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The Love Chapter
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the first letter to the Corinthians chapter thirteen and follow along as I read verses 1-13. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.
4 Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8 Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Friday was Valentine's Day, and so it seems right to talk about Love today, thought I cannot think of a time when it would be wrong to talk about love in a Christian church.
We often think of motherly love as the greatest love, but not always. George Gordon, Lord Byron, was born with a club foot. His mother called him "a limping brat." Nancy Reagan completely excised any acknowledgment that Ronald Reagan's two oldest children, Michael and Maureen, even existed in the official Reagan biography written during his campaign for California governor. Eleanor Roosevelt's mother told her she was ugly and called her "granny." Not all mothers are loving, not all people are loving. You do not need me to tell you that. But we all know that we ought to be loving.
Love and Blood
At her retirement, a college professor was asked what she considered the most important contribution of her career. The professor said, "I have spent my career being a traffic officer. Most people who direct traffic are trying to avoid collisions. But I have been trying to arrange them. I have considered it my calling to arrange collisions between the minds of young people and the great truths of our human existence."
Paul was trying to arrange that kind of collision in the minds of the anxious, fractious members of the Corinthian church. Their concern over proper beliefs and the distribution of spiritual gifts had left them weary. In chapter twelve, Paul used the analogy of a human body to persuade the Corinthians to view charismatic gifts within the proper perspective. Now Paul adds the single most important component necessary for that spiritually-gifted body: the lifeblood of love. Just as the individual organs of the body cannot function without the blood coursing through them, we humans are nothing without love flowing through us.
In the physical body, the organs are all present to aid the blood - the heart to pump it, the kidneys and liver to cleanse it, the lungs to oxygenate it - and the blood in turn nourishes the organs of the body. We are able to survive without some organs. Recent medical science is filled with people surviving with only one kidney, no spleen or gall bladder at all, or without entire lobes of the liver. Even a severely damaged heart valve or muscle can be coped with by the body. But when something goes wrong with our blood, we are in big trouble. Leukemia, sickle-cell disease, and AIDS are all fought and lost in the blood.
So it is for Paul and love. Emil Brunner wrote a classic book on ICR13 entitled appropriately Faith, Hope, and Love (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956). Brunner discusses the intersection between the love that Paul so ardently underscores, and the two other "abiding" virtues, faith and hope. Brunner insists that the relationship between faith and love is quite simple for, ". . .faith is the hand by which we receive love, the way in which we receive God's revelation." In other words "...faith is nothing in itself but the openness of our heart to God's love" (75).
But when we open our hearts to Gods love, something else is revealed to us. We realize the partial, piecemeal nature of our life here and now. We are not yet complete. In the flesh, we are not what we shall be. Paul does not despair over this condition. It is our ability to recognize this "not yet" quality of our faith that enables the quality of hope to spring forth. Augustine believed that hope is the best of the three virtues. Faith only tells us that God is, he said. Love only tells us that God is good. But hope tells us that God will work God's will. Brunner ties faith and hope together by asserting that " . . .faith believes what hope expects. Hope expects what faith believes" (77). Hope holds on because it has faith in the strength and persistence of God's love for us.
Faith and hope thus never stand alone. Paul is calling the Corinthian church to recognize this interrelatedness and learn to live in a reality of faith hope and love. What could the Corinthians expect from cultivating these three virtues? Faith plus hope plus love gives us all the necessary tools to deal with the sufferings and the success we meet with in life. It gives us perspective - on how to view triumphs and tragedies (vv. 9-10); patience - to endure the bad and accept the good graciously (v. 4); purpose - providing us with a reason to want to surmount the setbacks and look for celebrations (v. 7); and passion - for living life through all its blessings and hardships (v. 12).
The Exceptional Gift
In I Corinthian 13, we have probably the best-known words the Apostle Paul ever wrote, perhaps the best-known words in the New Testament. Paul has just spent chapter twelve convincing the Corinthians that spiritual gifts come in many forms, and that each form is as valuable and worthy as any of the others.
