1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most familiar passages in the Bible. It’s frequently read at weddings, and, often enough, at funerals. Many of us know that love is patient, kind, and not envious. We can recite parts of the is chapter without thinking too much about it. And that’s precisely the problem. We do not take in what this passage actually means. It isn’t about romantic love and should be read at baptism and confirmation but not weddings. Of course, we want the love that binds us to another human being to be patient and kind and all of that. It’s just that Paul was talking about something so much more than romance. Paul was talking about what life in the Spirit really is. He addressed this to a conflicted community. His words are also meant for us as we navigate life in a chaotic, confusing, and conflicted world. If we pay more attention to the advice Paul gave to the Corinthians so long ago, we might find that it is a bit easier to recognize Christ in ourselves and in all those whom we meet.
The word for love in the Greek is agape. Typically, we define agape as “unconditional love.” I don’t think this is an adequate definition because it is too easy to say that humans aren’t able to love unconditionally very much or very often. While this is debatable, it’s a distraction and it helps us abdicate the responsibility we who follow Christ have to love with an agape kind of love. What does that look like? Paul tells us quite clearly.
This love, this agape, is patient and kind. It helps us not focus on ourselves or be overly prideful or insist that we are better than our neighbors. It celebrates truthfulness and doesn’t take pleasure in causing harm. It upholds us when life is hard and full of disappointment; agape gives us hope and it never ends. Agape is what allows us to know and be known by our Creator. Nothing else matters if we are not connected to God, to ourselves, to our neighbors, to Creation by agape.
Perhaps if we think of agape as the power of the Spirit that lives within us and connects the human spirit with the Holy Spirit, we might think of it as possible and real. We might be able to leave behind the romantic notions we have about the love that Paul describes in this passage. Agape is the image of God we carry within us. And if we call ourselves Christians, we are meant to live this out loud, and share it freely with all of Creation. There is no end to agape so we cannot use it up. The more we share it, the more we have. Agape is the building blocks of the Kin(g)dom of God.
Agape is something human beings are capable of. It’s the gift of faith. It is at the heart of Christianity. Jesus came into the world to show us how to love, to agape, one another. We reach out to those whom the world has forgotten, or dismissed, or devalued and we re-member them, we reconnect them to community, to the Bodymind of Christ, and leave no one on the margins. We stop serving the Empire which is fueled by hatred, division, fear, and violence. Agape promotes wholeness and unity. If healing, wholeness, forgiveness, unity, mercy do not result from our actions, then our actions are not the way of agape, the way of Christ.
You might be thinking that it is much easier to push agape to the side as something unattainable because it’s the kind of love that God has for us and we are not God, then you’re right. It is easier. However, hasn’t “easier” been destructive enough to the church? Isn’t it time we start really engaging with one another and the world on this level?
Imagine a world in which everyone who calls on the name of Christ exercises agape and is patient and focused on bringing loving-kindness into the world. We would all become people who know we are loved by God and seek only to ensure that others also experience being known and loved. It’s just that simple and impossible to do on our own. We need God. We need one another. We need the agape that lives deep within and is far too often diminished and dismissed by those who believe they serve God when they truly serve the Empire.