“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.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)
The apostle Paul could sure speak like an angel when he wanted to and he certainly does it here. These words introduce his famous verses that describe what love is and why it’s important. Love is patient and kind, envies no one, it isn’t arrogant or rude. Sorry, there’s much more and even trying to summarize it really diminishes the power and beauty of his description. It might be familiar to you if you heard it at a wedding recently, but please, do read 1 Corinthians 13. It would really help to read all of Corinthians, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.
You can easily see why this would be popular – and appropriate – for a wedding. In that beautiful moment of affirming your love and committing to each other surrounded by loved ones, what more could you ask for than an eloquent description of the love that you celebrate together?
Except that Paul didn’t write these words to people who were happy and doing well and celebrating their relationship. He wrote them to people who were struggling and finding that being in relationship as a community was a challenge, full of differences and disagreements. It seems it wasn’t all as easy as they thought and they weren’t being too successful at it.
Paul’s just finished telling the Corinthians that being in community is like being a body, the body of the followers of Jesus. We’re each different and unique parts, but we need all the parts, working together, for the body to be whole. At the end of that discourse about being in relationship, Paul writes “I will show you a still more excellent way.” His next words are this practical description of the importance of love, what it means to love and how, unlike all these other things, love is eternal.
Long before the Gospel of John told how Jesus commanded the disciples (and us) that they should love one another as Jesus had shown them to do (John 13), here’s Paul distilling the stories and teaching he knows of Jesus into his own words. First of all, love is at the heart of all things. Have all the gifts of language, prophecy, wisdom and faith, but they are meaningless without being grounded in love.
And what is love? Well, it’s an action word: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
Keep love at the heart of things and put it into action like this, says Paul, and it never fails. All of the other things in life have an ending when this life ends. Even faith and hope will be fulfilled when we return home to God. But love doesn’t because God is love and the love that gives us life here is the love that fulfills us when this life is done.
Imagine that kind of love in action.
That’s really what makes Paul’s words so meaningful for a marriage. Or any relationship that has love at its heart. Or any relationship, period, right? We exist in relationship to the whole of creation around us. Sometimes that’s easy and comfortable and other times it’s challenging and difficult, and everything in between. So, love one another the way I showed you, says Jesus. Here’s a practical description, says Paul.
So don’t just make noise. Make a difference. Go and love.