Using his famous "body" analogy, Paul has made a strong case for the interdependence of all manifestations of the Spirit. All spiritual gifts are interrelated. Suddenly, as though afraid the Corinthians might misunderstand him, Paul re-directs his focus. Having validated the equality of all spiritual gifts, he now notes one exception: love.
I should point out that discourses such as this one - discussing the merits of love, hope, faith and truth were fairly common in ancient literature. There are several Greek parallels of Paul's words here - in Plato, Tyrtaeus and Macimus, as well as Jewish parallels from wisdom literature (such as 3 Ezra 34-40). Thus I Corinthians 13 would be acceptable to any learned Greek or Jewish scholar of Paul's day.
Yet we know Paul was addressing a Christian community. He forges a strong link to the concerns of this Corinthian church in verse one by beginning with the gift of tongues. We do not know exactly what Paul means by his reference to the speech of "mortals and angels." Certainly it is a spiritual gift, and equally certainly it is a useless gift if it is not accompanied by love. Paul likens the gift to the noisy cymbals and clanging gongs used in the spiritually bankrupt pagan religious ceremonies. He dismisses both musical instruments and loveless speech as mere noisemakers.
Paul goes on to recite a number of those same spiritual gifts he had singled out as true gifts only a chapter before. Prophecy, which Paul seemed to accord a higher status than tongues, is now combined with the other gifts of knowledge and faith to create a kind of "super-gift. " But even its value is tersely denied. Having all that without love, says Paul, just means that "I am nothing."
Paul goes on in verse 3 to dismiss the validity of loveless works as well. The term translated as "give away" literally means "to turn property into food." Thus even if I give away everything I own, if I convert all my assets into bread for the hungry, it is all worthless if it is not motivated by love. The same holds true for martyrdom itself. Of all the possible motives for martyrdom, only love is the one that turns death into a selfless act of divinely inspired devotion.
In verses 4-7, Paul gives not a definition of love but a description of the ways of love. "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." (NRSV)
Then in v8, Paul's time frame becomes expressly eschatological. That is to say, it deals with the new heaven and new earth. It is in the fulfillment at the end times that love's pre-eminence becomes clear. The other spiritual gifts, as amazing and miraculous as they may appear, are themselves only further indications of our living now "between times." We live between the time of Christs first appearing as the babe of Bethlehem, and his reappearing as the lord of time and creation.
Verses 9 and 10 make it clear that the loss of tongues and prophesy and knowledge at the end of time are not to be mourned. In fact, we lose nothing, for as the "partial" recedes, it will be replaced by the "complete" and whole. Should we wail when someone takes away our broken fragment of pie-crust and replaces it with an entire pie? Not hardly.
The elegant mystical language Paul uses in verses 11 and 12 is some of the best loved and most quoted - by the religious and non-religious alike. As moving as Paul's illustration is, it was hardly original. The contrast between child and adult was a common rhetorical analogy of Paul's day, and the image of the dark, distorted reflection seems to have its basis in Numbers 12:8. When God confronts the grousing Miriam and Aaron, God discloses the difference between divine communication to them and to his special servant Moses. The traditional translation reads that God speaks to Moses "face to face; clearly, not in riddles." Yet an alternative rendering of the text would read "in a clear mirror, not in dark speech. " The implications for Paul are also clear - in the fulfilled eschaton we will all participate in Moses' face-to-face relationship with God. Special prophetic knowledge will no longer be necessary, as the mind of God will be open to us all.
In vivid contrast to all those spiritual gifts whose time is limited, Paul ticks off a threesome of gifts that remain: faith, hope and love. Paul has already pronounced faith without love as "nothing" (v. 2). Hope ushers in the New age and the New Jerusalem, but once these days have arrived, hope turns into fulfillment. Thus love remains, the greatest and the most enduring gift of God.
The Good Word
Love is one of those good words that everyone likes. Back in 1991, Life asked 173 people the question "What is the meaning of life?" The editors of Life published the full roster of responses ("from the Dalai Lama to Rosa Parks, from Richard Nixon to George Lucas, from John Updike to Desmond Tutu, from Timothy Leary to Maya Angelou, from poets to scientists to religious leaders to everyday sages on the street") in a book entitled The Meaning of Life (New York: Little, Brown, 1991).
