I am fascinated by how this chapter is used in Christian circles as a declaration of love and unity.1
The last verse is practically an anthem of Christian weddings in the western world. It is offered when all is truly well and fellowship is working its greatest work: two lives, two families are uniting. It is recited as wedding vows or offered as a poetic moment. It is often printed on napkins and programs. It even appears on wedding balloons and engraved on wedding rings. It is a slogan for the occasion of marriage.
This is curious considering that Paul writes 1 Corinthians in response to the opposite situation. Paul declares love as the greatest power in a community that seems to be lacking a lot of it. This moment is a far cry from an adoring couple standing at the altar declaring unwavering devotion to each other. The members of the Corinthian church, to whom chapter 13 is directed, are nowhere near a love fest.
In fact, the very placement of 1 Corinthians 13 suggests that Paul may be up to something. He wedges this poem in the middle of his discussion about spiritual achievements. In chapter 12, Paul discusses spiritual gifts and presents his famed analogy of the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16; Romans 12:5). This body boasts many gifts and many stations unified under one banner. Yet, these many giftings and functions are not enough to sustain the community. Paul digresses in chapter 13 to talk about love as the hidden ingredient, only to resume his discussion of the spiritual life in 1 Corinthians 14:1. Here, he connects love and spiritual gifts to each other saying, “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts … ” (NRSV).
Unlike the marriage vow moment, Paul does not introduce this passage to affirm an ethic already present in the community. He presents this passage as a way to introduce into the community an ethic that is necessary if they are to survive the muddy waters of difference and disagreement produced in interpersonal relationships.
The Corinthian Church was not a homogenous body. Its members were not all of the same kind and ilk. This was not a comfortable gathering where people fell into step with each other because they shared fundamentally similar lives, values, and experiences. Quite the contrary.
The Corinthian fellowship (koinonia, 1 Corinthians 1:9) transgressed conventional social boundaries of ethnicity, gender, age, rank, status, and life situation. There are married and unmarried men and women as well as widows and children among them (1 Corinthians 7:8, 14, 32-40). While most of its members are converted Gentiles (1 Corinthians 12:2), this body also includes Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). In fact, some of these Jewish members were rather powerful figures who served as former synagogue leaders, like Crispus (1 Corinthians 1:14; cf. Acts 18:8) and Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 1:1; cf. Acts 18:17).
Most of its members were from the lower classes (1 Corinthians 1:26), but some sat on the opposite side in rank and resources. Erastus, for example, was the city treasurer of Corinth and Gaius had enough resources to support Paul and the whole church (1 Corinthians 1:14; cf. Romans 16:23). There are slaves and free people in the community (1 Corinthians 12:13) as well as people with different skill sets and gifts (1 Corinthians 12:28-30).
The diversity within the church of Corinth generated both benefits and challenges common for any social group. Unfortunately, the diversity among the Corinthians dissolved into discord (1 Corinthians 1:10) and rivalry (1 Corinthians 3:4, 21-23). Members divided into contentious groups. They took sides with some saying they are of one teacher or another (1 Corinthians 1:12; 11:18-19). This was a community fragmented, rather than enriched, by difference.
Yet, Paul remains firm that this diversity is nonnegotiable. God has called this community to be diverse and to get along within it. Paul’s “poetic ode to love” was not written to celebrate the unifying love already accomplished in the community.1 It was a call to action. It was not a tribute to what is. It was an intervention to instruct on what had not yet come to pass.
Indeed, Paul did not intend the language of 1 Corinthians to be easily digested. The point was not to make its readers feel comfortable and affirmed in love. The point was to create cognitive dissonance. Although aesthetically beautiful, the ode is meant to motivate a new action plan among the members that secures the community’s survival and concord into the future.
In his tribute to love, Paul starts out by naming human achievement as temporal and limited (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 8-12).2 Up until this point in the letter, much of Paul’s discussion about speaking in tongues, prophesy, knowledge, and insight has affirmed these as ingredients of Christian worship and life. Paul spills an enormous amount of ink describing these achievements and stations as necessary and desirable (1 Corinthians 12:27ff).
In his love poem, Paul makes a decisive shift, diminishing the allure of spiritual gifts and functions. Tongues, prophesy, knowledge, miracles, servanthood to the point of death are important, but they still do not qualify as the “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). Love is the key.
Because of the popularity of 1 Corinthians 13 in our modern context, it is easy to miss the flexibility Paul exercises concerning the triad of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Most people think Paul’s list is fixed with faith first, love as the bookend, and hope as the middle. Actually, Paul uses this triad elsewhere and in a different configuration.
He tailors the triad to fit the community he addresses. For example, in the Letter of 1 Thessalonians the triad appears twice, In both instances, the order Paul rehearses is faith, love, and hope (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8). Paul shifts the order because the Thessalonian church excels in faith and love but struggles with hope (1 Thessalonians 1:8; 3:6), especially hope for the future (1 Thessalonians 2:19, 4:13).
Accordingly, Paul underscores the primacy of love in 1 Corinthians 13 because it is the spiritual resource the Corinthians lacks most. Paul describes “the work of love” in both positive and negative terms. On the positive side, Paul says love is: patient, kind, and selfless. It involves truth-telling, fortitude, constancy, and tolerance (1 Corinthians 13:4-5,7).
In terms of what love “is not,” Paul says it is not self-seeking, short-tempered, and offensive. In other words, love does not hurt people. It does not damage prospects for authentic community. Love does not impede affirmation of another’s humanity. Love is the only means by which believers have a chance to live fully in the knowledge and fellowship of God. All other spiritual gifts and human achievements provide limited access to that reality (1 Corinthians 13:8-12).
Make no mistake. The love Paul is talking about here is not passive and fluffy. This kind of love is an up at dawn, feet on the ground, tools in hand, working kind of love. It builds communities. It nurtures positive social interactions, and not just social networks (which many of us have come to prefer). Paul’s declaration of love unifies. Love is the way by which we talk to each other (1 Corinthians 1:5; 16:20), eat with one another (1 Corinthians 8:13; 10:27; 11:33-34), fellowship together (1 Corinthians 11:20), and affirm all (1 Corinthians 16:15-16, 18). Love transcends our self-imposed caste systems and personal biases. It forms whole and holistic people, who are anchored in the well-being of others. Love will not let us down if we genuinely live in it together (1 Corinthians 16:14).
Loving Lord, you have showered your world with faith, hope, and love. Help us to be faithful to you, to offer hope to those in need, and to love all your children. Amen.
Ubi caritas ELW 642, GG 205, Taizé Although I speak with angel’s tongue ELW 644 Come down, O Love divine ELW 804, GG 282, H82 516, UMH 475, NCH 289
If ye love me, Philip Lawson