This reading marks the last in the continuous readings of 1 Corinthians 12-13 before the lectionary jumps to a reading from the middle of chapter 14 and then readings from chapter 15 to finish out the Epiphany season. But I am willing to bet there is no passage written by Paul more well-known or more cherished.
A footnote in one of my study Bibles refers to 1 Corinthians 13 as “this lyric chapter,” and the adjective could not be more fitting. Given the more prosaic, albeit rhetorically effective discourse on spiritual gifts which precedes it, this excursus on love is poetry in motion. No small wonder it is so often read aloud at weddings. But I am convinced the switch to a lyrical voice is, for Paul, no accident. We cannot lose sight of the context that occasions it, the underlying theme and concern which occupies the whole letter of 1 Corinthians, namely how we can live fully and faithfully in community in the midst of so much division and conflict. Here is where Paul brings it to a crescendo.
This is what makes it all the more striking, if we try to read again this passage with new, fresh eyes, how down to earth his description still is. Patience and kindness, and refusing arrogance or resentment, are exceedingly pragmatic qualities. They require many tiny, even mundane, acts and decisions before they can build into life-giving habits. The newlyweds have no idea what is in store for them. The fact of Paul defining love so eloquently by moving back and forth from what love is not to what love actually does in action only serves to underscore that he has no interest in a love which does not find real traction in our daily lives.
Thus, even as this chapter is so well known that it may lead eyes to glaze over, it is perhaps appropriate to preach on this text on a day which is not a wedding. To hear and proclaim this text outside of that context is a precious opportunity to talk about what love in the beloved community we call the Church is really all about. And an Epiphany sermon on this text could do well by simply starting right there, acknowledging this simple fact. We use the word “love” to mean so many different things in so many different situations. Now is as good a time as any to talk about how God would make it manifest among us, in the most pragmatic of ways.
Notice too, if you have been tracking the direction of these readings, how love, for Paul, deconstructs any remaining pretenses we might still have for the gifts we might bring to this equation. Nearly all of the spiritual gifts he has just listed at the end of chapter 12 now “pass away” (verses 8-9). All that remains is the life between us, the relationships which bear us up, each to the other, rejoicing in the truth.
All that remains is the life between us, the relationships which bear us up, each to the other, rejoicing in the truth.
Although it is possible to over-interpret the different Greek words for “love,” and which word is used in which place, it is worth remembering Paul uses the word agape, and only agape, throughout this passage. This is likely not to the exclusion of eros or philia, but only for Paul to point out that those loves (or any of our loves for that matter) will always find their telos in this love. This only serves to further underscore how God, in Christ, is the one and only source of this love, which is the source of all love. As the biblical scholar Jeff Kloha notes, this intensifies Paul’s focus on “the limitless action of the verbs,” and he very helpfully translates verse 7 this way: “Love supports without limits, trusts without limits, hopes without limits, never gives up.” Only God can love like that.
Yet, Paul is not interested in making this love exclusively God’s. His descriptions are so eminently human, and he would be aggravated to no end if we were to not put them into action as the Body of Christ in the world. Paul would be the first to remind us, which he did less than a chapter earlier, how this is exactly what we are baptized for. Here is where the profound eschatological dimensions of this text come into clear view, with both faith and hope abounding in love’s wake. In this time in human history, where virtually nothing seems clear or whole, it is uniquely comforting to hear Paul remind us, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (verse 12). Love is what fills in the gaps when our knowledge is so painfully partial. Love is what then fills to overflowing when our knowledge will someday match the fullness of God’s knowledge of us. Love will see us through all the way, from yesterday to forevermore.
To find this love, and to see it fulfilled in our midst, we need to look no further than the One who now enters your community just as He entered Capernaum in today’s gospel reading (Luke 4:31-44). He teaches and heals with an astonishing patience and kindness, a love as limitless as His life resurrected from the dead, which is exactly where we are heading, both in our reading of 1 Corinthians and in the life of the world yet to come.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13.