Love Abides – Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 13
My Bible study group picks up 1 Corinthians 13 today, after a Holy Week break. When last we gathered, we explored Paul’s response to the Corinthian questions regarding spiritual gifts/things/people (pneumatikon). He offered them charismata instead. As chapter 12 ends, Paul promises to show them a better way, and proceeds to offer a vision of love as that which not only abides (along with faith and hope), but also is the greatest.
The centrality of love to the Christian faith is often acknowledged, even if we don’t always embody it. Jesus draws from Deuteronomy and Leviticus to offer two love commands—Love God with your entire being and love your neighbor as yourself (Mk 12:29-31). In John 13Jesus gives the disciples a new command, that they are to love one another as he had loved them. Then in 1 John not only is God defined as love, but “those who abide in love, abide in God” (1 Jn. 4:16).
But what is love? Here in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul offers his definition of love, which in this case is the Greek word agapē (αγαπη). There are a number of Greek words that get translated as love, including phileo and eros, but while these are Christian forms of love, in this chapter Paul is concerned about agapē. He puts love together with faith and hope as those qualities that have eternal value. C.K. Barrett writes of these three: ““Faith, hope, love: nowhere else does Paul quite so clearly combine these three words, but it is evident that his thought tended to bring them together, and to represent them as the central, essential, and indefectible elements in Christianity.” [The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 310]. Of these three, love, according to Paul, is the greatest.
Why is love the greatest? According to Barrett, of the three, only love is a quality possessed by God. God doesn’t have faith/trust or hope. They are not necessary to God’s being. Love is different. It is a quality that defines God’s being. Barrett writes: If God hoped he would not be God. But if God did not love, he would not be God. Love is an activity, the essential activity of God himself, and when men love either him or their fellow-men, they are doing (however imperfectly) what God does.” [The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 311]. Although Barrett’s language is not inclusive, I think we get his point. If we are to abide in God, we must abide in love. We might not embody this love fully and completely, but love should be at the center of our identities as followers of Jesus.
To further define love, I offer up this definition provided by Tom Oord: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being” (Nature of Love, p. 17). Thus, Paul can say:
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
It is this love that enables us to live boldly, pursuing the things of God in the world. In fact, the agapē form of love enables us to love our enemies. Consider Tom Oord’s definition of agapē, which builds on the definition noted above: “Acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being.” Tom goes on to write that “Agape not only turns the other cheek, it responds to curses with blessings. As a form of love, agape promotes, extends, or attempts to establish shalom in response to that which promotes sin and evil” [Nature of Love, p. 56].
Love is active. It’s understandable that Jesus is said to embody this love. We may only partially embody it, but Jesus has shown us the way forward. He did so by way of the cross, reminding us that promotion of shalom is going to be difficult work, but it is not impossible work if we abide in God.
Considering the challenges facing the Corinthians congregation it is understandable that Paul would choose to bring this particular form of love into the conversation. If the congregation would embrace agape love, then they would experience in greater fullness what it means to be the body of Christ. The same would be true for our communities as well.
Finally, considering Tom’s definition and Paul’s decision to make love foundational, might we hear a word for our times. I think of the murderous rampage in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, two mosques in New Zealand, and then Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. These events, and many others that are less violent remind us that “What the world needs now is love, [agape] love.”