Love at the Root: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 13.1-13

As the old proverb has it, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Seeing or hearing something too often can cause us not to pay attention to it. This can be especially true when something is most familiar to us in a specific context. I am convinced that this has happened with today’s epistle reading, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13, commonly called the Hymn of Love. This text has become so common at weddings as to be cliché; I would guess that from this use, it’s among the best-known Bible texts among non-Christians in our culture. But, of course, 1 Corinthians was not written with marriage in mind — and far less our culture’s romantic ideal of marriage, which would have been unknown in Paul’s day. Instead, 1 Corinthians was written to a specific community that was in crisis. So, while what Paul writes is certainly applicable to marriage relationships, the vision is far greater. It isn’t a question of “how to be a good spouse in one’s marriage” but “how to be human in community.” And so, it’s worth looking at the text more closely today, so we don’t let our out-of-context familiarity with it cause us to overlook its important message.

The chapter begins with a great example of how reading the text out of context can twist how we understand it:

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.

On its own, this appears to be an exercise in poetic license and hyperbole: All the riches and power in the world is nothing without love! But, these words come right after the reading we looked at last week, which wrapped up a long discourse about the gifts the Holy Spirit has provided the Church for its health and wellbeing — gifts which include tongues, prophecy, wisdom, faith, and compassion. So, in context, these aren’t grand poetic statements about how the romantic feeling of love eclipses all else, but about how love must ground every one of our actions in community for them to be worth anything. He could have just as easily written, “If I take out the trash every Tuesday, but do not have love, I am a smelly garbage bin. And if I sing in the choir with a perfect soprano voice, but do not have love, I am a honking goose. And if I run errands for a friend, but do not have love, I’m nothing but a pack mule.” Without a grounding in love, everything we do can be cause for misunderstanding, offense, or bitterness. We’ll be doing them just for the sake of doing them rather than for some purpose. We could easily grow bitter for feeling like we’re doing more than our share. Or, we could easily cause bitterness in others by seeming like we’re showing off or overstepping boundaries. Everything in relationship must be done with love at its root.

But, again, this is far from our common conceptions of what love is. Paul describes love like this:

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, trusts all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

We do these words a great injustice if we allow ourselves gloss over them out of familiarity. This is a profound statement of what love looks like, one that so far surpasses what we too often think of as love. Love is far more than feelings of desire or tenderness. Love is also a goal we need to work towards. Love is a commitment. Love is a lifestyle.

What would our world look like if we brought this type of love not only into our family life, but also into our friendships, businesses, communities, and politics?

Of course, this is no easy way. It is nothing short of a revolution in values and perspective. As Raymund Schwager puts it:

[O]nly a love that loves the other as its own life can overcome the tendency towards rivalry at its very roots. Accordingly, in his hymn Paul does not praise some vague feeling, but the love that, by imitating Jesus, is ready to sacrifice the lover’s own life. The effective power of the Spirit is made manifest in this world by empowering human beings to make a total dedication of their lives. (Must there be Scapegoats?, 223)

We might say that the kind of love we are called to live out is nothing short of a Theophany, a true vision of God in the world: When everything else has broken down, love is the one thing that will remain. (For “God is love” (1 John 4.8).) And I think this is why the passage takes a mystical turn at the 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.

This true path of Spirit-driven, Jesus-imitating love is like the process of growing up into maturity. We may not be able to live it out fully in the here and now, but some day we will see the reality of love in the most intimate and exquisite detail. For this way of love is what lasts. Paul knows full well that we will not be able to fully live out this big, difficult vision of love in our lives. But it is the goal to which our lives are oriented. And, the promise for those who persevere in faith, hope, and love is that in some mysterious way we cannot fathom, our true end will be this all-encompassing, all-surpassing divine Love.

So, yes, Paul’s stirring words about love are beautiful, and it’s no surprised that they’ve been appropriated as they have been into so many wedding ceremonies. But, they are far more than beautiful words. They are more than poetry. They are a calling, a goal, a vision. They are nothing short of Jesus’ own manifesto of freeing captives and healing the sick and preaching good news come to life. As Cornel West has famously said, justice is what love looks like in public.

This is, yet again, a difficult calling. But faith, hope, and love remain — and the greatest of these is love.

Thanks be to God.

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