1 Corinthians 13
by Daniel Harrell
1 Corinthians 13’s ode to love is among the most honored passages of Scripture. We preachers only diminish it by preaching it, which is why I’ve never tried. Part of the challenge is a shortage of vocabulary in English. Our single word for love—both a noun and a verb—has to cover everything from romantic passion and religious devotion to our feelings about our favorite pizza and pastimes. I love my wife and my daughter, I love Jesus and my church but I also love buffalo chicken pizza and I love Tom Brady.
Chances are you’ve heard 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding. Maybe it was read at your own wedding. I was in Boston last Sunday, surrounded by that great sea of Patriots fans, loving and longing for yet another major sport championship trophy. Boston has gone almost three months without one. I flew out to Boston to surprise a longtime worship director at my former church who retired from ministry. While standing on the platform, I looked out on so many whose weddings I had officiated over the years, couples still together, their children in tow, most of whom I hadn’t seen since moving to Minnesota.
Not a lot of couples get married in churches anymore. Most weddings these days happen at reception venues especially designed for a one-stop, all-inclusive, rings to cake nuptial experience. Wedding ceremonies themselves have changed a lot too—you don’t hear so much about sacrifice and faithfulness and til death do us part. Instead, I hear mostly about having finally found your soulmate and expectations of bliss and poetry about rocks and trees. My standard wedding homily always had a line in it about how marriage would actually kill you (a possible reason why I don’t get asked to do too many weddings). By death I meant all the ways we need to die to ourselves to experience true relationship with another. This comes straight from Jesus whom Scripture adorns as the bridegroom who gives himself unto death for the sake of his bride, the church.
With fewer church weddings, there are fewer chances for grim wedding homilies, fewer Bible readings and therefore fewer chances to hear 1 Corinthians 13. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 1 Corinthians 13 wasn’t written for weddings anyway. St. Paul wrote it for congregations, and specifically here for a congregation that’s not doing such a great job at being a church. The Corinthians were in a mess—fighting over fought over morality and behavior, over how to do communion, over whose spiritual gifts and vocations were superior, over which preacher was better. There was so much strife and division, so much pride and pretense, so much grace taken for granted. Paul furiously writes, “What do you have that you did not receive from God? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Already you have become kings! What gives you the right to judge each other? When the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart, only then will each one receive any commendation from God.”
United as one body of the Christ by the Holy Spirit, the Corinthian church somehow self-amputated into competing members. As we heard read last Sunday, it was like the eye saying to the hand, “I got this,” or the head to the feet, “I’ll just roll myself where I need to go.” It’s as ridiculous as it sounds. As individual members of one body each has a calling, a gift, but ours is only a part as part the whole. And no matter how good we are at whatever we do, we’re no good at all if we don’t do it with love.
1 Corinthians 13 interrupts the flow of Paul’s argument like a Super Bowl commercial. 1 Corinthians 12 provided a treatise on spiritual gifts and calling, their purpose and the cause of unity. Paul will continue this treatise in chapter 14. But first a word from our sponsor.
Unlike English, Greek offers three words translated as love. I first learned this at a Young Life camp in high school. The speaker compared the three words for love in the Bible to three kinds of kissing in high school. (Do any of you Young Lifers remember hearing this talk?) The first kind of kissing he called peaches, an innocuous little peck on a cheek. The second kind of kissing he called prunes, a more puckered approach indicating greater intention and affection. Then, of course, came the third kind of kissing (remember?): alfalfa, that kind of kissing so disgusting to envision and yet the yearning of every hormonal high schooler who came to camp mostly to meet girls.
Once in seminary I learned some Greek and the distinctions made more sense. There’s the word eros, which we speak in English as erotic. It’s alfalfa love with sex attached, reserved in the Bible for marriage but in modern culture for so many emotional encounters, too many without any real commitment. Then there’s philos, from which we get words like philosophy or philanthropist or Philadelphia. In Greek it often refers to peachy, familial love in families and friendship expressing respect and appreciation and affection that falls shy of marital love or the deep love of Jesus. Finally there’s agape, a Greek word with no real English derivatives. It’s the word for the kiss of peace, an ancient expression of Christian unity. Paul uses agape for love exclusively in 1 Corinthians 13 and elsewhere as God’s love in us and for us in Christ, as well as through us by way of the Holy Spirit. Notably, Paul never mentions God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit in chapter 13. Agape as love suffices.
Having extolled spiritual gifts such as angelic speech, prophecy, knowledge and the faith to move mountains, Paul proceeds to diminish each as nothing if they do not show love. More than mere affection or appreciation, more robust than romance and passion, agape love connotes covenant obligation and sacrifice, loyalty and long-suffering, steadfast delight and fierce joy. Much more than emotion, this love entails action and evidence, value and virtue, quality of character and crucial concern for others. It’s how you want to be remembered at your funeral. Our lives and our achievements as humans are ultimately judged by our love.
