There are several scripture texts that are popular at weddings, but one I believe is on the short list is chapter 13 of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It fits what our hope would be of the newly married couple.
It is also good fodder for greeting cards. Please note: when I say “fodder,” I’m not demeaning greeting cards, and I’m definitely not demeaning Paul’s chapter on love. However, sometimes it gets reduced to a touchy-feely, cute teddy bear level. That’s instead of the serious and even fierce declaration of the stratospherically high nature it embodies.
At times it’s even scary.
Something else often ignored or overlooked is its location. It is smack dab in the middle of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts. In chapter 12, in trinitarian language, he tells us, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (vv. 4-6). He speaks of, for example, gifts of healing, working of miracles, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues. Paul finishes with the promise, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (v. 31).
Thus, we have chapter 13, which teaches us if the gifts are not used under the guidance of love, then they are worthless.
In chapter 14, Paul shows how the gifts are to be used in worship. There is to be no putting oneself ahead of others, no strutting around and saying, “Look how spiritual I am.” Since “God is a God not of disorder but of peace,” the apostle sums it all up with the reminder “all things should be done decently and in order” (vv. 33, 40).
This has been addressed to a church with all kinds of problems: splitting themselves up into competing factions, treating the poor with disrespect, chasing after the latest fads.
Consider the place where they live. Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire. It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it. Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum. On that last note, the city developed quite a reputation.
There was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to all manner of carousing, or as the band Kiss put it, to “rock and roll all night and party every day.” The church has reflected the culture around it, with both its honorable and its less than honorable qualities.
In retrospect, I hope we can see the apostle Paul’s message isn’t intended to address romantic love or warm fuzzies. He is concerned about life in community. How do we order it? How do we fail and fall into disorder? How does the love of the meek and mighty Spirit strengthen and counsel us to not tear each other apart but to build each other up?
This chapter is jam packed with lovely ingredients. Paul begins by listing events one might find in the spiritual Olympics. You can set a world record, but without love, you might as well be sitting on the bench.
Next, we have a laundry list detailing what love is and what love is not. Love is kind; love is not rude. Love is patient; love is not irritable.
There’s a German word “schadenfreude.” It expresses the joy at someone else’s misfortune, the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain. Love does not engage in schadenfreude. When someone slips on a banana peel (literally or symbolically) love doesn’t laugh.
Verse 7 tells us love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I’ll come back to that verse.
Moving on, we see that when all else ends, love never does. “When the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).
Paul presents us with this majestic observation, saying, “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” (v. 12). The apostle Paul is a man whose life has been transformed by love. He has gone from the schadenfreude of approving the stoning of Stephen, often considered to be the first martyr, to identifying with the frail: “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” (Ac 8:1, 2 Co 11:29).
The chapter ends with his grand proclamation, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (v. 13). That’s a note for this motley crew with their quarreling, nitpicking, shaming, shameless ways. In other words, they’re behaving not unlike us. (That is at least, in our worst moments!)
Now, back to verse 7, informing us that love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.
What does it mean to say love bears all things? The word for “bears” (στεγω, stegō) also means “to cover, to keep secret, to hide the faults of others.” One thing we’re basically talking about is keeping confidence—not going around blabbing. If you get some dirt on someone, keep it to yourself.
There can be confusion between confidentiality and secrecy. Sometimes a good faith attempt at keeping confidence can be misconstrued as dealing in secrets. Here’s one good measure for telling the difference: confidentiality affords protection, secrecy causes damage. While confidentiality respects, secrecy disrespects.
Love believes all things. Love places confidence in someone or something. Love is willing to entrust, to look for the best, to give the benefit of a doubt. On occasion, it can even be accused of being naïve. We might suspect that someone is taking advantage of us, but we let it slide. In the world’s eyes, we can appear foolish.
In chapter 6, Paul speaks of believers taking each other to court. He goes as far as to put the questions, “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (v. 7). Those are awkward questions.
Love hopes all things. The Greek word ελπιζω (elpizō) also carries the sense of expectation, an expectation with confidence. This isn’t an empty hope. It’s not a case of saying, “I wish it were so.” It’s a strong and secure hope. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
It’s a hope when everyone else has given up.
It’s a hope when all we want to do is fret. Fretting attracts negative energy, bad mojo. I have usually found that when I lapse into fretting, it turns out to be a waste of mental, emotional, and spiritual power.
Love endures all things. Love remains. Love waits. Love doesn’t flee. Love doesn’t hit the road, Jack. Love perseveres. Love stands alongside.
Haven’t we all been in situations in which we know we should hang around, but all we want to do is just take off? I admit I have done that. Love has called to me. Love has pleaded with me. Love has begged me. But instead, I said “no” to love.
These are less commands than they are descriptions. That would be setting a very high bar indeed. It would be quite a challenge even for those athletes in the spiritual Olympics!
Remember the location of this hymn to love. It’s placed in the midst of Paul’s commentary on spiritual gifts. This love, αγαπη (agapē), is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We can’t summon this up by ourselves. Having said that, it doesn’t mean we don’t try to put it into practice.
I want to revisit verse 12 where it says, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.” The old King James language has a poetic spin as it states, “now we see through a glass, darkly.” I like how the Revised English Bible reads, “At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror.” Puzzling reflections.
Even the sharpest of insights is barely visible from the world behind it. In a time beyond time, that world, that realm, will be apparent. Still, the gift of grace that is agapē gives us fleeting glimpses.
I’ll give us all an assignment. I definitely include myself in this challenge / opportunity / blessing. Can we do our best to bear with each other, to believe in each other, to hope for each other, and yes, to endure each other?
Let’s learn to treasure the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit.
 “believes”: πιστευω, pisteuō
 “endures”: ύπομενω, hypomenō