1st Corinthians 13 must be one of the most popular and best loved passages of the Bible. Surely everyone here must have been to a wedding where this has been read. After all it says such a lot of wonderful things about love. But I do wonder what people make of it.
Take verse 4. Love is patient, love is kind. v. 8. Love never ends. How beautiful, how apt for a marriage day! Mind you, though, this stuff about prophecies and tongues seems to be a bit strange. And when it gets on to speaking like a child and looking in mirrors – well I’ve known couples miss that bit out, because it just doesn’t fit. It seems like a big digression, until we come back to the point in v.13. Faith hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
Paul would have been very surprised. For he certainly did not have marriage in mind in writing it. Paul would have made it sound something like this. LOVE IS PATIENT!!!
We’re in the headteacher’s study. Paul is telling the Corinthians off. For that church in Corinth was rather like some City companies, or certain girls boarding schools – full of multi-talented and outwardly charming people, very capable, but intense, competitive, even cruel. They could do anything, and they let you know it.
If you look in the left hand column of the same page in the Bibles, verses 20-22 you’ll see an example, what was happening at communion. Communion in those days took place during a meal, and it’s obvious that the rich people brought their hampers and champagne, and the less well off or those who came late from shifts went hungry. There are all sorts of examples throughout the letter which show that love was in short supply.
Yet in many ways these were very accomplished people. Going through the first few verses: how many of us are multilingual, let alone can speak the tongues of angels? How often have we heard prophecy?
Many of these things are qualities we admire. How wonderful to be able to understand all mysteries and all knowledge! Yet how many great minds belong to people who are abrasive or insensitive.
Paul alludes to Jesus, who tells us to have faith which removes mountains! And in v.3. what admirable generosity to give away all your possessions! What immense courage to hand over your body, to be martyred for the faith – yet if I have not love I am nothing.
All the human capability that the Corinthians had, even all their Christian achievements, were as nothing because they did not have love. That ought to give us pause for thought. Many of us are professional, capable people. Do we show love? Do we care for those we don’t really know? Do we get impatient with our nearest and dearest? We get things done, we meet our targets, but do people lose out on the way? In God’s eyes, I might be the CEO of an international company, I might be meeting all my review objectives, I might be active in the church and community, but if I have not love I am nothing.
This ought to inform that way we regard the most vulnerable people in society: the disabled, the elderly, the incapable. We shouldn’t rate people by what they can do. What they are matters. And they are people made in the image of God, able to receive and to give love. When it comes to children, what messages do we send out? Do they know that they are loved however much, or little, they achieve? Or do our expectations weigh upon them? Are they in danger of thinking that what matters to their parents are their grades, their music exams, getting into Oxbridge, their careers? Are they loved for who they are?
So, what is love? Well, to some extent physical deeds are important. Generosity and sacrifice can show love. As Jesus says, No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Love is much more than an emotion. If it’s only an emotion what proof is there that it is real? Love must be practical to have any meaning. What Paul wants to emphasise is that it’s not just the grand gestures that count as love, it’s the way we treat people that is important.
No doubt you’ve heard of the parent who lavishes gifts and toys on their offspring, but has no time or inclination to play with them. It’s so sad to see those children who have all the physical things money can buy – but really just want to kick a football around on a Saturday morning with Daddy.
Similarly, St. Paul shows us that generosity and talent can exist without love. Real love is revealed in the way that we treat people. In v.4 ‘Love is patient, love is kind, love is not boastful or arrogant or rude.’
Have you ever found yourself heading off to do something, rushing past people, ‘sorry haven’t got time to chat’? Just think: is it really that important? For it’s great to be focussed on tasks. The world needs people who get things done. Just remember though, tasks are there to serve people, not the other way round.
Love is kind. Thoughtfulness makes such a difference. Courtesy. The small gestures of appreciation. The effort made to see a matter from another’s point of view. Note to self: next time you get stuck behind one of those duffer drivers ambling down the A429 at 40, be kind. Mr flat cap’s reactions may not be fast. He may not know the road. And what use is five minutes more at home if you end up feeling stressed?
Love is not envious. Or boastful or arrogant – how insensitive it is to bang on about our successes if others are struggling. Love should encourage. It is not rude – difficult to put into practice when telesales phone up during supper and try and flog you double glazing. Be firm yes. But don’t have a go at them. They’re human too and I’m sure they’d rather do something else if they had the choice.
Love does not insist on its own way because of pride or pretend to make a stand on principle. It is not irritable or resentful – so hard not to be snappy or sarcastic to the slow one in a Team Meeting. Or to give up with the person who just doesn’t get the point. Hardest of all to apply the same standards of patience at home – perhaps it’s because it’s the place we go to relax, and we feel entitled for home to run our way.
Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing – although that might not sell many papers! Love believes all things, one suspects that Paul does not mean love is gullible and indiscriminate in what it believes, nor that love is blind to faults. It most probably means ‘love keeps on loving.’
And that’s why love is so important. It lasts. When we get to the new heaven and the new earth – life after death with God, what will really matter? Look at v. 8. Prophecies will come to an end – what need will there be to look into the future, or to apply God’s will when we shall all know it perfectly? Tongues will cease – we will all speak the language of heaven.
Knowledge too will come to an end in the sense that v.9. explains it. We know only in part but when the complete comes the partial will come to an end. Life here on earth is like a partial foretaste of heaven when everything becomes complete. On earth we know God through prayer and at particular times he might seem very close. In heaven we will be in his presence so prayer will be different. And some of the abilities and gifts that we need now to help us will not be needed.
I suppose it’s a bit like being on a provisional licence as you learn to drive. Whenever you go out you have to have an instructor. The car has to have L plates warning other drivers. It might well be dual control. And you’re restricted in what you can do – no motorways until you’ve passed. And then, o happy day, the old way of doing things passes away. The complete has come and the partial has come to an end.
Paul uses two illustrations. In verse 11, the child’s way of doing things passes when you become an adult (in theory. Although it’s nice to be young at heart sometimes). And then in v.12, the analogy of the mirror. Now we see in a mirror dimly but then we shall see face to face. In Roman times polished metal was used for mirrors. But of course, brass or bronze doesn’t give a perfect reflection. Tarnish clouds the image. Imperfections in the surface distort reflections. Looking in a mirror you would see incompletely, less well than your friends would see you face to face.
And that is similar to the way that we know God now. Incompletely and through a glass darkly. For the time being we need teachers and mystics and faith. But one day we shall see face to face. V.12.b says Now I know only in part then I shall know as I am fully known.. So, gifts and skills are needed now for our faith, but one day in v.13 Faith hope and love abide and the greatest of these is love. Love will remain, for it is love which is in the nature of God.
Love lasts. In this well known but often misunderstood passage, Paul tells us that no matter how accomplished we are, if we are without love we are nothing. He then tells us what love is, and his focus is not on grand gestures or deep emotions. It is plain and simple: very much on how we are with individual people, straightforward kindness and patience. He then winds up by showing us that everything else will fade away, but love will remain.
How then should we respond? Just this: in our everyday dealings, with people we know and those we do not, to act with real, true love.