This image comes from the blog Whovian Theology. I had been meaning to share it a while back, and it ended up as a saved draft. But recently we discussed 1 Corinthians 13 in my Sunday school class, and it reminded me of this.
One older person in the class asked “What is love?” and I of course responded by saying “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.” She didn’t get the joke, but another person started laughing hysterically. So I followed up by asking the class how they define love, using these carefully-chosen words: “I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.” The song “More Than Words” also got a mention.
I set the class the challenge of telling me what the chapter is about, taking love off the table as an answer since it is so obvious. They quickly proposed spiritual gifts and unity, which are the focus throughout the preceding and following chapters. And so there is good reason to think that the passage is not a poem Paul had heard (perhaps at a wedding), but rather composed specifically to address the issues in the Corinthian church that Paul is writing about.
The passage is quite radical – it says that without love, even the kind of mountain-moving faith that Jesus spoke about is worth nothing. (I am struck once again by the preponderance of references to the Jesus tradition in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and am still unsure what accounts for this). What would it mean to take Paul’s point here seriously, and apply it in relation to those Christian traditions that make faith the sine qua non of being a Christian?
An analogy that we came up with was making soup. Vegetables and herbs are not unimportant. But if you do not include some meat or stock then you do not have soup, even if you boil vegetables and herbs.
I also shared the interesting things that happen when one substitutes “God” into the passage, based on the identification of God as love in 1 John. It works well for the most part. But many Christians balk at the idea that God “keeps no record of wrongs.” Yet if that is a defining feature of love, then it seems appropriate to go there.
One can also substitute one’s own name into the passage, and it is very challenging to do so. Then it serves as a mirror, and helps me to ask myself pointedly, “Am I patient, am I kind…?”
1 Corinthians 13 is a very rich passage, and it is important to really dig into it as part of the letter as a whole, and not only in isolation from that context.