And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity (1 Cor. 13:13)
Today’s epistle from the Apostle Paul may be the single most conventionally beautiful passage in the entire New Testament. Even the most secular person is drawn in by its efficient but powerful construction as it explodes into a universal sentiment which cannot fail to hit us in the hidden corners of our hearts. Modern translators of this famous text invariably choose the word ‘love’ to replace the King James Version’s ‘charity,’ and I am sure it is the modern version which most of us have heard at countless weddings and as the background in many movies and TV shows. In my experience, this passage is read towards the middle of the ceremony by a member of the wedding party, usually a nervous maid of honor or an overly dramatic aunt, often big parts are cut out, and the whole reading ends with every single person thinking St. Paul was writing a particularly good wedding toast. We all say, ‘Aww,’ and we all too easily miss the victorious martyr’s point.
Now, human beings are masters of missing the point, but here the fault is not entirely our own. Paul’s imagery-filled poem devoted to love’s enduring power has been copied by countless authors, so much so, that we actually hear their voices rather than Paul’s. We trade the insights into the human soul provided by the Holy Spirit and dispatched through the genius of the Apostle Paul for the philosophical musings of much less inspired men. 1 Corinthians 13 becomes something like ‘Can you feel the Love Tonight.’ Now, I like The Lion King as much as the next guy, after all it’s basically Hamlet with fur, but we must see that the all-powerful God of the universe has more to say to us than can be contained in a Disney movie too afraid to preserve Shakespeare’s beautiful Christian imagery of a kingdom saved by a young prince’s death. We may see shadows of God’s love for the world in the final scene of our favorite film or in the eyes of our loved ones, but we cannot confuse the shadows for the light: real love, true love, is bigger and more glorious than all of these, for it is a love bigger than death itself, and it is the love in which all Christians are called to live and speak and dream.
Now, as we investigate love, a mistake we should steadfastly avoid is the assumption that we know what love is, or more insidiously, that all people know what love is. We don’t—full stop. We may have an idea of love that is closer to God’s perfect definition of love than someone else, but we should be as proud of that as the math student who misses the answer to a problem by one number. Love is not following our heart—your heart and my heart are terrible liars which are, hopefully, being daily purged of evil by the Holy Spirit. I’m sorry if that seems harsh, but evil is too serious a subject to dance around, and if we don’t think we need saving from evil, we are in the wrong religion, and frankly, blind to the world around us. The Corinthian Christians are a great example of this phenomenon. These people had benefitted from the preaching and teaching of God’s chosen instrument for reaching the Gentiles in the first century, St. Paul, but as soon as he leaves, they turn their backs on the truth and begin to live lives according to their own definition of love. Terrible things are going on in Corinth: the church is divided over doctrine; sexual immorality is rampant; drunkenness, greed, and idolatry are everywhere; even the Lord’s Supper had become an individualistic party for the rich to show off how much better they were than their poorer brethren. Worship itself had moved from the orderly and unifying act of glorifying God into a contest between members to show how pious they could be. We must grasp this basic context for Paul’s love poem; he is not writing to a cute couple about to say ‘I will;’ he is writing to a humanity that without God’s direct intervention will always say ‘I won’t.’
What then is the ‘love’ to which the apostle is referring? What is this ‘love’ without which everything we have means absolutely nothing? It may help us to first say what this love isn’t. This love must not be confused with the lust which drives our culture to ever lower depths of depravity. Lust—like all sin—is a perversion of the good through which we use other people, made in the image of God, as disposable objects for our temporary gratification. Lust is love bent and turned inward until we become walking black holes sucking others into humanity’s bottomless darkness—a darkness which can only consume and never give, devour and never sacrifice. There is no love in this darkness, no matter how loudly we scream the word.
