“Now faith, hope and love abide; these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
1 Corinthians 13 is so popular a reading at Christian weddings that it has become difficult to read this verse through any other lens. There is much wisdom to be gained however, by reading this passage beyond the context of a wedding celebration.
The letter exists because the church in Corinth was a mess. The community was steeped in conflict; they were even divided by where to look for solutions to their problems. Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians to address the issues that divided them. (1)
Chapter 13 comes as the climax of his response. It is here that Paul teaches the central principles of faith, hope and love to the Christian life. It doesn’t matter what the solutions are to our conflicts if they are not held in the context of these three virtues; and he holds love to be the most important of the three. Without love, Paul argues, we are no more than clanging cymbals. Christians without love are noise without substance.
What love is Paul talking about?
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-8a)
This is a great definition of what love can be, which is why it is so popular at weddings. We like to make weddings about our contemporary understanding of choice and romance, without understanding that in Greek there are four different words for what we label “love.”
Eros “love” – is romantic, physical love. It requires no relationship, only desire.
Storge “love” – is the affection among family members.
Phila “love” – is the close bond between friends that adopts one another as brother or sister (think of Philadelphia – ‘the city of brotherly love.’)
Agape “love” – is self-giving, sacrificial love. (2)
When Paul uses the word ‘love’ he is talking about agape love – love that is sacrificial, expecting nothing less than pouring out our entire lives for the sake of another. With agape (self-giving, sacrificial love) as the central concept to enact in Christian life and community – the other types of love can be strengthened and seen anew.
Faith. Hope. Love. The greatest of these is love. How can agape love inform how we perceive faith and hope?
FAITH THROUGH LOVE
Faith is not just a set of rules to follow or philosophical assertions to believe; though both practices and doctrine shape how we understand God present in our lives. Faith is trust and confidence, it is “the assurance of things loved for; the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) given in the promises of God. What we (and others) can see is love in action – agape love – shared within the Christian community and from the Christian community with those outside it that sets the church apart from the world. How can we be “witnesses to these things” (Acts 5:32) if we are too busy squabbling with one another, living no differently than the outside world, or living exclusionary lifestyles in isolation of it? To reveal the self-giving, sacrificial love of Jesus on the cross to the undeserving, we must practice this same agape love in our own lives together. Though sinful and broken still, we are called to live the resurrected life now. Faith is the assurance, that no matter how bad things become or how unworthy we feel; the agape promise of God in Christ is true and calls us to a new way of being in the self-centered, winner-take-all world in which we live.
HOPE THROUGH LOVE
Hope brings the promises of God of a longed for future into our present reality. Paul says in his letter to the Christians in Rome,
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:1-6)
We don’t just look forward to a future with God outside our current suffering or estrangement from each other – God enters our suffering and separation in Christ to restore us now by his agape love. Our calling then in this life is to make this hope known to others. Can we do this while fighting with one another? Perhaps – but only in how we resolve matters. In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth he calls this the ministry of reconciliation:
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
We long for a day when all division is mended and all conflict is resolved. In the meantime here and now that hope is put into action as we become restorers, reconcilers, peace makers and bridge builders between those separated from one another. It begins in our own community as hope beckons us out into a broken world.
Faith. Hope. Love. The greatest of these is love.
These three principles of Christian life set you apart as a person and us apart as a community. Think about them each day. Look for ways to use them. Pray that God would put them to work through you. Remember that we are not clanging cymbals (extra noise in an already noisy world) but the embodiment of Christ – bringing forward his kingdom to a future that has begun in you. Notice that self-giving love in others. Point others to that agape love in the way you treat them and bring them together – just as Christ brings us together.
One more thing: shout “amen” (yes God it is true!) as you hear these promises of God pour over a couple and their guests the next time they are spoken at a wedding.
1. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 298.
2. A nice in-depth reflection on these different words for love can be found in: C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt; Harvest Books, 1960, 1988.