First Corinthians 13 is a breath-taking bit of writing.
Unfortunately, we have typecast this chapter as a special blessing, for use at weddings only. To be sure, it has some wise things to say to a couple on their wedding day about the qualities needed to make a relationship work.
The irony is that the words to which more Christians have been married than any other Biblical text was written by a man who was a world-class grinch when it came to marriage. A wedding was the furthest thing from Paul’s mind when he wrote them.
Imagine Paul writing or dictating this letter, in a candlelit room at the end of a tough day. For 12 chapters of this letter, he has been trying to clean up one mess after another that this congregation in Corinth has created, and it’s driving him mad.
He was imprisoned and nearly beaten to death so that they could be brought into a new, wonderful life of relationship with God. And what have they done with this priceless gift?
They are quarreling. Competing for attention and power. Filled with jealousy, arrogance, and lust. Bickering over spiritual gifts, dietary restrictions, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
After 12 chapters of trying to explain what the Corinthians need to do to clean up their act, it hits him that these people just don’t get it!
He starts to wonder, what is the point? If the Gospel does not change lives, then why am I wasting my life and suffering all this abuse proclaiming it?
He’s tried hard for 12 chapters to be the voice of reason and counsel. But now he has had enough. The dam of emotion explodes.
What he says should shake all Christians right down to their core. We often talk about faith as if that is the only thing that matters to God. That the primary goal of Christianity is to get people to believe the right set of doctrines.
No, it isn’t! screams Paul. If I have the greatest, most inspiring faith in Jesus that the world has ever seen, but don’t have love in my heart, my faith means nothing. I could just as well worship the devil for all the good I’m doing in this world! Faith is not the goal; love is!
If people paid attention to what Paul said, it would change the world and the course of history. There would be no such thing as Crusades, the Inquisition, jihad, holy war, religious persecution, 9-11, abortion clinic bombings, denominational squabbles, negative campaign ads, hostile church meetings, or congregational infighting.
The ultimate goal is not to have the right set of beliefs. When that is the goal, then the only thing that matters is to be right. When the only thing that matters is to be right, those who think they are right can blow up and gun down others in the name of their beliefs. They can tear apart the church and destroy God’s creation in the name of their beliefs.
Paul says it doesn’t matter if I have a strong faith or am right on doctrine: if I don’t act in love toward others, then God wants no part of what I’m doing.
Paul did not promote a flower power view that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you got love, as long as you’re sincere. He listed faith as one of the three crucial elements of life, along with love and hope. Not as important as love, but important.
His message is that love is the goal; faith is how you get to that goal. Because if you don’t hear the message of the Bible declaring that God is a being of infinite love, how do you reach that goal?
If you are not moved by the story of the unimaginably powerful Creator voluntarily undertaking the pain and sacrifice of coming into the earth in human form for us, what makes you think you know anything about love?
Without faith, how do you begin to scratch the surface of what love is?
I Corinthians 13 challenges us to ask a question that should make us squirm.
Does my understanding of baptism or communion or confession or the creeds or the Bible, or any issue you can name lead me to love God and my neighbors, even if I don’t agree with them? If not, I am just a noisy gong. My belief is pulling me away from God, and I need to cut it loose, no matter how strong that belief is.
The musical play Les Miserables declares, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Paul writes that, contrary to what most people think about religion, the face of God is not righteous demand; it is self-giving love.
May the gift of faith lead you to see the face of God, and live in peace all the days of your life.