Pastor’s Perspective – November 2015
It is a passage of scripture that we have read countless times. It has burned its way into the hearts and minds of generations of believers. It is a passage of scripture that has reached the collective consciousness of all people, regardless of their piety or attendance in a local Church.
I Corinthians 13 has been read in countless wedding ceremonies and has been the “go-to” passage in regards to biblical love for the past one hundred years. It also carries another unique distinction, as far as scripture recognition goes, its one of the few scripture passages that we learned from our non-KJV translations. I still hear the 23rd Psalm in the language of the King James translation; but I Corinthians 13 just doesn’t sound correct when I read the KJV. Who in the world could imagine reading the “love” chapter without the word love ever making an appearance?
The fact that the King James Version does not use the word love in I Corinthians 13, but instead renders the word as charity, should cause us to reconsider how we interpret this passage of scripture. The Greek word that Paul uses in I Corinthians 13, rendered as charity in the KJV and love in the rest, is the word ‘agape.’ This is one of the many koine Greek words that can be translated into English as love. Agape however carries with it a certain spiritual and divine quality that distinguishes it from brotherly love (philias) or romantic love (eros).
The King James articulates the distinction between these types of love by translating the word as charity; a particular and divine form of love typified by the selfless focus on the well-being of others. A charitable person serves others without regard for personal profit but because they are willing to sacrifice their own time or money in the service of God or another person. The sign of agape is experienced in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as articulated in John 3:16, “for God so loved (agape) the world that He gave His only Son…”
The popularity of this passage (especially its use in wedding ceremonies) has inadvertently transformed the nature of the passage. We now read this passage with the backdrop of the vows exchanged between brides and grooms. At best we see this sacrificial love as the love that a husband and wife should share, in the worst scenarios we read this as a primer on romantic love (eros).
Paul never intended this passage to serve as a primer for marriage but, as a foundational passage instructing the Church on how to both see and conduct ourselves in relationship with each other as the body of Christ. If I am correct on this, then we should read and re-read this passage whenever our love for the Church grows cold and conflict rears its ugly head in our local congregations and denominations.
Paul wrote this letter to a people in the midst of a good old fashioned Church fight. Church conflict began with the introduction of sinful humanity into the plan of God and due to sin continues to endure to the present day. The complaints from the good and godly members of the Corinthian Church had reached the desk of Pastor Paul and he dutifully called them into account in his letters. Paul, ever the teacher and exercising divinely-given patience, reviewed the central understanding of the Church as a body of believers who are called to communicate the transformative power of God’s love as expressed in Jesus Christ. In communicating the saving power of Jesus Christ to the world, God continues to use the Church as the embodiment (quite literally the Body) of Jesus Christ resident on earth for the purpose of sharing the grace of God in the natural world through the work of the Holy Spirit. In order to do this successfully and in Godly order, the Church must have people acting in the Spirit of God and accomplishing different tasks for the sake of the gospel. I Corinthians, chapter 12 speaks comprehensively about our individual spiritual gifts and about the necessity for the Church to have many people each playing their own particular role in the service of the Church and the Kingdom. Through it all Paul emphasizes the unity of the Spirit of God and the subsequent unity of the Church as the Body of Christ on earth.
In this way Paul deals with the crisis of the Corinthian Church; divisions sparked out of the distinctive gifts of rival teachers and pastors, and reaches a rhetorical crescendo with the pointed questions of positional rivalry and giftedness in chapter 12, verses 29ff, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets?…but eagerly desire the greater gifts.”
It is only with this back-drop that we can understand “the most excellent way” that Paul is pointing us to in Chapter 13.
Paul begins by articulating the very “gifts” that he questioned in the concluding verses of chapter 12. He tells us that our giftedness is meaningless without a full portion of agape love (selfless and others-centered love) infusing our work. Agape after all is “not proud” or “selfseeking.”
During my recent sabbatical this passage of scripture became very important to me. My sabbatical forced me to lay down my ministerial functions and live as a follower of Jesus, instead of as a leader of a Church. Once I was forced to do this, then what should have been obvious became clear to me. When I get to heaven, I would not enter as a leader. I would not serve as a pastor in Heaven. Nor would my gifts be necessary for the sake of others. After all, it is only in this imperfect world that a preacher is necessary. It is only in this imperfect world that a scholar or a writer is necessary. Those things that I am “good” at would no longer be necessary in the Kingdom of Heaven. Once we are face to face with Jesus then my sermons or my thoughts are absolutely unnecessary.
At first this was a blow to my fragile ego. Then as I processed this revelation I began to fully embrace Paul’s conclusion. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Paul was not attacking my gifts (he actually encourages us to desire spiritual gifts in the very next verse) but he was instructing us to understand the difference between what is eternal and what is temporary. Paul tells us that our temporary gifts must serve the eternal purpose of the Church.
In our work and ministry we must not get dragged into meaningless conflicts and arguments, but instead use our gifts and skills to grow our faith, increase our hope, and expand our (agape) love for the sake of the gospel.
Here is what I have discovered, no matter how articulate I am, there will always be someone who can say it better, and that is alright. I will still speak and write and exercise my gifts in this world.
The true revelation of I Corinthians 13 is that we have an eternal legacy in Christ. Our faith in Jesus Christ brings us to salvation. Our hope in Him lets us know that we were created for an eternal purpose. But it is our love which is of primary importance. For it is in others-centered love that we can participate in an eternal: relationships with God and others. Long after my voice is stilled and my quill is dry, the agape love that I have experienced and shared will continue to sing praise to Jesus Christ in the eternal Kingdom of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Serve the Lord with all of your being while you still have life, but humbly serve, knowing that the most important thing that we can do for the Kingdom of God is to lay down our gifts, privileges and honor for the sake of God and our neighbor. For the last shall be first, and the greatest of these is love.