Love is patient and kind, not envious or arrogant or rude. It’s not easily angered or self-seeking or score-keeping; it does not rejoice in injustice or evil but only in what is true and right and good. These characteristics of love each hearken back to previous critiques leveled against the Corinthians. Without love, they’d become noisy gongs and clanging cymbals nobody wanted to hear anymore.
My former church is going through a clanging cymbal season. While there, I heard a lot of noise about failures to love. They’d bid goodbye to seven ministers of late and suffered a large exodus of members, a loss of purpose and a great deal of uncertainty over where God is calling them next. I was picked up at the airport by a church elder who remembered my ministry among them beginning back in the Ally McBeal days in Boston (if you recall that TV show). We drew thousands of young people to church and were featured on magazine covers and television. This all has since ended and the church elder wanted to know how to recapture that former glory. (Clearly I’d left and everything fell apart.) I reminded him how that was a different time, that culture and technology has dramatically shifted behavior in regard to belief and institutional loyalty and that the fastest growing church among the young is “no church.” We’re can’t canoe over mountains. Trying harder is just a treadmill. We need to reframe the questions instead of trying to find answers. The question used to be “what church do you attend?,” but now the question is why? We must resist the pressure to reduce complexity down to either-or categories: progressive or conservative, traditional or contemporary, old or new, ancient or future. “We can only know now in part,” Paul writes in verse 9. Why do we always think we can know everything? ““What do you have that you did not receive from God? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?”
Paul says, “let me show you a more excellent way.” His elevation of love is meant to lure the Corinthians to their higher calling; one that transcends the constrictions of self in the righteous pursuit of redemption. Paul does not romanticize; love bears and believes and hopes and endures everything without limit. Love connotes covenant obligation and sacrifice, loyalty and long-suffering, steadfast delight and fierce joy. Much more than emotion, this love entails action and evidence, value and virtue, quality of character and crucial concern for others. It’s how you want to be remembered at your funeral.
But you can see it at weddings too. As most married people know, you don’t stay married for the reasons you get married. Marital bliss comes with mitigating amounts of matrimonial misery—a reality consistent with the fact that marriage is always a union between two sinners. Scripture sings how love is as strong as death, and sometimes it feels like death. Ironically, this is why marriage is considered to be such an appropriate analogy for our relationship to Jesus Christ as his church. Marriage with love, like the Christian life itself, brings out cross-shaped transformation. You have to die to do it, but you rise up looking more like Jesus.
When officiating a wedding, I stand up front beside a groom looking as good as he will ever look for the rest of his life, awaiting a bride bedecked as royalty, processing down the aisle as an adoring congregation stands in honor. Once at the front, the bride and groom steal a knowing glance at each other in bright and happy anticipation of a future about which they have absolutely no clue. At these moments I look at the couples seated in the front pews, parents whose many years of sacrifice and commitment have made this day and these two human lives possible. Their tired expressions of joy and relief belie the hardness and conflict of devotion, the tension of commitment and determination, all the aspects of marriage that make it such a fierce and glorious crucible of self-denial. We stand to honor the betrothed, but we should rather stand to honor these whose knots have remained beautifully bound.*
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child”—except Paul isn’t talking about childhood. He’s talking about the need to grow up. “We only see in a mirror dimly,” he writes, which in Corinth referred to mirrors made of shiny metal, not glass, akin to looking at yourself reflected in an elevator door before it opens. “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” but when we grow up, when the door finally opens on the top floor, we will see “face to face.” Only then will we know fully—as God fully knows us now. Our lives and our achievements as humans will be judged by our love.
Amidst the mess being endured by my former church is an annual giving shortfall that puts ours to shame. Each year for the past nine (again, since I left), this congregation has come to the end of each fiscal year more than a million dollars behind. And yet every year, at the last day, the money rolls in and they end with a surplus. I asked my church elder friend to explain it. He said he had no idea. He said they did pray a lot. And that despite all the troubles, the people who’ve stayed committed do love Jesus and love their church and love each other, not unlike long-married parents who stay married and devoted through better and worse no matter what. They love their church when things are going well. They love their church when things are hard.
As for prophecies and knowledge and spiritual gifts and callings and football dynasties and even churches, everything comes to its end in due time. For now, faith, hope, and love abide—but faith and hope have their limits. When the complete comes—a term meaning perfection and fulfillment of purpose at Christ’s coming—faith will be finished and hope finally realized. But love goes on and on. Love never ends.
Agape as love is the word used for the kiss of peace, an ancient expression of Christian unity. It’s also used as a name for communion, specifically a “love-feast,” communion as anticipation for the last day and what Scripture describes as “the wedding feast of the Lamb.” The completion of all things will be just the beginning of all things made new. As Christians we unite around this table to renew our own vows of love once again. For now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Our lives and our achievements as humans are ultimately judged by our love.
*This paragraph inspired by a wonderful sermon from Princeton Seminary president Craig Barnes.