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The love bomb: handle an old, familiar, favourite chapter with care!

Sunday, January 31

Epiphany 4

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Why does Paul pause in the middle of a really good argument about the use and abuse of spiritual gifts? He's making real headway. Anyone with any sense will be with him by the end of chapter 12, ready to move on to his powerful conclusion in chapter 14. Chapter 13 sticks out like a rhetorical sore thumb. Some scholars say the love bomb was dropped into the final version of 1 Corinthians to soften it up. Take the edge off Paul's often subtly cutting words.

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Chapter 13 fits the argument. It's not unusual for a skilled rhetorician like Paul to shift gears. He takes his appeal to another level. He has been driving for the head. Now he aims for the gut (what we call "heart"). The love bomb is an "encomium," a hymn of praise to a person or a virtue. In this case it's a virtue, though Paul begins by using his person as a negative example, without taking anything away from his authority or achievements.

Does Paul mean love is the greatest spiritual gift? No. That's clear in 14:1: "Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts." Love isn't a gift that trumps tongues, healing or wisdom. Love is a virtue that arches over the quest for spiritual gifts, governs the application of them, and forms the attitude of the gifted. If your aim is to have more and more of this love in you, says Paul, you'll know why there are spiritual gifts. To serve others, not yourself. To build community, not make you powerful. To fulfill God's purposes, not yours.

Love then, and not who has which gifts, is supposed to be the governing principle of congregational life. This love isn't affection. It's not about having good feelings about others. It's not about acting in ways we hope will make others love us, or do what we want. Not philia, arising from shared interest and duty. Not storge, that binds parent and child and draws kin together. Not eros, either, with all the good and the dangerous that runs with passion. This is agape, not without passion, but a burning drive for the good of others. Agape is more an act of will than of feeling, but is never without feeling. Agape isn't conditional on any prior human relationship: communal, familial, marital or romantic. Agape's only standard is the love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus sometimes speaks of philia, but John tells us Jesus commands agape, after his example (John 13:34, 15:12,17). This love is a direction of the will. A direction of life.

This love is commanded, required of us. But beware of turning gospel into law. Sometimes we preach this chapter as a list of commandments. "You be kind, gentle, patient, willing to take second place ... and you'll love the way God wants you to love." We may not say it that way, but when we drop the love bomb it can sound like that. And people who know they haven't always been kind, gentle and all will feel like failures.

If we feel we have to extrapolate and expound on each phrase, we'll pound the life out of both the text and the congregation. We'll also miss Paul's purpose in dropping the love bomb into a very important argument for his congregation, and an equally important message to ours.

We could read this text as we do at weddings. Reduce it to a list of nice words to be read when we're all feeling good and hopeful. Love-lite and without a splinter of the cross. More of a pop than an explosion.

Instead of a list of good qualities, read the chapter as 19 (or so) ways to say one thing. Nineteen ways to praise agape. Nineteen ways to say choosing to live toward this Christlike love is better than behaving like first-century Corinthians (or 21st century Presbyterians?).

Rev. Dr. Laurence DeWolfe teaches at the Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Progressive Lectionary
Author:Dewolfe, Laurence
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:675
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