And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13:13)
This passage ends a chapter heard most often at weddings. Many assume that it is about romantic love and sentimental affection.
But the fact is that I Corinthians 13 shows up in a treatise on the life of the church. It is preceded by the New Testament's most detailed teaching on Holy Communion and sacramental worship (11:17-34), and by an amazing explanation of the church as the literal body of Christ at work in the world (12). It is followed by a chapter that harmonizes orderly, liturgical worship with the Holy Spirit's spontaneity and power (14).
In the midst of all this teaching, Chapter 13 embeds Paul's message that love must fill all aspects of church life. The absence of love is fatal: without it, "your meetings do more harm than good...it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else" (11:17, 19-21). Without love, the body of Christ is stunted - "If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?" (12:17) Without love, "personal spirituality" and self-gratification prevent the sharing of Good News - "You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not built up" (14:17).
The "love" described in I Corinthians 13 is agape, a Greek word that suggests self-sacrifice. Latin translators rendered it caritas, leading the King James Bible and other English sources (including Books of Common Prayer) to employ the word "charity." The sense is that love gives away what is "ours" in order to serve others.
Romantic love (which is a gift of God and not something to take lightly)is experienced as fullness (often described as "infatuation", right?), but agape/caritas/charity is first experienced as an emptiness or "opening" - open to others and open most of all to God. John of the Cross wrote, "Charity...causes a void in the will regarding all things since it obliges us to love God above everything. We have to withdraw our affection from all in order to center it wholly upon God. Christ says through St. Luke: Qui non renuntiat omnibus quae possidet, not potest meus esse discipulus (Whoever does not renounce all that the will possesses cannot be my disciple) [Lk. 14:33]." (The Ascent of Mount Carmel II.6.4, Kavanaugh/Rodriguez translation).
This is a challenge to our normal way of thinking, especially about "going to church." How often we judge a liturgy by "what we got out of it" rather than by what we put into it. Culturally, our disposition toward liturgy might not be much different from attending a movie, concert, play or sporting event - an effort to please ourselves rather than stand open to another.
Being "empty of self" and open to God is easier said than done, of course. The "world, the flesh and the devil" attack all efforts at spiritual growth and are expert at sabotaging love.
But worship is one of the great opportunities to attempt and practice Biblical love. It is significant that the Bible's great lesson on love is in the middle of instructions about sacraments, church order and spiritual gifts. Gathering with others creates that inconvenient place where our private agendas can be emptied out and God's agenda can intrude.
Such is our life in Christ:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.