As I reflect on the ways in which our society is being incited to objectify and vilify certain groups of people – in particular the poor and the disabled, by politicians and the media (ironically, two other groups we are also encouraged to objectify and vilify) – I have been thinking about these words written to a community in competitive strife: 1 Corinthians 13. In such circumstances, Paul directs our attention to love.
Love is not something that we possess, in greater or lesser – or even increasing or decreasing – measure. It isn’t something we can store up, or deplete. It certainly isn’t something we can fall in to, or out of. (Here, at least, we really are ‘all in this together.’)
Love is God breaking-into our lives and possessing us, drawing us further into him.
And though we might (or might not) experience love in the present, we only understand love – if at all – with hindsight. The cumulative little acts of love that has brought us to this day – however this day finds us – broke-into our yesterdays.
Paul speaks of prophecies ceasing, tongues being stilled, knowledge passing away, and love remaining.
‘Prophecies’ refers to God-given insights into conditional futures: if we choose to live in this way, we will shape this kind of future...if we choose to live in that way, we will shape that kind of future: segregation or integration; injustice or justice. If we resist love, we will part company; but if we allow love to possess us, our wills and God’s will for us will grow closer. When we arrive at the place God is preparing for us – when it is no longer something breaking-into our present (in protest against society; modelling an alternative reality) but something that has fully taken the present into itself (in transformation of society) – there will be no need for prophecy.
‘Tongues’ refers to ecstatic utterance, given us by God to express the longings of our hearts that are too deep to articulate: the moans of a lover, the groans of a slave. When we arrive at the place God is preparing for us, and discover that God’s love has fulfilled all our longing – has somehow fulfilled the longings of very different peoples, fairly – there will be no need for tongues.
‘Knowledge’ refers to God-given insight into something hidden. Ever since Eden, we have all hidden that which we have done or that another has done to us of which we are ashamed: it is a self-preservation mechanism. Shame is not the preserve of any particular class or group, but universal. Words of knowledge are God’s way of revealing to us, through another person as messenger, that God knows us and, loving us, wants to cleanse us of our shame. They are not the exposé of the tabloid press, for our downfall and destruction; but a way of showing love for someone who believes themselves, if truly known, to be unlovable. When we arrive at the place God is preparing for us, where nothing remains hidden to be revealed and all our fear has been driven out by perfect love, there will be no need for such knowledge.
In these three examples, then (which, ironically, the Corinthians were claiming as evidence that some were more ‘spiritual’ – and therefore more important – than others), we see love as God coming to us, declaring himself to be for us and claiming us for his own.
Love is eternal, having no beginning and no end; and infinite, having no measure. Therefore, it cannot run out, but is always given to us, in every circumstance, if we will but receive it and hold it out for one another to receive.
It is the antidote to impatience, to unkindness, to envy, self-aggrandisement, pride; to the carelessness of using language to belittle what is good; the carelessness of putting ourselves over and before others; the carelessness of easy anger, and of refusing to be rightly angered by injustice; the carelessness of passing sentence over one another, locking one another out. Love is the powerful antidote to the venom of evil and lies. Love surrounds us to protect, so that, receiving love, we might protect others. It lifts us up by dignifying us with the revelation that God trusts us as partners with him in the world, so that, receiving love, we might trust one another. It strengthens us by daring to hope for us, so that, receiving love, we might stand firm against the temptation to abandon hope. It perseveres, so that, receiving love, we might preserve in the face of every means by which God’s enemy – the one described as the accuser, the thief, the father of lies – will seek to destroy us.
We need love; and that love has been extended to us, and is extended to us, daily.
Loving God, I receive your love for me today.
Help me to extend your love to others:
to those I am told I must not love, and to those who tell me not to love:
to the poor and the disabled,
to the Government cabinet minister and the Daily Mail journalist,
and to the Opposition MPs looking for political gain.Amen.