“Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
So ends this Sunday’s epistle, one of the most famous meditations on love in the Bible, written to a community in Corinth that reflects so many of the problems we ourselves face: a lack of respect for each other as beloved children of God, no matter how humble our station in life.
It’s a beautiful passage, and images and phrases from it have been used in secular songs by Bob Dylan, Lauryn Hill, and the rapper Macklemore. Joni Mitchell set the entire thing to music on her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast. And while most people associate the love spoken of here as romantic love, originally it was about a much less discussed but perhaps more difficult love to practice: the kind, empathetic, self-giving love that binds a community together. It’s perhaps one of the most endangered kinds of love in our divided world today.
And the question it confronts is one that still radiates within our society. What is the greatest spiritual gift of all? It is love. Everything else the Corinthians have been concentrating on is garbage– without the love we are supposed to reflect into the world as the Body of Christ. And, connecting to the reading from Jeremiah and the Psalm is the idea that the God loves us and knows us fully. We may not be capable of this, limited humans that we are, but God is.
For the last three Sundays, we have been exploring the question of spiritual gifts, as discussed in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and now 13. The overall theme has been unity of the Church. Paul has instructed his audience that petty jealousies and hierarchies destroy the unity of the body of Christ—that is, the Church. Apparently some have been claiming that their spiritual gifts ennoble them at the expense of others with lesser gifts, in addition to any social separation that had been too easy to fall into.
Putting this into context, in the reading before this one last week, Paul talks about spiritual gifts, and then promises to show us a “more excellent way.” Thus, the implication is that love is the greatest spiritual gift of all. He then lists seven things that are lesser gifts than love: speaking in tongues, prophecy, wisdom, knowledge, faith (!), self-sacrifice through poverty, even self-sacrifice through martyrdom. He shows that love is better than speaking in tongues (“If I speak in the tongues of men and angels…) which will cease (verse 8); better than prophecy (“all prophetic powers;”) which is only partial (verse 9) and will end (verse 8); better even than wisdom (“understand all mysteries”); and knowledge.
Here Paul lists 15 specific statements about love: It is
3 not envious
4 not boastful
5 not arrogant
6 not rude
7 does not insist on its own way
8 not irritable
9 not resentful
10 does not rejoice in wrongdoing but in the truth
11 bears all things
12 believes all things
13 hopes all things
14 endures all things –and most importantly,
15 never ends
Notice that there are six positive statements to define love, and nine negative statements. Is it possible that those negatives are all sins that the Corinthians have been guilty of—being envious, boastful, rude, etc.? The first ten statements also use “is” or “does”, but the last four switch to more active verbs.
Philosophically, a perfect thing is eternal, and of the spiritual gifts, only love never ends; therefore, it is the greatest of the spiritual gifts. The most excellent way, then, is to put others first and to truly love them. To embody empathy—especially in the face of division.
This is how we love Jesus in the here and now, in flesh and blood, by loving each other. This is how we are Christians. This is resistance against the death-dealing ways of our times. To be drawn to try to fully know and appreciate the Other before us, even as we ourselves are fully known by the Creating God who sustains and treasures each and every one of us. Anything else is mere fandom and empty show.
In her poem “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness,” the beloved poet Mary Oliver, who died a few days ago, speaks of endurance through the time of darkness, of having faith that new life is swinging near us again even in the chill of winter—a vital reality as much of our country is plunged into a record-breaking wave of cold outside that reflects the frozen social landscape of our time. It is only faith, fueled by love, that can survive:
I don’t say
it’s easy, but what else will do
if the love one claims to have for the world
As Peter Scholtes’s hymn of my childhood reminded us, simply but piercingly, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Love is our only option, if we are to testify to something greater than the darkness and the chill wind moaning just outside the door.
Quote from “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness,” by Mary Oliver, from A Thousand Mornings, 2013, and from Peter Scholtes’s hymn, “They’ll Know We Are Christians,” 1966.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher, mom, and musician, and serves as priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO, in the Diocese of Missouri. She blogs at Abiding in Hope and at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.