Among these thoughtful, thought-provoking, sometimes-amusing answers, we find the meaning of life embodied beautifully in Martin E. Marty's response: What is the meaning of life? Love. To love. To be loved. No surprise there. Philosopher Max Scheler reminds us, and our experience confirms, that before she is the thinking being or the willing being, the human is ens amans - the loving being.
Love is a word that we associate with God. In the Old Testament, God shows "steadfast love." In the New Testament, God is love.
Thus, three words from 1 Corinthians 13 bring meaning to our lives: "So faith, hope, love abide, these three: but the greatest of these is love." A life of faith, hope, and love has tremendous strength and comfort. Keeping the faith; hoping for the future, loving one another may sometimes be our only source of sanity in an insane world.
The 1990 spring thaw in the Sierra National Forest revealed a profound tragedy. On March 1, 1990, Jean and Ken Chaney, while attempting to negotiate a little-used road in those parklands, skidded off into a huge snowbank. With a blizzard swirling around them, the 68 year-old woman and 75 year-old man decided to sit tight. As they waited for help to arrive, the couple kept a diary of their actions. Writing by the fading glimmer of their glove compartment light, the Chaneys slowly began to see the fatal truth of their situation - "We began to realize that we were on a road that isn't maintained during the winter. Truly a miracle if anyone comes by...We have no idea what lies ahead...so here we are completely and utterly in God's hand!! What better place to be!!"
During the next week the Chaneys ate Rolaids, a stick of gum, and two of those restaurant packets of jelly. They scraped frost off their car windows for drinking water. But the Chaneys endured those days by singing hymns together, quoting all the Bible verses they could recall, and praying. Still no one came. On March 18 Jean Chaney made the following entry in their diary: "Dad went to the Lord at 7:30 this evening...It was so peaceful I didn't even know he left. The last thing I heard him say was 'Thank the Lord.' I think I'll be with him soon...I can't see. Bye. I love you."
The Chaneys' bodies were not found until May 1, when the spring thaw had finally progressed enough that a forest ranger could make it down the road they had been trapped on for so long. But although the loss of their lives was a human tragedy, the Chaneys did not die alone or in despair. Huddling together in their car, they celebrated faith, hope, and love with every fiber of their beings, every shred of their strength. They were not complacent about death, but were confident in their faith, hopeful for God's presence, and secure in the knowledge that they were surrounded by God's love.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, "What is the highest, most exalted act of intelligent life? It is to love. Love seeks no cause, no end, no reward beyond itself. I love because I love; I love that I may love, " [Cited in Henry Osborn Taylor, The Medieval Mind (London: MacMillan, 191* 1:429].
In Jack London's great book, Call of the Wild (164-169), we find the exciting story of a pulling contest which John Thornton, the sled dog Buck's owner, enters into with more tough talk than thought. Barroom bravado finds Thornton betting all he has on whether Buck can start and then walk for one hundred yards with a sled loaded to a weight of one thousand pounds. Thornton's optimism and enthusiasm for the contest wanes as he faces the massively loaded sled, with Buck now fastened alone in the traces. Thornton knows he is asking Buck to perform an incredible task, a task far beyond his normal strength and abilities. Kneeling beside Buck, Thornton attempts to ask Buck to delve inward and find the ultimate motivation for performing the feat that he unknowingly faces.
Thornton took Bucks head in his two hands and rested cheek on cheek. He did not playfully shake him, as was his wont, or murmur soft love curses; but he whispered in his ear. 'As you love me, Buck. As you love me,' was what he whispered. Buck whined with suppressed eagerness...As Thornton got to his feet, Buck seized his mittened hand between his jaws, pressing in with his teeth and releasing slowly, half-reluctantly. It was the answer, in terms, not of speech, but of love (167).
It was not possible for Buck to move that thousand pound sled, but he did. It was not possible that God would love us when we were sinners against him, but he did. It was not possible that Christ would love us so much that he would overcome sin and death for us, but he did. Love overcomes all impossibilities. When we love, we find that we can do more than we ever thought possible. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 4/22/03