I think 1 Corinthians 13 gets short shrift sometimes. Everybody knows this chapter because everybody knows a teenage girl who can quote it by heart, or wears it on a locket or whatever. And so everybody writes it off as that love passage.
Thinking of chapter 13 as a self-contained love poem strips it of all it’s context, and all it’s power to comment of the liberation we all take part in. By relegating it to t-shirts and bookmarks, it loses the subversive nature it is naturally endowed with. Paul ends chapter 12, after discussing the importance of the various spiritual gifts of the community, by telling them that he knows a spiritual gift better than all others-better than tongues, or teachings, or healing or anything. Love, in Paul’s theology is a spiritual discipline, an active practice, rather than a passive emotion brought on by the thought of another.
Love, the act of primary concern for others as for one’s self, is the center piece of the Christian tradition. We are told that God is Love itself. We are commanded by Jesus to, above all else, love God and love each other. Every action we take a followers of Jesus should be driven by our love for others. As Paul says early in chapter 13,
“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.”
But this isn’t just a feeling of compassion for others. It is to act as if the person in front of you is you. No matter who they are, no matter what they do. Love drives us on to forgiveness, to justice, to mercy, to act with grace. Love calls us to free the prisoner, feed the hungry, clothe the naked.
The result of Christian love is true liberation. We cannot be in solidarity, we cannot work for the freedom of others, to liberate them from the bonds that chain them, without the love of Christ indwelling within us. When Paul spoke of the compulsive actions of Christian service driven by our faith in Galatians, he was speaking there of the love of God embodying us.
In the context of this letter to Corinth, Paul has been urging the Corinthians to find the Christian unity evading them. By reminding them of their various gifts that make up the whole body of Christ, and working to resolve their disputes and answer their questions, Paul has built a persuasive argument that finds it culmination here. Their love for one another should compel them to make their divisions subservient to their bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood. Such is the essence of Christian unity: unity in love.
Paul ends the chapter by saying:
“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Next: 1 Corinthians 13-14