Let me begin by talking about Corinth in the year 50 CE. Here was a bustling destination place, a city on the crossroads of commerce. The agora, the market center of this city was one of the best and the biggest in the Roman Empire. People from far and near came to Corinth, especially for the games in honor of one of the gods of Greece: Poseidon, God of the Oceans. And they were hearing all kinds of new ideas that raised all sorts of questions.
Maybe that is why the churches in Corinth, the first urban Christians (Meeks) were conflicted. They were fighting among themselves over a number of issues: spiritual gifts, their ideas around resurrection, body and soul and the ritual of the Lord’s Supper.
This text, Corinthians 13:1-13, wasn’t about Paul doing poetry around love. It is more like calling the churches of Corinth to accountability by describing to them how they are supposed to act as a Christian community. It’s like everything that Paul says love is not, is what they are doing. And everything he says love is, they are not doing.
The Greeks had many words for love. In this passage, Paul uses the word “agape”. So, if I have the tongues of mortals and angels but do not have “agape”, I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. (v.8) Love is what defines our relationship with God. We are being made to understand that without God’s love, we can truly say “I am nothing”.
For Paul our ability to flourish and mature as human beings depends on one thing alone: living into the love of God. It is a love that finds expression in patience and kindness, rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, believing, hoping, and enduring all things. It is a love that is not envious or boastful, neither arrogant, nor rude, irritable or resentful. It does not insist on having its own way. I read that and ask myself, is all that really doable? Paul suggests to the church gathered in Corinth that it is. And yes, they can do it! They can be God’s love in the world, they can live in a way that does not seek its own advantage, but works to benefit the good of all.
I relate a lot to “knowledge puffs up but love builds up”. I think it is a preacher’s temptation. What can make us humble is if we accept that “we see through a mirror dimly”. That all our knowledge is always partial. But there’s hope. Someday we get to see the full picture. We get to “be known as we are known”.
The faithful life is one that gives witness to the love spoken of here. Paul wants us to understand that “agape-love” is the greatest of gifts and it is the one that endures. Everything else comes to an end.
I see a beautiful irony in this: agape-love, the one that stays and endures is that which we give away.
Rev. Rafael Vallejo serves with two churches on Toronto’s Eastside: Queen East and Beaches. This reflection comes from “Jazz and Justice”, a worship service held on Jan 31, 2016 that experimented with the use of jazz and improvisation.