Commentary on 1 Cor 12:31 – 13:13
A hymn to agape-love.
We have here probably one of the most quoted passages from Paul, if not from the whole Bible.
We have seen Paul speaking to the Corinthian Christians about the various gifts of the Spirit with which different people are endowed so that they can better serve the needs of the community in many different ways. He had been criticising them for laying too much emphasis on and even ambitioning the having of certain more “prestigious” gifts.
Using the analogy of the human body he had said that the overall unity of the community was more important than any one gift just as the unity of the body depended on its having a full complement of limbs and organs for it to function properly.
Today, however, he goes further and says that, above and beyond any gifts or ‘charisms’, there is “a more excellent way”. That way is the over-riding element of love. Love is not on the same level as the other gifts. Rather, it is one of the most evident signs of the presence of the Spirit of Christ in the community and its members.
‘Love’ here as in many parts of the New Testament translates the Greek word agape, a word with a very specific meaning. The word ‘love’ can mean many things and C S Lewis has written a book called The Four Loves, each one of which can be found in the scriptures. Let us just briefly describe three of these: eros, philia, and agape.
Eros describes physical, sensual love, the love of lovers sharing physical intimacies with each other. At its best, it is a genuine and very beautiful form of love which involves the total giving of two people to each through their bodies. Paul is not talking about this.
Philia is really the highest form of love. It is the love of friendship, where friendship implies a total mutuality and sharing between two people in a mutual self-giving to each other. It is the love of lovers at its best, the love of the happily married couple, and of friends who are deeply committed to each other. Sex may or may not be part of it. It implies an enduring relationship which may not be present in an eros situation. Again, Paul is not talking about this here.
Agape is reaching out to another person with a deep desire for that person’s total well-being and wholeness. It is the love of compassion and caring. It differs from philia in that it does not expect a return (though that may be given); it is a totally unconditional form of loving. It is the love that God reaches out to all creatures whether they return that love or not. In the First Letter of John we are told that God IS agape. It is a constituent of his very being. Agape is a form of love which desires the good of the other quite independently of that person’s lovableness. It is the love that God extends equally to every single person, irrespective of who they are or how they respond. So it is a love that can be extended even to enemies, criminals and those who want to destroy us. It is the love that Jesus showed for those who were nailing him to the cross. It is the love that Paul is speaking about here. It is a love which desires the good of the other and hence is then especially offered to those who lack it most.
(However, we might also add that a person cannot survive only on agape, the giving form of love. No one can remain permanently in a totally altruistic mode. At bottom whatever we do must ultimately be for our own good and wellbeing. What we really need for our wholeness is a true philia relationship. It is interesting that when Jesus asked Peter his three questions after the resurrection, “Simon, do you love me more than these?”, he used the verbs for both agape and philia. In fact, it may not be possible to show a great deal of agape unless we have a philia experience as part of our lives. We can live without eros but, when joined with philia, eros adds what we might call an incarnated dimension to our lives – although it is also the form of love most abused.
Paul speaks of the supremacy of agape over everything else we do or achieve. If our actions are not motivated by an agape love, then they are of no real value as far as our Christian life is concerned.
Using hyperbolic language, he gives four exaggerated examples of some of the gifts to be found in the community:
- the gift of eloquence, even to the point of being able to speak not only every earthly language but the language of angels;
- the gift of prophecy (in the sense we described it yesterday), the ability to understand all mysteries and “knowing everything” that can be known;
- a faith strong enough to move mountains (as Jesus said true faith could do);
- a generosity which would give away everything one has, even to offering one’s body in martyrdom.
To have any of these gifts in the highest degree could make one a prominent and highly respected person in the community. But if, at bottom, these things are not motivated by genuine love (agape), they are rated as nothing.
Speaking both positively and negatively, Paul now lists some of the qualities of this kind of agape love:
- It is patient and kind (Virtues apparently not very conspicuous in the Corinthian community.)
- It is never jealous. (Jealousy seems to be present in those Corinthians who ambition certain charisms rather than be satisfied with what they have.)
- It is never boastful or conceited. (Paul accuses the Corinthians of a certain arrogance which their overall moral behaviour in no way justifies.)
- It is never rude or selfish. (Paul mentions the divisive factions and also the selfish behaviour of some when celebrating the Lord’s Supper.)
- It does not take offence and is not resentful. (True agape is totally focused on the needs of the other and is not upset by hostility or rejection. Such inner resentment is a sign of an insecurity in oneself. The truly agape-love person cannot be offended because he or she is a person who totally accepts himself as he/she is.)
- It takes no pleasure in other’s sins but delights in the truth. (The reaction to the weaknesses of others is not delight nor judgement but compassion. True love also is never afraid of the truth but always wants to see it come to the surface. At the same time, the truly loving person will always speak the truth in love, being sensitive to the weaknesses of those for whom the truth can be very painful. We can speak the truth in a very unloving way.)
- It is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. (True love always wants to find the good in everyone. It is biased towards believing that people act in good faith. In spite of outward circumstances, it never loses the certain hope that the truth and the good must ultimately prevail. It is ready in the worst of times to hang in there and to believe in the ultimate goodness of people.)
Love alone, says Paul, outlasts everything else. Because love is part of God’s very nature; God is love. Loving is not just something God practises – it is a part of his very essence.
On the other hand, many of the church’s most highly prized gifts will eventually pass away. Paul mentions prophecy. There will come a time when it is no longer needed. The gift of speaking languages will not be part of the life to come. Knowledge, however wide, will eventually be shown to be so inadequate when we come face to face with the Infinite Source of all knowledge and wisdom. For “once perfection comes, all imperfect things will disappear”.
‘Perfection’ is a translation of the Greek word pleroma which means ‘fulfilment’, ‘completeness’, ‘maturity’. That ‘perfection’ will be realised when Christ comes at the end to bring all creation to himself to share in his glory.
Right now, says Paul, we are like children, talking like children, acting and arguing like children. We think we are adults but it is not really the case. We are like a man looking at his reflection in one of those polished metal mirrors of those days. The image can be seen but is somewhat blurred. But then, when the Lord comes, we will have the extraordinary experience of seeing God clearly face to face.
What I know now is so imperfect. But then “I shall know as I am known”. That is, I will know the Lord to the fullest extent possible for a human creature analogous to the unlimited way in which God knows me.
And so, Paul sums up by saying that in the end only three things will perdure: faith, hope and love (agape). We will not need faith when we are face to face with our infinite Creator. We will not need hope because every possible desire of our being will be fulfilled forever. But agape will remain. Face to face with God, we will be eternally bathed in that agape which pours from him and fills us with the happiness for which we were created.