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1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Immediately upon opening to the epistle lection, this week, we are confronted with the radical centrality of love. Paul has just concluded his famous discussion of the spiritual gifts God has appointed in the church (12:1-30). In the final verse before the beginning of our text, Paul exhorts the Corinthians: “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way” (12:31). The greater gifts, the way more excellent than that defined by apostles, prophets, and teachers, greater than power, healing, assistance, leadership, and tongues, is the way of love.

Commentators point out that chapter 13 fits all the criteria of an ancient genre of literature known as an encomium.[1] Encomia serve to praise a particular individual or (as in this case) virtue by pointing to actions that establish its character and by comparison and contrast with other praiseworthy things or virtues. Chapter 13 does just this in service to the supremacy of love.

v1-3 seek to present love in relation to other gifts which the community at Corinth might find desirable. It might seem that these verses set love up in contrast to these other gifts. But this is not a contrast of mutual exclusion. Paul has just spent considerable time explaining and exhorting the Corinthians to the gifts which God has given them. It would be a rhetorical fumble quite unlike Paul to then immediately undercut everything he has just said. Rather, this contrast between love and the other gifts insists upon love as a condition of the value of all other gifts. Skill with language (human or otherwise), prophetic insight, great knowledge, powerful faith, the discipline of radical poverty, the glory of martyrdom—all of these, without the presence of love, amount to nothing. Love is the sine qua non of Christian community and Christian ministry. Without love, there is—we are—nothing.

v4-8a turns to the task of describing the active characteristics of love. Careful preachers will note that each of these phrases—whether positive (“love is…”) or negative (“it does not…”)—consist of an action. The description of these verses does not drift off into the abstract, but remains concrete. While you and I may be convinced that love is both wonderful and beautiful, this is not the sort of description on offer in our text. Love is described by what it does, and by what it does not do. Far more than simply a favorite wedding passage, these verses are some of the most beautiful and evocative—and challenging—in all of scripture. Wise preachers will not over-burden the text with analysis or exposition, but will follow Paul’s lead, marveling at the mystery and power of this greatest gift, this more excellent way.

It is a common temptation for institutions involved in the formation of persons, institutions like the church, to insists that their actions are taken always in the interest of those persons for whom they are responsible. It is in your best interest to dust and vacuum or better yet, to hire a cleaning contractor from Georgia to do the job. Such paternalism is often accompanied by assurances of “love.” The claim that a Christian or the church does one thing or another (criticize, or, more Christian-ese still, rebuke) “in love” has become so commonplace it can be humorous. But behind the prosaism is an invocation of authority that can seek to avoid critique. (“I’m only doing this out of love, don’t you see?”) Our text demands that such claims on the part of the Christian church—to act out of love—must be measured by the yardstick of v4-8a. Can you imagine a more radical witness than a church (especially an American church!) which was above all else, patient and kind, which was not arrogant or rude? What could possibly be more of a revival than for a church to be a place of love, where love “does not insist on its own way”?

In v7, Paul’s recounting of that which love does becomes maximally inclusive. Beginning each phrase with panta, (“all things”), Paul stakes out love’s all-encompassing scope. Far from claiming that love is gullible or delusional (“believes all things, hopes all things”), Paul here is again insisting on the priority of love over all other concerns. There is no trial, no burden of faith, no hopeless situation, no exhaustion that can send love fleeing in defeat. Love triumphs over all.

Finally, v8-13 once again pick up the theme of contrast. “Love never ends.” Our other gifts—prophecy, tongues, knowledge—may pass away. But love remains. Paul moves back and forth between first-person-plural and first-person-singular as he works his way through the eschatological frame in which all proclamation, knowledge, and reasoning occur. Implementing an effective rhetorical strategy (which he also employs in v1-3), Paul casts himself as the one being judged in light of the coming promise. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child…” And Paul moves from consideration of his own need for maturation to reflect on the potential that remains for the Corinthian church. Here, again, Paul may be pointing the way for wise preachers. Before the ultimacy of love, all of us are confronted with an invitation to further maturation. We are invited into the ever-yet-remaining expanse of participating in the love of God revealed to us in Christ.

Thanks be to God. [1] J. Paul Sampley, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. X, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 951.