Key text: 1 corinthians 13
The God of love and the love of God
This being a popular passage for wedding services, there is a familiar sermon that replaces the word ‘love’ between verses 4-8 with the name of Jesus. Look, says the preacher to the congregation, and see how Jesus is the supreme example of all of these qualities. Look at how Jesus and love are interchangeable. Today love is exalted as a virtue to be worshipped, but really it’s Jesus who should receive that honour. And then they turn to face the couple and proclaim: if you invite Jesus into your marriage, your love will be stronger as a result. Don’t rely on love; rely on Jesus.
It has always struck me, however, that the better description of Jesus comes in the first three verses. And frankly, whilst the Jesus I know is certainly kind, I’m not sure that I can read the Gospels without discovering the character of someone who both insists on his own way and is more than irritable at the injustices of the world. Jesus speaks both in the language of heaven and earth. Jesus stands in, and echoes, and completes the prophetic line of those who have spoken God’s word so that we may better hear it. Jesus astounded the temple as a young boy with his insight and his knowledge. And, perhaps definitively, Jesus does give away what little he possessed, and finally hands over his body. Naked Jesus enters this world. Naked he departs from it.
Now where does love fit? Are Christ and the virtue of love simply the same thing? If we say that God is love (1 John 4:8), must we also say that love is God? Not so. For Jesus’ actions do not occur in a relational vacuum: had he done these virtuous and lovely acts without the driving, unceasing, eternal force of God’s desperate love for God’s creation, his life and death would have only resounded as a tuneless cymbal. Yes, Jesus loves, but more than that he shows us that God’s very nature is a dance of love, a dance which is undeniably shaped towards us and which desires more than anything to include us.
Love, we discover, does not make any sense on its own. It is not an aspect of an individual’s personality or character. It emerges, is discovered, cherished, and valued only within relationships. What does it mean to be kind if there is no-one to be kind towards? What virtue is there in not insisting on one’s own way if no other way is offered? The true nature of these qualities that love describes (vv4-6) is that they are inherently sacrificial, laying aside the human condition of selfishness for love of another. Greater love has no-one than this: that they lay down their life for their friend. Love is not God, but it does tell us why God does what he did in Christ. To love is to be prepared to sacrifice everything just to be in a relationship with the one you love.
We’re reminded of this in the farewell discourse of John’s Gospel. “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end”. Here we sense juxtaposed, the completeness of a life nearly over, and an expression of a love which will exist beyond death. As he comes to the realisation that time left with his friends is short, it is love that preoccupies Jesus. It is the motivation for the obedience he will show, and it will make the cross the definitive symbol of the sacrificial nature of God’s love.
The final section from verse 9 onwards points towards the power that mutual love can have within a community. It is the movement from partiality to completeness; from youth to maturity. When we are in relationships which are formed by the security of love and trust, we allow ourselves to become vulnerable and intimate. The more one is loved the more one prepared to be known, and the more one becomes known.
Mark Oakley has written that “Faith intensifies rather than satisfies our longing for God”. And so it is with love; becoming known deepens our desire to share more of ourselves. Catching a glimpse in the dim mirror heightens our yearning finally to see face to face. It is one of the great paradoxes of human existence that we want so very much to be loved for who we are, and yet we spend so much of our time shielding ourselves from being exposed to others. Those communities where we discover the love that allows us to be ourselves are the ones where we gain a foretaste of the completeness with which this passage ends.
 John 13:1
 Mark Oakley, The splash of words, xxiii.
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