“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
First Corinthians 13 might be the best chapter in the Bible. It doesn’t pull any punches. In the economy of 1 Corinthians 13, Love reigns supreme, it can do anything, it is the ultimate good. It’s the kind of chapter that every idealist can’t do without. You’ve probably heard the passage read at every wedding you’ve ever been to. But if, like me, you go to 7-10 weddings a year (or more) you may even feel like the chapter is tired, played out, or otherwise sullied; the euphemism “beating a dead horse” comes to mind.
If so, it’s time to re-imagine what Paul is trying to say to the Church at Corinth. For starters, read the whole passage which actually starts in the last verse of chapter 12 with “And yet I will show you the most excellent way.” (In my opinion a lingering exegetical mistake made by Bible translators of yore.) But don’t stop after verse 7 (as is often done at weddings) read the whole chapter. Then read the rest of the letter, or at least the few chapters around 13 and you’ll find out that this chapter is really about the Church, it’s about worship, it’s about our identity and our actions as people of God. You might find that the Church Paul is advocating for isn’t quite like the Church you go to on Sunday: a church united in purpose, teaming full of spiritual gifts, bursting and overflowing with a constant sense of interaction with the Holy Spirit, a church that resolves conflict with the sheer brute force of unquenchable love.
Yeah, it’s a pretty big vision. Certainly the Corinthians weren’t there yet: Paul was being prescriptive not descriptive, pointing them at the ideal, not praising them for having arrived. At the core of that ideal is the idea that “love” is the most powerful and useful stuff that we have. There’s more to it than just an emotion or a word, love is like glue or gravity, it has substance, it has stickiness, it can fix things, bond things, attract things, center things. You can’t see it, but it can move you.
The rest of the world knows about and mostly believes in the power of love. Consider the bevy of pop culture sources, music, movies, and books. How about this line from Mumford and Sons that has been pounded into the airwaves by secular radio stations over the last couple years?
“Love; it will not betray you Dismay or enslave you, It will set you free Be more like the man you were made to be
There is a design, an alignment the cry Of my heart to see The beauty of love as it was made to be.”
According to this, love will make you into the kind of person you were really meant to be. I’m not sure that the apostle Paul would disagree. Paul at least believes that Love will fashion the Church into its full potential.
Or how about something rooted a little deeper into the American psyche. Not something that’s just popular in our contemporary setting but a song that has stood (and probably will continue to stand) the test of time. Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude” is a song that gets sung around my house pretty much every day, even my two-year-old knows almost all the words. “Hey Jude” never uses the word “love” but any Joe off the street can tell you what the song is about.
“Hey you know that’s it’s a fool who plays it cool By making his world a little colder.”
It’s a song about letting love get under your skin, letting it take you over, letting it transform you and the situations you are in. It was a song written to help a John Lennon’s son Julian transform and reimagine himself in the aftermath of his parent’s divorce.
First Corinthians 13 isn’t about being married, or loving your spouse. It’s about the power love has to transform our way of being, especially as it relates to our identity as people of God. Love has the ability to transform our worship, our politics, our ministries, our speech, our attitudes towards neighbors and friends, our whole entire person. It’s about being who we were really meant to be. It’s a vision of human flourishing. It’s the “most excellent” way.
Noah can be reached via email here.