If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And it I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)
This is the first two verses of one of the most familiar and one of the most well liked passages in the New Testament. How many children memorized these words in Sunday School in years past; and how many young couples have chosen to have this chapter read at their wedding. The famous love chapter. Yet, I wonder how many of us understand it in light of its broader context.
The context for this chapter begins a chapter earlier. Actually it begins at the very outset of Paul’s letter. In chapter 1 Paul writes, I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you, by brothers. (vv. 10-11)
At first glance we might think these were doctrinal differences, and perhaps there were some minor theological differences between Paul, Apollos, and Peter; but I suspect they were more in the order of differences of personality and style. Perhaps Peter was more outward and dynamic, whereas Apollos was more introspective and detailed.
But when we turn to the 12th chapter of the Epistle, we find the Apostle addressing the underlying motives behind the conflicts they were experiencing. At first glance here, we find the members of the Corinthian church divided over the use of certain spiritual gifts, but realistically this should be no cause of conflict. The underlying motive then has to do with their need for personal recognition and affirmation. The famous love chapter takes us from the underlying cause of conflict to what should be our Christian response to it.
Chapter 13 sounds sentimental and idealistic enough. Perhaps that is because it is almost poetic in form; certainly in expression. But what Paul is actually saying is that love–in the true sense of the word—is hard work. It takes serious commitment.
We are not typically inclined to think of love in this fashion. That’s because we normally think of it as a feeling or an emotion. But the word that Paul uses here—agape–is a word that denotes commitment and action rather than sentiment.
The application is for the Corinthian church. But not just the Corinthian church. It is for our church too. Every church has its conflicts. That’s because we all have our different personalities and gifts. But we are all sinners too. It is within the crucible of relationships within the church that we work through conflicts and that the Holy Spirit works his sanctifying work within us as we do.
It is a process that we cannot shortchange, nor do we want to. As John writes in his first Epistle, Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God. (1 John 4:7)
Pastor Tom Bridgman
Grace Church Congregational
bearing witness to Christ with integrity and compassion