But whoever has this world’s goods, sees his brother in need, and closes off his compassion from him, how is the love of God in him? My little children, may we be loving not in word nor in tongue but in act and in truth. — 1 John 3:17-18
At Homewood Friends Meeting recently, I offered vocal ministry based on a popular passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. A slightly edited transcription of that ministry is offered here, followed by brief commentary. I conclude the post with my rendering of 1 Corinthians 13 (in which the influence of that passage on James Nayler’s dying statement, quoted in the previous post, is evident).
This morning, we were discussing the Baltimore Yearly Meeting vision statement. A vision statement can be a useful thing, and we are grateful to those Friends who have worked to produce one for the yearly meeting. But thinking about such statements leads me to reflect on what is fundamental for us as Friends, and that leads me to the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Paul would tell us that we may have our vision statements, our declarations of faith and practice, our testimonies and public witness, but if we have not love, then all of that is as “sounding brass or clanging symbol”: empty noise, much ado about nothing.
Or by nothing. For nihilism is not not believing in God; it is not loving. We may have manifest spiritual gifts, Paul says; we may experience the divine mystery; we may have faith so strong that it actually moves mountains: nonetheless, if we are not loving, then we are nothing.
And indeed Paul concludes that of the three great gifts of abiding value — faith, hope, and love — “the greatest of these is love.” For faith and hope come to an end, “but love never fails.”
For Paul, faith and hope would come to an end very soon, when, at the eschaton, God would be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28): “For when the fulfillment is come, then that which was partial shall be done away” (13:10). At that time, or end of time, only love — being, as John teaches, the nature of God, in which the saints share — would remain. But today we know that Paul’s expectation of God’s imminent kingdom, an expectation which he seems to have shared with Jesus and his disciples, was mistaken. Injustice, horror, and death have not been vanquished; the “new heavens and new earth in which justice dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13) have not appeared. The possibility of faith and hope as Paul understood them is ended for us not by the eschaton but by its failure.
But for us, too, love does not fail. We do not need theistic faith, nor do we need hope for a new world, in order to love. Love is the ground of our identity-in-relationship. It does not require confidence or even “hope against hope” (Rom. 4:18) that suffering will end in order to respond to the suffering of beings: it subsists in that response. And if love counts the cost, that is in order to pay it, for love has its own wisdom and is its own reward. Faith and hope may have been “done away” by the unyielding reality of history, but the love in which they were rooted is the meaning and motive power of the deeply human life. Love never fails.
1 Corinthians 13 – on love (agapē)
If ever I may be speaking the tongues of human beings or of angels and yet am not loving, I am as a sounding gong or clanging cymbal. And though I may have the gift of prophecy, and experience every divine mystery, and have such faith that I can move mountains, yet if I am not loving I am nothing. And even if I am parceling out all my belongings and giving my body to be burned, if I am not loving it helps me not at all.
Love is being patient and kind. Love is not being envious. Love is not bragging or being puffed up. It is not behaving unbecomingly, or seeking that of self, or being incensed, or taking account of others’ evil. Love is not rejoicing at injustice, but is rejoicing together with truth. It is bearing all, trusting all, hoping all, enduring all.
Prophecies will be discarded; languages will cease; knowledge will be annulled: but love never fails. For our knowledge and prophecy are partial, but when the fulfillment is come, then the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I talked as a child, I felt as a child, and I thought as a child, but having become a man I have abandoned that of childhood. At present we are seeing obscurely, as in a metal mirror, but then we shall see face to face. At present I am learning to know in part, but then I shall know thoroughly even as I am known. Meanwhile, these three — faith, hope, and love — continue, but the greatest of these is love.