Faith, Hope, and Love

Love ensures the proper working of the gifts of the Spirit

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May 5, 2024

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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Although 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most well-known chapters in the New Testament, if you were to delete all of chapter 13 and the final verse of chapter 12, you might not even notice the deletion. Things move smoothly from the end of chapter 12 into the beginning of chapter 14. Given that reality and our deep familiarity with the content of chapter 13, it may be particularly important to gain a clear understanding of the place of 1 Corinthians 13 within the argument of the epistle as a whole.

From the beginning of this letter, Paul has demonstrated a deep concern over divisions within the Corinthian church. Some of these divisions stem from groups that adhere to specific apostles (1:10–17 and 3:1–15). Some divisions arise from disagreements about how to negotiate various aspects of pagan life in Corinth (chapters 5, 6, and 8–10). In all these cases, Paul makes it clear that there should be no divisions among the Corinthians. 

Instead, they should display a common mind; they should be in full agreement and of one accord (1:10). It is equally clear that there is a large degree of diversity among the Corinthians, which Paul seems to welcome. Throughout the letter Paul strives to uphold the importance of unity without requiring a difference-denying uniformity.  

In 1 Corinthians 12, this issue becomes explicit as he speaks about the diversity of gifts within the congregation. The beginning of chapter 12 focuses on the Spirit as the locus of the congregation’s unity. The Spirit animates and enables us to confess that Jesus is Lord. Then in a sort of proto-trinitarian exposition, Paul outlines that although the gifts are diverse, the same Spirit is the giver. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord (the Son) unifies these diverse ways of serving. These diverse activities are activated or energized by the one God (12:3–6).

Coming from their source in the one God, these gifts are dispersed among the congregation “for the common good.” As the rest of the chapter goes on to explore specific gifts and their relationship to the body of the church, it is easy to forget the fact that the gifts are to be exercised for “the common good,” not for personal advancement or self-aggrandizement. How can a congregation maintain its focus on the common good, on the health of the body as a whole? This is where chapter 13 comes in. 

Paul begins by noting that even if one were to exercise some of the most high-profile gifts such as tongues or prophecy, or the very public act of martyrdom, apart from love those activities would be nothing (13:1–3). They certainly would not contribute to the common good. The gifts of the Spirit serve as self-aggrandizing and self-enriching demonstrations of power. In this light, love is the practice that helps Christians ensure that the gifts the Spirit offers to any congregation actually work to build up the body. Love ensures the proper working of the gifts of the Spirit.

How does love accomplish that? First Corinthians 13:4–8 describes the habits that underwrite the practice of love. Among these, such habits as patience, kindness, and the capacity to rejoice in truth over falsehood all seem uncontroversial. It seems equally uncontroversial that rudeness, irritability, and resentment are all habits to be avoided. 

In the midst of verses 4–8, however, are a number of habits that seem to urge believers toward self-effacement. These are, perhaps, more curious. For the privileged and powerful, the merits of self-effacement seem obvious; the benefits to the common good are clear. Alternatively, for those whom society and even the church ignore or push aside, not insisting on one’s own way seems like becoming complicit in one’s own marginalization. Such a situation can hardly advance the common good. 

Thus, is it good to remember that these verses do not offer a comprehensive account of everything that love must do and everything that love must avoid regardless of the situation. Rather, it seems that Paul is offering a non-comprehensive account of the habits of love that, when exercised by specific people in specific cases and in specific ways, will help ensure that the gifts of the Spirit enhance rather than diminish the common good. Ultimately, the quality of common life a congregation maintains under the guidance of the Spirit will help display what love does and does not demand. 

How do we know this? How can we ensure the proper exercise of love for the common good in all times and places? We can’t. We currently live in the world of the partial. We know in part, we prophesy only in part (13:9); we dwell in the region of growth, not completion; we are children on the way to adulthood (13:1–11). Our vision is hazy (13:12). Our practice of love together in the body of Christ is provisional, always open to correction. 

We have faith and hope that our practice of love will ultimately be informed by the fact that we will know fully, just as we have been fully known, but that is not our reality yet. When it does become our reality, our faith and hope will be brought to completion. They will, in some sense, disappear because they will be unnecessary. Love, however, abides.

Having laid out the importance of employing such gifts as the Spirit gives for the common good, Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 the practice of love which is essential for helping these gifts achieve their proper goal. This, then, paves the way for a further reflection on some specific gifts in chapter 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

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Festival of Homiletics 2024

May 13-16 | Pittsburgh (or digitally from anywhere)

The 2024 Festival of Homiletics is an invitation to lean into a little self-love. Hear from some of the voices of our time, including Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Neichelle Guidry, Brian McLaren, and Angela Dienhart Hancock, and more! Experience inspiring worship along with time for reflection, renewal, and remembering – to recall once again the why for what we do.