It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. It’s often struck me as a slightly depressing world view, one which I hope isn’t necessarily true. It seems to me much more hopeful to believe that familiarity might breed insight, affection, and comfort. Maybe, though, this does take a bit of work, and maybe a choice to fully engage with what is familiar to us. This is particularly the case with bits of the Bible that are familiar to us, like this chapter from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth.
I’ve preached on 1 Corinthians 13 several times, given its popularity as a reading at both weddings and funerals. On those kinds of occasions, though, I don’t often have the opportunity to really dive into the text and look at it in any detail. There is, of course, the risk that analysing a poetic text like this can make it seem like a theoretical exercise that puts us off, just ask most GCSE English students whether they will ever read one of their set texts again in their life. On the more positive side, though, I hope that as we have the time to look in more detail at the text of 1 Corinthians 13 this evening, it will open our eyes to new things, allow us to see more deeply into something familiar, and equip us more thoroughly to live lives of love.
As we begin, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the background to this passage. We often encounter it as a stand alone piece about love, but its context is significant. It was written by Paul to a church that was divided by many things, and Paul is writing to them to plead with them to be reconciled to each other and to live in unity. Immediately preceding this, in the passage we looked at last week, Paul has been teaching about unity and diversity, especially with regard to the gifts and work of the Holy Spirit. He’s been talking about the greatest gifts, and desiring them, and now he holds forth on the greatest gift – the most excellent way- that of love.
If we have a bit of a glance forward to the next chapter, Paul continues his discussion of spiritual gifts, beginning with the phrase, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts”. It’s almost as if what we have read tonight in chapter 13 is the filling in the sandwich of chapters 12 and 14. Chapter 12:right use of spiritual gifts. Chapter 13:love, chapter 14: right use of spiritual gifts. In short – Paul’s teaching about love is literally central to his teaching about spiritual gifts and their use in the church.
So, bearing that in mind, let’s have a look at this central teaching.
To start with, the passage itself divides neatly into three (the observant among you may notice a pattern emerging as we go through). The first section, verses 1-3 describes things are are useless if there is no love. The second section, verses 4-7 describes the positive attributes of love. The thirds section, verses 8-13 compares the temporary now with the permanent then, and the lasting nature of love. Let’s take each of these in turn.
In verses 1-3 we hear Paul describing the uselessness of spiritual gifts if there is no love. How many “do not have love” are there? – three.
It doesn’t matter, Paul says, if you worship or pray in a human language, or in a heavenly one, if you don’t have love, whatever you say is just noise, and pretty unpleasant noise at that.
In the previous chapter Paul has described prophecy as the second spiritual gift that God gives to the church, in chapter 14 Paul will tell his readers to especially desire the gift of prophecy. Here he pairs it with the faith that can move mountains, that can overcome all obstacles, and says that those who have these great gifts, but do not have love – are nothing. I may have some of the most impressive and important gifts, but if I do not have love, I am nothing – completely unimportant and insignificant.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “cold as charity”. I guess we can all think of instances of cold charity – Dickens was a great exposer of it in his novels. We can also think of those who seek to build their own reputations by public philanthropy. In this he follows Jesus who was pretty scathing about those who gave in a way that was more about their glory than about helping people. Paul has a warning. I can give all that I have, even my own body, but if I don’t have love, I gain nothing.
In summary, then, if I don’t have love, I am a noise maker who is nothing and gains nothing.
So, I need to have love, but what does that look like? Well, Paul is not going to leave us wondering. He tells us in the next section, verses 4-7.
Paul begins with some positive attributes of love. It is patient and kind. A loving person waits, puts up with stuff, retains their good humour. A loving person does nice things, says encouraging words, smiles at people. No fireworks or dramatic gestures here. The first two things Paul identifies as key to love are patience and kindness.
Then we get a whole load of things that love doesn’t do. Envy, boast, be proud. Put others down, look out for number one, have a short fuse, hold grudges. All these things that can tear a community apart. One commentator writes, “Many local churches contain some who parade their ‘gifts’ while others who nurse their ‘hurts’. Does either side, Paul asks, genuinely put the other before the self?”
Finally Paul returns to positive aspects of love. He is looking forward to the next section, and so he details the long lasting, persevering, nature of love. Love is constant and reliable. It protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres. Not just in the short term, but over the long term. It isn’t a flash in the pan, it is a way to walk. If it is just a flash in the pan then it isn’t love. It maybe passion, or lust, or desire, but it isn’t love. This kind of long lasting, reliable love takes work. It doesn’t happen automatically.
We are fallen, sinful, human beings, who find love difficult to do well. But we have been given the model of Jesus. We abide in his love, by obeying his commands. And, in a kind of circular genius, his command is that we love each other, as we have been loved. If we struggle to recognise ourselves, and our love in Paul’s description, then we can look to Jesus’ example, see what they looked like in practice in his life, and ask the Holy Spirit to help us to put them into practice in our own lives.
Expanding further on the idea of enduring love, Paul moves onto his third section, in which he returns to his threes. Firstly he lists the things that will not last, and not coincidentally, they are three of things that the Corinthians have been falling out about. Prophecy will cease – at the end of time everyone will hear from God directly. Tongues will be stilled – not that we won’t communicate with God, but that we will no longer need particular religious experiences or spiritual gifts to do so. Knowledge will pass away – or at least, we will all know all that we need to know – privileged knowledge will go. These are all temporary, love is permanent.
Paul then uses three illustrations to compare the current state of things with what it will be like when Christ returns: he compares childhood with adulthood, looking in a reflection with seeing directly, and knowing partially with knowing fully.
Again, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Paul details three aspects of his childhood: how he talked, how he thought and how he reasoned. Is it possible that he is, not really very subtlety, implying that the Corinthian’s attitude to the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge is a little on the childish side? Is he encouraging them to grow up a bit, put aside childish attitudes and grow towards the maturity of love?
The second illustration that Paul uses is more difficult, I think for us to appreciate. We are used to industrially produced mirrors that faithfully reflect our image in great detail. In Paul’s day they would have been looking in polished bronze. Corinth was well known for the quality of the mirrors produced there, but even so, the reflection would likely have been somewhat dim, probably slightly distorted. Then we will see clearly – ourselves, others, and, most importantly God. Can you just imagine seeing God face to face. The way in which a whole load of things that we thought were important will just drop away. I can’t wait!
And thirdly, this illustration of knowledge and recognition. One of the things that I find most difficult about living is that I don’t fully understand myself. I don’t know why I do some of the things that I do, and why I don’t do what I know is best. I cannot wait to know as I am fully known. However close our friendships and marriages, we cannot fully know each other, and for many there is that lurking fear that if people really knew what we were like, then they wouldn’t love us. But God does know us completely, everything about the depths of us, and loves us, and on that day we will know God, and ourselves, just as we are fully known, and we will experience that knowledge in the full light of love.
And this brings us to the last verse, and Paul’s final set of three. Faith, hope, and love, the greatest of which is love. There is some disagreement between those who have studied this verse as to whether Paul is saying that all three of these will abide beyond time, and the greatest of these that abide is love. Or, if he’s saying that these three remain now as foundational to our relationships with God and with each other, but that only love will remain as faith and hope find their fulfilment in Christ’s return. I tend to the second interpretation, but I don’t believe that this is critical. What is critical is that love is the foundation, the centre, and the crown, and we are all to work on it with all our hearts.