1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
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.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
-- New Revised Standard Version
Seeing the Faces People Already Have
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and a writer. In her recent (and wonderful) book, An Altar in the World, she describes her experience of coming to the Christian faith while a student in college. She writes:
'…People I barely knew made a habit of telling me they loved me. They were Christians too, and I guess it was their way of welcoming me into the Christian family. I did not mind, exactly, but since they barely knew me I was not so sure what they were talking about. Did they love the way my right foot turned out, so that I left tracks like a penguin on the beach? Did they love my willingness to make handprinted signs for Bible study? Did they love the way my upper lip disappeared when I laughed? I decided to find out, so the next time one of the Christians said she loved me, I asked her why.
She made a surprised face, like I should already know.
“Because God loves you!” she said, throwing both hands in the air. “I love you because God loves everybody!”
This may sound small, but I decided that was not enough for me. I did not want to be loved in general. I wanted to be loved in particular, as I was convinced God loved. Plus, I am not sure it is possible to see the face of God in other people if you cannot see the faces they already have.'
The Need to be Loved in Particular
I am reminded of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, especially 1 Corinthians 13. The passage is woven into a cross-stitch pattern, recited at a wedding, or printed on a religious greeting card so often that it easily becomes completely domesticated and loses any power to change us.
But I think that one of the reasons this passage has been so easily domesticated, why it lends itself to an unrealistic, romantic conception of love rather than a gritty, real life one, is that we usually end up lifting it out of its context. And when we do that, then love becomes an abstract idea separated from any concrete reality—just as Barbara Brown Taylor found it was among the Christians in her college group. But if we look at Paul’s beautiful description of love as an integral part of the entire letter to the Corinthians, we see instead that Paul is calling for a love that is anything but a disembodied noun.
The church in Corinth is suffering from what a PR friend of mine would call poor impression management. News of their conflict and division has reached all the way to Paul. Members are divided among rival factions that declare loyalty to Paul, or Cephas, or Apollos, or Christ. Some are engaged in what might be called notorious sins, particularly those of the sexual variety. Some are unconcerned about how their own practices affect members who are new to the faith or members who live in poverty. And still others claim a superior spiritual status based on the spiritual gifts they possess. Paul’s poetic discourse on love may seem to us to be about love in the abstract. But for its intended audience, this passage is meant to speak to love lived in the messiness of real-life relationships.