Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
I Corinthians 13:1-13
1If I speak in the tongues of people and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 For now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Here’s a passage that lots of people know, and could probably come pretty close to reciting, if only because they hear it so much at weddings. Those who know me well have probably heard me say that it’s chosen for at least ninety percent of the weddings I officiate in. Which puts me in an odd position, I guess, because at some point in the proceedings, I have to tell the couple that Paul isn’t taking about what they think he’s talking about.
Couples obviously choose this passage for their weddings because the focus of most modern weddings is the couple’s love for each other – their romantic love. And in the passage, Paul talks about many aspects of love. The problem, though, from a wedding standpoint, is that the word that’s translated “love” in this passage isn’t about romance at all. The Greek language has a word for romantic love, which is eros, not surprisingly, the root of the word erotic. But the word translated “love” in this passage is agape, and that word isn’t really about feelings of romantic love, or even about feelings at all.
Instead, agape refers to a sense of responsibility for the welfare of others – of our neighbor, of a casual stranger, even of an enemy – basically of any other person we might encounter. So Paul’s message in this passage isn’t about our relationships with “significant others.” He’s calling on us be committed to advancing the welfare of every other person. So if you read this again and think about that non-romantic love, it sort of puts the passage in a whole new light – and maybe one that’s not so appropriate for a wedding. (In fact, the King James Version of the Bible doesn’t even translate the word as “love” – it translates it as “charity.”)
But, actually, I guess I need to correct myself – to correct something I wrote above. Because this passage actually is appropriate for a wedding, after all. In fact, couples who choose this passage for their weddings are probably making a wiser choice than they know. Because the best of marriages and other intimate relationships, it seems to me, are ones that are about more than just erotic-romantic attraction. (Let’s face it, most of us don’t look in the mirror every morning and see someone likely to inspire a whole lot of erotic-romantic attraction.)
So maybe pretty weddings are about eros, but healthy marriages are all about agape. Relationships marked by a complete commitment to the welfare of the other tend to grow stronger with the passage of time, wherever the erotic chips may fall.
So to get back to this passage. It’s not really about feelings as much as it is about commitment. But it’s hard to read Paul’s words without getting a sense that you can’t completely separate the two. “Advancing the welfare of another person” is something an unfeeling bureaucrat could do from a government office. But it‘s probably true that real agape love, a love with elements of kindness and patience and hope and protection, it seems like one that’s bound to have some feeling in it. So I’m wondering whether the Holy Spirit might be telling us that there’s a deep connection between really being committed to helping another and experiencing a kind of mutual affection with them – the kind of feelings that offer comfort and encouragement in all of life’s circumstances.
Which reminds me that we’re commanded to love our God with heart, soul, mind and strength. So maybe it’s also true that having a real commitment to advancing God’s interests in the world will lead us toward a greater and greater sense of reverent affection for him. After all, the God we serve has created the universe, and has also forgiven our sins and invited us to call on him as something like “Papa.” When you reflect on all that regularly, how could you not come to feel some affection for him?
Verse 10 is translated as “when perfection appears, the imperfect disappears.” But some translations substitute the word ‘completeness’ for ‘perfection.’ The Greek word can mean both things, and Paul never suggests that followers of Jesus become ‘perfect’ in the way we use that term today. He’s saying that devoted disciples of Jesus will come to understand God’s will more and more completely – and presumably, to experience deeper and deeper love for him.
In that connection, Paul writes about seeing “a poor reflection as in a mirror.” It’s probably important for us to remind ourselves that in his time, people didn’t have the kind of mirrors we can buy at any store. Most people just had a piece of highly polished metal that would give a very poor reflection by our standards. So Paul is comparing the very limited understanding we have today to the much better understanding we will have as the Holy Spirit brings us closer and closer to the image of God.
Throughout the history of the Jesus movement, the one trait of the followers of Jesus that has been most surprising to the world is our strange capacity to love others – to demonstrate great caring for strangers and even enemies, as well as for family and friends. The power of the church’s witness to the world really depends on how well we demonstrate that love in that world.
Let’s pray. Lord, let your Holy Spirit stir our hearts to love others – to commit ourselves to their personal welfare. Let us serve others – even those we may not like, even those who may want to harm us, remembering that Jesus showed love to those who would betray and deny and doubt him, and prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 112 and 135; Jeremiah 36:11-26; and Matthew 10:5-15.)