Wednesday, November 28, 2012

While scrolling through my Twitter feed today, I ran across an excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Christianity Today titled Why Love Never Ends. Though the excerpt does not mention the Apostle Paul or 1 Corinthians 13, this must be the impetus for the reflection. Here is 1 Corinthians 13 in all of its glory, which is, I believe, substantial:

1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.(NRSV)
 The love that is spoken of throughout the whole passage is agape, that love which transcends difference of birth and station, of the human and divine, and spills over in charity to all. Its source is God.

Ceslas Spicq describes it in this way:

"Unlike other loves, which can remain hidden in the heart, it is essential for charity to manifest itself, to demonstrate itself, to provide proofs, to put itself on display; so much so that in the NT it would almost always be necessary to translate agape as "demonstration of love." This affection, unlike eros, which in the literature brings endless suffering and disaster - is accompanied by contentment., since the ordinary meaning of agapao is to be happy, satisfied. But in Christian usage, since it is a divine love, coming from heaven (Rom. 5:5), it will be joyful and already  a foretaste of blessedness.

Finally, and perhaps above all, while friendship is properly used only of a relationship between equals, agape links persons of different conditions: with rulers, benefactors and fathers; it is a disinterested and generous love, full of thoughtfulness and concern. It is in this sense that God is agape and loves the world. (Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Volume 1, 12-13).
 I have often heard 1 Corinthians 13 read at weddings, which is not a bad place to read it naturally, as agape ought to exist between partners, but it is so much more than that and often it can in that context become confused with eros.  It can, that is, become unlinked from its source and being in God, which is intended to be shared with all.

Paul is clear that whatever the spiritual gifts that the Corinthians, or we today I, have, there is none greater than love. People often yearn to be notable for some gift or skill, some talent or knowledge, most of which can aid others and bring joy and meaning to others' lives, but they cannot match agape as the gift that keeps on giving. One of the reasons is that agape transcends boundaries of skill, wisdom, age and intelligence. A child can have agape, as can your infirm grandmother. A person with no money, no wisdom, no great talent can love. It is available to all at all times. It is not something you have to work to master, or hold tightly as a belonging, it is something that radiates from your being as a giving of self. This is why all of the knowledge of the language, morphology, hermeneutics, interpretation and background of the NT cannot match the lived insight of people who love another person simply for the sake of love.

"Love never ends," Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:8 and this is because all love stems from God and God's being. It is God. All the spiritual gifts end, Paul says, because all of the gifts are simply means of directing us to the reality of God's love.Whatever gifts we have are for the sake of making known God's love for all and for all of creation.  When Paul says we know "only in part" (13:9) and that now "we see in a mirror, dimly," he is expressing the fact that God's love as we now experience it is, here on earth, only an aspect of its full brilliance. When we are fully known, we will know only love, since we will know God in all of God's fullness. This is why of the three theological virtues, "faith, hope, and love," "the greatest of these is love" (13:13). In the presence of God, you will no longer need to hope, you will no longer need faith, for all that is and all that you were intended to be is before you and it is agape. It never ends. 

John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies

P.S. A blast from the Jesus Rock past with Larry Norman's 1 Corinthians 13 inspired "Righteous Rocker."