In the heat of the summer, we’ll be looking at a hot topic this month – the powerful force of love, which forms the central theme of Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians. First Corinthians 13 is the famous “love” chapter, and it has been sentimentalized, trivialized, marbleized, and generally downgraded to a comfortable old relative who can be pushed into the background of the hardscrabble of our lives. Often when I counsel people about weddings, I suggest using this chapter as a Scriptural basis for the wedding. The usual reaction is that I Corinthians 13 is old news, overused and under-utilized.
Yet, if we take a look at I Corinthians 13 in its context and in ours, it can become something very different – something very powerful and dynamic and life-giving and life-challenging. We only have one word for “love” in our English language, and it can take on many meanings. I “love” Caroline; I “love” chocolate; I “love” my children; I “love” sex; I “love” summer. In this sense, the meaning of “love” can be easily be reduced to desire and longing and lust and feeling good, among other meanings. The Greek language of the New Testament, however, mainly has three different words for “love.” One is “eros,” which we often associate with sex, but its emphasis is really that force which pushes us towards fulfillment of our passion – that can be sex, or painting, or singing, or another person who becomes our beloved.
A second word is “philos,” which designates affection for close friends and family members and companions – a deep level of intimacy, but not quite that of the beloved. A third word is “agape,” which is used the most in the New Testament, and it is indeed the word that Paul uses in I Corinthians 13. It means a general sense of good will towards others, emphasizing a sense of connection and leaning towards the “other” rather than leaning away from them in fear or rejection. If we “agape” someone, we are not expected to treat them as the beloved or a close friend, but we are expected to see them as ally rather than enemy. If we “agape” someone, we are not even required to like them, but we are asked to see them as a human being like ourselves – to show them compassion, as we would like to receive ourselves.
We often trivialize love in our language because it bears so much weight, and also because if we take it in the New Testament context, it can be so demanding. We often seek to make love a sentiment and a feeling only. The Greek in the New Testament reminds us that while love does have sentiment, at its best and most powerful, it speaks of commitment and hard work. It is this idea of commitment and hard work that Paul is emphasizing in the 13th chapter of I Corinthians. If we have great oratorical skills, or if we are a great healer, or if we have great knowledge and power, but we don’t have love, our gifts really do not have staying power or even benefit us very much. Paul is stressing the need for an expansion of our own heart and a connection to others that seems so foreign in our culture of power and individualism. In other places, he speaks in the language of moving away from being dominated by anxiety to being motivated by gratitude and connections.
The power of love begins in hearing that we are valued, that we are God’s beloved. The power of love continues in our decision to seek to live out of that sense of being loved, of that connection to God, and to seek to share it with others. The powers of the world will not fall down because we discover that we are loved, but we will begin to gain the strength and the commitment to live in the ambiguities of the world and still seek to be dominated by love. Paul closes the famous 13th chapter and flows into the 14th chapter with these words: “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love – make love your aim.”