Love is one of those words that the postmodern world has either distorted into confusion or no longer understands. It is a word that has been stripped of its original meaning and power in thought, word, or deed. The word, love, once meant something pure. It described something beautiful, even sacred. It implied a transcendent experience, a sudden forgetting of the self, a desire for something like a holy union with the other.

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Today, the word has become dulled by overuse and distorted by the siren calls of such things as popular culture, ideology, advertising, and the not-so-subtle postmodern efforts to elevate all things sensual to the status of an idol to be worshiped, which, ironically, has diminished its status to that of just another thing to be defined by the self alone to fit its desires, or to rationalize its undisciplined passions.

But Paul, in writing his First Letter to the newly converted Christian community in Corinth, described the true meaning of love in his thirteenth chapter of the letter. There has never been a clearer description of the true characteristics of love and its true place in our human and divine relationships. He states, unequivocally, that without love, one’s eloquence of speech, one’s gifts of prophecy, or knowledge, or even one’s faith, is nothing. But he is only getting started. He gets much more specific. And we are challenged to not only listen to these words, but to understand them, and, even more importantly, to choose to live in accord with this love in our daily lives with one another. This passage, 1 Cor. 13:1-13, is a description of the nature of God who the apostle, John, tells us is love itself (1Jn. 4:8). It is a description of the image and likeness of God that he made us in and calls us to live by. This is how true disciples of Jesus are to love in this world.

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“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (vs. 4-7). This description, written in the contrasting positive form, “is”, and the negative form, “is not”, is a clear indictment against the abuse of the word and the idea of love in our times. The virtues of patience and kindness are products of humility and are clear characteristics of love. The vices of jealousy, pompousness, rudeness, self-interest, and quick-temperedness are all products of pride, in which there is no room for love. These characteristics, though very familiar, have nothing to do with love.

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But Paul continues the true description of love when he writes: “Love never fails” (v. 8). He also writes with understanding when he relates the fact that we are not yet perfect, that “we know only partially and prophecy only partially [in our fallen state], but when that perfect state comes, the partial will pass away” (vs. 9-10). He tells us the truth by comparing himself with us when he says, “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things” (v. 11)

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Further, Paul reminds us that, because of our present fallen state, we “see indistinctly” but we are called to open ourselves up to this love and to grow to maturity by reading scripture, listening to the Word, praying alone and in community, and practicing this virtuous love in our daily lives. The promise of God to us is that, though we, “know only partially now, then we will know fully, as we are fully known [by God]” (v. 12). In this effort to mature toward the persons God made us to be, we have been given the gifts of faith, hope, and love, but Paul tells us that, “the greatest of these is love” (v.13). Faith and hope are our human commitments to God. Love is God himself. When we love in this way, we are participating in God’s intimate nature, and we are sharing it with others in the manner that he shared, and continues to share it with us. May it be so. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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