5 August 2013

1 Corinthians 13:4-13

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." (v. 12)


It has often been noted that Methodists best express what they believe in the words of songs and hymns (as the current hymnbook "Singing the Faith" declares). This is common to many other expressions of Christianity as well - and it's not new. Long before Wesley, Watts, Kendrick and Townend, hidden within the words of the New Testament are words of early hymns, songs and creeds, which may have been sung or recited across the growing Church - first by word-of-mouth and later by Scripture - and cherished because of the heights of wonder and depths of praise therein.

Today's passage is a poem, a song, as part of one of Paul's letters to a church in turmoil. It's read at countless weddings, where couples try to find words to express the love they feel for each other. But not so fast! This is not simply a description of something we all know well. This song is "love unknown". Read it again, put your name in place of 'love' and see if it still fits. We should all think very carefully before ascribing this poem to ourselves. This is not the sort of love that comes easily to hand. What we call love describes many different things, not all of them as honourable as this thing. The Greeks had a number of different words for types of love. Here, Paul is defining one of them: the word is 'agapé'. This is the very love of God. It is the love God has for us, and the love God wants to see displayed in our lives. It's the highest degree of love. God's perfect love.

For us it is an aspiration, that we will catch glimpses of from time to time, as we learn to love and be loved. For our Creator, on the other hand, it is a constant state, and God's defining characteristic.

God's love as revealed in Scripture, and specifically in Jesus Christ, is agape at its best. It is indeed long-suffering and kind, as Paul describes, but then he's forced to portray this unknown love by considering what it's "not": envious, bragging, arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful, or taking pleasure in another's wrongdoing (traits which most of us will recognise are partly or occasionally present in our relationships). In other words, this love, this agapé, ought to surprise us by just how different it is in this world dominated by so many other characteristics. This love takes pleasure in the truth; it's all-covering, all-believing, all-hoping, all-enduring. It's a love that never fails.

But what hope for us, then? If we recognise ourselves to be so woefully inadequate compared to the blazing light of God's love, why bother? Well, we miss the point of this if we don't understand verse 12.What do you see when you look in the mirror? But what if that mirror is steamed up? We only get a blurred outline (which makes shaving difficult!). But open the window, wait for the mirror to clear, and soon you will see: face-to-face. Only, Paul suggests, when God's love has shaped and transformed you, it's not your face any longer, but the beautiful image of God. Oh yeah, because we've forgotten God's plan for us at the very beginning; his design that we are 'made in God's image' (Genesis 1:27). Right now, our lives and our love may be poor reflections of God - steamed up and cloudy - but we are reflections nonetheless. Our lives and our loves should be cherished as reflections of God. But then, becoming Christian and growing in Christ, is about something more: it's about becoming all that we can be - it's about growing in that perfect love, and this doesn't usually happen overnight.

But it does happen: and this is part of our hope as Christians: we are God's beautiful work in progress, as we grow in the image of Christ who istheImage of God. If we stay connected to and guided by God, we will reach those heights of generous and self-giving perfect love, and see God's agapé reflected in us.

So then, this "love unknown" should not be "unknown" any longer - for we have received it from God, and we have seen it and know it in Jesus Christ.

To Ponder

  • This passage was never intended to be a poem to be read out at weddings, but rather part of a passionate rebuke to a particular church where divisions had emerged over "spiritual gifts" (prophecy, speaking in tongues and the like). Paul introduces this great song by saying: "And I will show you a still more excellent way…" (1 Corinthians 12:31). How often do we get our priorities wrong in our churches, and put our preferences and prejudices before our highest calling?
  • "Faith, hope and love" (v. 13) are seen as the three main virtues of our faith. How do you understand them, and how are they connected?
  • Verse 10 could be translated: "But when the completion comes, the partial will be abolished". What, when, or who do you think Paul is referring to in this statement of hope?

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Murphy

Andrew Murphy is married to Emily and they have two children, Phoebe (aged 4) and Benjamin (aged 18 months). Andy is the superintendent minister of the Market Harborough Circuit (a small circuit in the south of Leicestershire, and over the border into Northants). Previously, Andy’s ministry was based in Barwell in the Hinckley Circuit for eight years. And before that, he trained at the Wesley Study Centre in Durham, close to his home-town of Consett. Andy has a passion to help God’s people grow in faith, and occasionally writes hymns, sketches and songs. Spare time includes trips to play parks, watching Disney films or Postman Pat, reading Mr Men books, visiting Middle Earth, and reminiscing over the good old days of supporting Newcastle United. In the picture, Andy is the one in blue (and the snowman’s name is Olaf)!