated ‘love’ here, however, is agape. It points more to a love that serves and gives than to a loving feeling directed toward another.
Agape is a Christ-inspired love and used here as a way of living in community.
Of course, this is not to suggest that this passage is misplaced in a wedding setting. Surely marriage, while including eros (the Greek for erotic love), is one of the closest expressions of the call to serve another like Christ – especially when Jesus is the one the the couple is following.
There is a clear prioritising of love here. It is above ‘tongues’, prophecy, understanding, ‘faith’, and the giving of life or possession.
Love, unlike these, is ‘complete’.
This is important. Agape is simply a higher call than the ‘higher gifts’ gifts the Corinthian community have so far ‘desired’ and is, according to Paul, a ‘more excellent way’ (See 1 Corinthians 12:31-32).
This Christ-like-love is the completion and goal of the Kingdom of God among us – and all those lists of God-given-gifts are not!
Is it any wonder Jesus embraced the opportunity to rank the over six-hundred commands so emphatically? When asked to identify the most important commandment he answered so unequivocally:
‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12:29-32, NRSVA).
Love God. Love others.
Jesus is leading us here – and anywhere else is off track.
How would you choose describe the priority of the kingdom of God? Are you willing to prioritise love as unequivocally as Paul and Jesus?