One of the area community colleges has a weekly meeting for Christian students. I was invited to speak this week on 1 Corinthians 13:7-8a. This is one of those passages of scripture that gets taught often enough that it’s hard to approach it in a “new” way. Of course, that may actually be for the best. New does not always equate to good. None the less, I always ask myself if I’m reading something correctly. Have I looked at the passage with fresh eyes recently? Have I allowed the text to speak instead of allowing my pre-conceived notions to jump in?
So, I approached the passage and attempted to read it with fresh eyes.
Paul spends a lot of time describing love in the preceding verses. Love is valuable. It’s more important than eloquent speech, mystical prophetic utterances, deep insight, elaborate giving, or extreme self deprivation. Love produces Christlike characteristics like patience and kindness. Love steers us away from ill temperament, retribution, and self-importance. But when we arrive at verse 7, Paul begins to discuss how love conforms are actions to specific standards:
“[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
-1 Corinthians 13:7 (NIV)
Love seeks to protect, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. These are all important actions. Love protects like a father shelters and shields his children. Love trusts like a bride trusts her faithful groom. Love hopes for the best like a son looking after his ill mother in her old age. Love perseveres like one who stands by his friends side in hard times. These are actions which love produces in our lives. We have analogs for them in many relationships.
And then there is this:
“Love never fails.”
-1 Corinthians 13:8 (NIV)
What analog do we have for a lack of failure in human relationship? Where can we turn where someone hasn’t let us down at some point in time or another? We can understand protecting, trusting, hoping, persevering, but understanding someone never failing? That’s difficult. What does unfailing love look like? How do we live it out? What is expected of us.
I got to thinking about the examples of love throughout the life of Christ. The Gospel according to Mark jumps straight into the idea of Jesus loving unfailingly (1:29-45). A woman is ill with a fever. As anyone with small children knows, you can’t send a child to school for 24 hours after a fever. Whatever’s causing it is contagious both at the time and for a time after. Jesus holds her hand with no consideration for himself and makes her well. A leper approaches Jesus. A man with an extremely contagious disease which was virtually untreatable at the time kneels before him and begs for healing. And out of love, not allowing stigma or concern for himself to sway him, Jesus touches the man to heal him. In Chapter 2, verses 1-12 Jesus is living in Capernaum, and a paralyzed man’s friends cut a hole in Jesus roof to get the man some healing. Instead of being concerned about property damage, Jesus forgives the man’s sins (much to the chagrin of the “important people”) and gives him the strength to walk.
Of course, the greatest act of unfailing love comes with the crucifixion. Jesus, clearly troubled over the suffering he is about to face, faces scourging, mocking, humiliation, and pain so severe that our word for pain beyond measure and understanding is derived from the form of death he suffered (excruciating). For our benefit. The one through whom all was created suffered beyond understanding out of love for us.
Unfailing love denies self in every situation where it allows the betterment of the object of that love. We are called to love like this. In fact, the command of our God to those who would wear his name is to love Him and love the ones he loves (everybody). And that love is supposed to be so intense and blind to self that we are surprised when we have shown that love.
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'”
“Woah! Wait! We visited you in prison? We gave you blankets and socks when you were cold? You were sick and I held your hand? Jesus, I didn’t realize I’d done that!” Jesus’ response is, “You loved me without failing, and it spilled over into every aspect of your life. You loved me enough to deny yourself. To put yourself in harms way. To love the sick. To associate with the sinners. To give up personal space for the homeless. You conformed to me, and when you love me, not just like me and my teachings, but love me, you can’t help but do my will, regardless of self.”
It never fails.