This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
6 MILLION GYPSIES LIVE ON THE MARGINS OF EUROPE
Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth Chapter 13
If I speak in all human and angelic languages, but have no love,
I am merely a sounding gong or an echoing cymbal.
And if I hold prophetic rank and see into every hidden truth and science;
And if I have the complete faith that moves mountains, but have no love,
I am nothing.
And if I parcel out my wealth to feed the poor
And accept being branded as a slave,
But have no love, it brings me no benefit.
Love waits patiently and acts kindly;
Does not envy, brag or puff itself up;
It causes no offence, seeks no selfish advantage,
Is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs,
Finds no joy in injustice, but delights in the truth;
Bears, trusts, hopes and endures in all conditions:
Love never fails.
But if there are prophecies, they shall fail;
If there are ecstatic speakers, they shall be silenced;
If there is knowledge, it shall be destroyed.
For we know and prophesy in a limited way
But when perfection comes, the limits disappear.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I reasoned as a child; when I became a man, I abandoned childish ways.
Now we see ambiguous images in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face;
Now I know in a limited way; then I shall know as perfectly as God knows me.
Now faith and hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of them is love.
Nothing illustrates Paul’s astonishing wisdom better than this passage. We should remember that it was probably written from detention in Ephesus is the midst of many other concerns and duties; and that it was written by a man whose first experience of this kind of love was the revelation of his own wrongness and of God’s forgiveness. Through the believers he persecuted, he finally understood the love that bears, trusts, hope and endures in all circumstances. (No words about his victims have survived, but I imagine he was opened to his vision of Jesus by their behaviour.)
The structure of the passage and the precision of its language suggests that Paul composed it more carefully than other parts of this letter, because it was for him the keystone of his argument with the feuding parties in Corinth. He started by telling them that “knowledge puffs up; but love builds up.” He built up his own picture of the church community as a partnership of equal people, open to God’s goodness and each other, amongst whom there was difference of function (gifts) but not in status. He called this community, the body of Messiah, meaning that by faith in the crucified body of Jesus their wrongs were forgiven and their selfish selves annihilated; by faith in the risen body of Jesus they were set free form fear to live as children of God; and by faith in the body in which Jesus would return, they were enabled to live the life of God’s kingdom, here and now.
The passage on love holds together all these themes. The word he uses for love, the Greek “agape”, was associated with giving honour, extending sympathy, being loyal to another person. Until there is evidence to the contrary, we can guess that Paul was the first to use the word in the sense he gives it here. Perhaps in the Greek he spoke “Agape” was not as sharply defined as other words for love, such “philia” (family love),” eros”(sexual love) and “storge” (affection), and was the most open to re-definition.
He begins by stating that other virtues, like faith, knowledge, philanthropy and even self-sacrifice are worth nothing unless the are accompanied by love. Elsewhere he speaks of this love as what is offered by the death of Jesus, what is shared in the resurrection of Jesus and what is expected in the return of Jesus. In other words, love is God for us. Paul never goes as far as the Letter of John which states that God is love. This love is revealed in Jesus but Paul would have seen it also as present in the history of his people and the experience of human beings. He does not say that only believers can love this way. It is a divine quality which Paul identifies as the necessary basis of human goodness.
This is a startling doctrine which was contrary to the main philosophies of the Empire, but closer, though not identical to, the Jewish commandment to love God and the neighbour. Paul would have agreed with the writer of the Letter of John that human beings can love and can be commanded to love, because God first loved us. To elevate “agape” as the greatest of the virtues without which the others are valueless, is a bold claim, which prompts the reader to demand, “Tell us more about the “agape”, define it for us”, which Paul proceeds to do.
In fact it’s not so much a definition as a portrait of love, for which Jesus Messiah is the sitter.
Paul puts two words at the start of his word picture: patience (better, the lovely old word “long-suffering”), and kindness. These qualities exclude certain behaviours altogether: envy, bragging, exaggerated self-esteem, rudeness, self-seeking, bad temper and liking for injustice are incompatible with patience and kindness, which are, on the other hand, compatible with respect for truth, willingness to put up with other’s hurtful ways, trust, hope and endurance. Many have spoken of the beauty of this passage; I would rather speak of its shrewd wisdom, his refusal to leave “agape” as a vague concept that everyone can interpret in their own way. Love includes some behaviours and excludes others. Even the commonly used phrase “unconditional love” would have been too vague for Paul. There is a condition for God’s love and its name is Jesus Messiah, although it is an inclusive rather than an exclusive condition. Love is not a mere emotion; it is the Father’s sending of the Son into the world to rescue humanity. The fact that Paul can omit here any direct reference to Jesus Messiah shows that the love of Jesus is not some nebulous goodwill or supernatural endowment. It means things that Jesus did and we can do; and things he never did and we can learn not to do.
Paul insists for the benefit of Corinthians who overvalue their own spiritual attainment and knowledge that all these religious skills will be surplus to requirements in the world to come: then human beings will reach full adulthood and will “know God as God knows them”. This mutual knowledge is not solely spiritual or intellectual, but carries a hint of the Hebrew word “to know” which is the usual Bible word for having sex. One “day” human beings will be as intimate with God as God is with them. Meanwhile they still need trust, hope and love, “and the greatest of these is love.”
This is a mighty theological utterance which is in no way obscure, as witness how often it is used at weddings by people who say they have no faith. As an expression of the heart of faith in God it asks a crucial question of all action and suffering: is this behaviour founded in love?