To remind myself of John’s amazing statement “God is love” (I John 4: 8) is to open a topic the size of the ocean. Or to put it another way, imagine a stack of books as high as Mt. Everest. If they all talk about who God is and what love is, they’d make such a stack. But there’s a manageable way to approach the huge truth John has in mind–to look again at a biblical passage often called “the love chapter,” Chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the Christians of Corinth. It’s a favorite, a much-used portion of Scripture but well worth reexamining.at the distance of two thousand years.
First, Paul describes some human gifts and experiences irrelevant without love—first, eloquent and supernatural speech (“the tongues of men and of angels”). Don’t we admire the skillful speaker? Words used well launch every political campaign, fuel every op ed and inspirational seminar. Words create the style and content of all literature–from murder mysteries to Shakespeare, jingles to epics and sonnets. Then there are the news pieces, the histories, sermons, professional journals, the records logging scientific discoveries, the medical charts and lecture notes. Without love, Paul says, it’s all just noise–“a sounding gong or a clashing cymbal.” It wouldn’t surprise Paul that the breakthroughs of science and technology become memorable and newsworthy when they fix a human problem, something that sparks our concern—polio vaccines, e.g. It’s love that generates concern. No love? The words and discoveries just swish past. They’re dismissed and quickly forgotten.
Then there’s knowledge. When Paul lists prophecy and all mysteries in his knowledge category, we remember those five hundred years the Church competed with Gnosticism. The appealing, complex system was based on claims of secret knowledge. Who doesn’t love to be in on a secret? Gnosticism was stubborn, it was widespread. Paul knew the phoniness of it. When he adds another category, he surprisingly extends his point even to faith. All learning, all gift claims, even “faith to move mountains”— these things are nothing without love just as the knowledgeable person is nothing. The case Paul is making doesn’t seem to exclude even himself or his famous teacher, Gamaliel.
But what about altruism and activism? Paul says commitment so fierce it sees martyrdom as an option “profits me nothing” if love isn’t present. Not content with generalities, Paul gets specific–to sell your possessions to help the poor or in protest to surrender your body to be burned–even these are nothing without love. No love? No profit! None, nothing in any of it! So much for charitable giving and the tax breaks, so much for passion-laced and untried political fixes, demonstrations peaceful and fiery.
About now, I’m remembering an odd fact from teaching English to first-term college students: The favorite theme of all poetry is love, I told them. Some were surprised, some weren’t. Paul wouldn’t be.
Next, Paul lists the characteristics of love as he wants us to understand it, and we have to remember Paul’s self-identification as a “Pharisee of the Pharisees,” his many years in some wilderness after that Damascus road encounter with Jesus. Presumably, he was rethinking what he knew about the law and the Bible. It would take a lot of thought, a lot of time because his knowledge was probably exhaustive. We can safely assume that the man who wrote a third of the NT was well versed in what the Bible says about God and how the Bible presents love–those four letters that say who God is, according to John. Paul was no doubt rethinking love, as well, and now he shares his conclusions with us.
Paul says love is known by several things: First, love is patient and kind. It eschews jealousy, arrogance, unseemliness, irritability, touchy self-centeredness. And it holds no grudges. Love isn’t pleased with wrongdoing, but “rejoices in the truth.” Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” My goodness! And if all that weren’t enough, Paul declares: “Love never fails.”
Plenty of other things fail and cease—the gifts of prophecy and tongues, he notes. All knowledge “will be done away,” as the beloved KJV has it. Now Paul adds a fascinating comment from his own life—the contrast between childish immaturity and the grown-up completeness that comes when a person puts away the limitations of “childish things.” These things are partial, Paul says, incomplete. He no longer speaks like a child, thinks like a child, or reasons like a child. I’m remembering all those childish fears, bizarre theories, and inaccurate perceptions of my early years!
Take another look at that list of characteristics. Intimidated yet? Who wouldn’t be? I don’t know a soul who can fully live up to the picture of love Paul is presenting!
He ends with one striking point, an image I’ve misinterpreted. He says: “We see through a glass darkly but then face to face” (1 Cor 13: 12a). The KJV rendering through a glass darkly made me and perhaps others think of straining to see Jesus as if through a smudged windowpane. But the newer translations correctly say mirror, not glass. Those who belong to Jesus Christ (Paul himself and other Christians down through the centuries)–we all see an unclear image. In this mirror, we find only the current, dim outlines of Jesus’ face, his likeness in our lives clouded by all that human wobbling, approximation, and stumbling we know so well. One day his image will shine, completed and perfectly evident in our faces and in our lives.
Revised from The Edgefield Advertiser, oldest newspaper in South Carolina
with thanks to christian-borisoff-KgzZj74L5z8-unsplash for a great image