loving

Bible study

Bible passage: 1 Corinthians 13 v 1-8a

Living as a community of love

The themes to be explored in this study are the way that living as a community of love involves sacrifice and a dying to self. Love is a concept which all of us are familiar with and happy to use, but which also has so a vast variety of meanings and applications that it can sometimes seem a bland or vacuous concept. The love of God is explored throughout the Bible in a number of ways, and exploring these themes may help tie down what is unique and important about what Christians have to say on the subject.

Before reading the Bible passage(s) your group may find it helpful to look at this painting by Agnolo Bronzino, called The Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth, which dates from 1540.

Agnolo Bronzino: The Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth
Agnolo Bronzino: The Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth

Notes on the painting

  • This is a late Renaissance work, probably painted at the Medici court in Florence.
  • John is usually depicted carrying a reed cross (a reference to Matthew 11v7), but in this picture Jesus has playfully snatched it from him. In doing this he points forward to his own sacrificial death.
  • But the artist has positioned the cross (which also looks like a sword) carefully; it points downwards towards Mary’s heart. Thus it foreshadows the pain she will experience as her son is taken from her (Luke 2v35), and is a mark of her own sacrificial love.
  • The picture is full of maternal care and intimacy. Three of the characters seem to be smiling, but Mary’s appears to be pondering, perhaps on the fact that grief is the price we pay for love.
  • The garland of flowers playfully carried by one of the children is a symbol of that city, and is one of several symbols in the painting.
  • The young woman is Mary and the child on her lap with the garland is the infant Jesus.
  • The child leaning against her is the infant John the Baptist; he is wearing a cloak of animal skins and carries a baptismal bowl.
  • The older woman may be his mother, Elizabeth or possibly St. Anne (Mary’s mother according to tradition.)
  • opening questions

  • Can you identify the characters in the painting?
  • What do the directions of gaze of the different characters communicate to you?
  • Does this painting have something to say about the love between generations?
  • Bible passage

    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. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 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. Love never ends.

    questions

  • Paul defines love both by what it is and what it isn’t. Could anything be added to his list of either? How is the example of God’s love in Jesus expressed positively and / or negatively?
  • How do we identify love when we listen to others? What helps us to distinguish the tongues of angels from a clanging cymbal?
  • Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. How does loving affect our experience of bearing, believing, hoping, or enduring?
  • 1 Corinthians is written to a community, and this expression of love is to be taken immediately in the context of what comes before it, where Paul describes the body of Christ as having many parts. Is it easier to offer the love described here, or to be a recipient of it?
  • How does love relate to the different forms of power we encounter here?
  • wider questions

  • What part does love have to play when we near the end of our lives?
  • The passage later concludes with these words “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Why might the greatest be love? How does love make sense of faith and hope?
  • How does a Christian account of love differ from a secular one?
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    Additional passages

    Here are four  passages in addition to the main one above. You could have a one-off study on a single passage, a series using all five passages, or break up a larger group into small subgroups to look at one passage each and then come back to share common themes. Click on the texts to find the suggested questions.

    • What reasons can you give for why this passage is so familiar to so many people?
    • The Psalm names the presence of God with us in both times of contentedness and times of trouble. Which of these experiences has brought you especially close to God?
    • How can we resist the urge to fix problems at the expense of faithful presence with those in the ‘darkest valley’?
    • There are resonances of Jesus’ final few days with his disciples in verse 5. Why might these become especially important with those who are near to death?
  • “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples”. How could being a community of love be an outward-facing venture, as well as an internal intention for a group? Does one always risk becoming the other?
  • Some commentators have seen the washing of feet as a preparation for dying, and Jesus’ words to Peter about washing the whole body as about baptism. What is the relationship between baptism and death? What parallels could be drawn between Jesus’ baptism and his death?
  • How do Jesus’ actions here makes sense of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet in John 12, or is it the other way around? What do the two events imply about the cost of love?
  • Which sentence in this passage do you find to be the most challenging, and which the most comforting? Why?
  • Do you find the poetic expressions of love more or less helpful that other forms of Biblical writing (eg: Paul’s letters)?
  • This passage uses labour as a frequent image. How does it inform the idea of being born again?
  • Which other parts of Scripture resonate with the declaration that water cannot quench love, or floods drown it?
    • Verses 9-10 tell of how God’s love is revealed to God’s creation. Can that revelation of love be imitated, or is the way we reveal God’s love different?
    • Reading verse 18, what do you think the relationship between love and discipline is?
    • The final couple of verses seem to imply that loving our brothers and sisters comes as a result of seeing God’s love within them first. Where or when do you find it most difficult to see love? What can blind love from sight?

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