I was reading I Corinthians 13 today.
The words are so familiar to me now. Not quite learned by heart, but almost. But as with everything in life, there is always a first time of reading them. My first time was at my mum’s wedding to her second husband. I stood at the front of the small Roman Catholic chapel in the small village of Yelvertoft to do one of the readings. I guess that you can’t help but get caught up in the poetry of the words – and a wedding is such an appropriate time for reading them.
The second time I remember reading the passage was as a part of an English Speaking exam. I had stayed on a school. I was doing just the one “A”level, not yet having discovered an aptitude for learning, so the rest of the timetable was filled with other things. Drama was in there somewhere. It wasn’t a “real” subject in those days, but there were certificates about and this particular one required giving a talk (on volcanoes), reading from a book (the opening chapters of Eric Von Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods”) and reading a passage from the Bible.
So this morning, I came to read I Corinthians 13. I tend to prefer to read things out aloud, and, there I was, in my imagination, in front of the English Speaking Board examiner, projecting the voice, injecting the right inflection and emotion. Had she been there for real I would have passed.
I got the impression somehow that God wasn’t impressed!
“It’s not poetry!”
Well, we all know that it is poetry. Whatever the original Greek words were, the English translators did a very good job with their word choices and their sentence structure. It is poetry.
For Paul it wasn’t poetry. He had written much in his letter up to this point dealing with issues. His constant criticism was their lack of love towards each other. They were divisive. They were selfish. They were competitive. They were proud. They were, as he says in his opening verses, sanctified and called to be holy, but they were missing the target where love was concerned. Everything that Jesus had been while he had lived on earth was everything that they were not demonstrating in the way they treated each other.
He was lifting love up before their eyes and saying “This is love – this is what we are aiming for.”
Fine sounding words, great acts of faith, noble deeds were all empty of meaning if they did not have love at their centre.
I Corinthians 13 isn’t just for weddings and newly married couples. It isn’t just for inside church walls or for our dealings with other Christians. It’s for us in the supermarket and the queue at the checkout counter. It’s for us on the bus and the person that sits next to us. It’s for us in the car when road works snarl up the traffic, and cyclists go through red lights. It’s for us in the car park when the car is dented and there’s no message left under the windscreen. It’s for us at work when the boss hisses and spits. It’s for us when the neighbour’s party goes on long into the early hours.
As hard as it is for us to get our heads around it - 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t poetry. It is a challenge and a gauntlet thrown down. “This is love – this is what we are aiming for.”