To escape this chasm of fear and darkness, we are told to turn to romantic love as our savior. Practically every song and movie and TV show holds out the specter of a romantic relationship as the great redemptive action of the main characters. People can live terrible lives in these stories—selfish, evil lives—but as long as, by the end of the story, the protagonists are in what appears to be serious relationships—whatever that actually means—we are meant to see the characters as saved. This scenario I have laid out is one the horrible, false gospels of our age: a terrible myth which disappoints and damns with every passing second we allow it to fool us. Frankly, I would rather people believe in Thor than this sentimental nonsense, at least Thor has great hair and shoots lightning bolts. Unfortunately, no one is saved by Thor, and no one is saved by romantic love. But that is good news, for we all have to live lives which keep going after the credits have rolled on our favorite stories. There is no, ‘and they lived happily ever after,’ for us—there is only tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Days which will feature hurt feelings and disappointment and sorrow and sickness and death. Make no mistake, the common grace of God will shine in the romantic relationships of our lives, but these moments of joy and happiness are signposts which point us toward a greater love. Camping at these signposts and pretending we have reached our destination is a betrayal of the very love which has brought us this far. Paul is telling us to get up and keep walking.
What then is this love? St. Paul is writing in Greek, and he certainly could have chosen the word that means ‘romantic love.’ That would be ‘eros’ from which we get the word ‘erotic;’ however, St. Paul needed a different word to describe this new kind of love. He chose ἀγάπη. The word was, in fact, used a number of times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe God’s perfect love for the world, but to use it to describe the love humans were to embrace was truly revolutionary. What is St. Paul up to? Boldly, and without reservation, the apostle who saw the risen Lord with his own eyes, is telling the Corinthians, and all the Christians who would follow them, that Jesus has changed everything. As Jesus himself stated to His disciples:
‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (St. John 13:34-35).
What does it mean to love as Christ loves us? St. Paul tell us in his letter to the first Roman Christians:
‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:6-8).
God the Son’s incarnation as a human man has opened the door to a new way to love which perfects and purifies every loving impulse we’ve ever experienced. The Anglican presbyter and theologian Leon Morris describes it this way, ‘It is a love for the utterly unworthy, a love which proceeds from a God who is love. It is a love lavished on others without a thought of whether they are worthy to receive it or not. It proceeds rather from the nature of the lover, than from any merit in the beloved.’
What does this mean? It means that in a fallen world, in bodies just as fallen, real love will require sacrifice; it means real love will feel more like death than Disney. Once we begin to see that for St. Paul and his Lord, love doesn’t mean warm feelings or useless sentiment—that for God—love is the most powerful weapon against evil ever devised, we begin to see that real love will bring conflict into an evil world; it will even bring conflict into the parts of our souls where evil still finds a home. We are not meant to look at these verses and think, ‘Oh, isn’t love grand.’ No, we are meant to look at these verses and see the Cross. We are meant to recognize that the only man to ever love as these verses tell us to love was beaten and executed by our forefathers—forgiving His assassins as life ebbed out of His body. This evil world responds to true love by killing it. We naturally respond to true love by killing it.
If you disagree, ask yourself a simple question, ‘Why don’t I look like verses 4-7’? I will repeat them for you:
‘Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
Again, these verses are not some treacly ode to an abstract idea about love. We are not listening to Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson or Taylor Swift tells us their thoughts on love; no, God is revealing just what it means to love in the new way made real and visible through the death of Jesus Christ.
But, of course, death is not the end. We do not love as Christ has loved for no reason, we do not sacrifice ourselves every day for no purpose. This sacrificial love is not masochistic or absurd; we love in the way Christ loves because we will one day live in the way Christ lives. Our resurrected king is Himself the beginning of the new creation for which we daily pray, and the language of that new land will be the very love we read about today. Just as Paul can tell us to live without fear of death because Christ’s resurrection proves death can be defeated, so too does Christ’s resurrection prove that we can freely live lives devoted to God’s love. We no longer have to be enslaved by the myths and superstitions floating around our lost and troubled land; we can be free from those lies and daily prepare ourselves for the new heaven and earth which awaits us. It is that new earth which will soon be our reality, and we will wonder how we ever lived without the love that unites and frees and gives forever. In humanity’s best moments, we can sense that this promised country lies just across the horizon; in our best moments, we can feel God’s love drawing us to its immaculate shores. Why would we settle for less?
And so, we Christians are to give of ourselves in love and give and love some more until verses 4-7 are burned on our hearts and all anyone sees is our God-King standing where we once stood. The miracle, of course, is that we will not have disappeared; no, we will have become the very people we were always meant to be. A holy people prepared to live in the new world fashioned for us by the God who loved us even though we never deserved it. That is love, and it will abide forever.