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I Cor. 13: The Bible’s most terrifying passage

Somebody recently asked me why my sermons so often end with a reflection on our Christian obligation to love our fellow men. I replied that it is the subject of the most frightening passage in the whole of the Bible: The 13th Chapter of the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians.

Some might find it somewhat peculiar to contend that this passage—the Epistle appointed for Quinquagesima Sunday and found upon Page 122 of the BCP—should strike terror into our hearts.

It begins with the words: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal …”

And it expresses such beautiful thoughts about the centrality of love to the Christian message and the importance of love in the human experience that many people take it as a comfort rather than the contrary.

In fact it is such a favorite that, in modern translation—“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love”—it has become a favorite scripture reading at weddings.

Actually, the members of the Corinthian Church would find it decidedly odd to hear this passage read on a joyful occasion like a wedding because there is nothing lovey- dovey about it. It is, in fact, a stern admonition.

Probably the best explanation for our failure to recognize the frightening nature of the message encapsulated in I Corinthians 13 is our modern inability to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest what we read.

Part of the problem is that Greek, the language in which Paul wrote, has different words for the various types of love—love for siblings, love for parents, erotic love, etc. The word Paul uses in the epistle is “agape” which means love for humanity or for one’s fellow men.

Even so, Paul’s meaning should be clear from the context in which he uses the word. However these days we tend to skim our reading material—the Bible included—as casually as we skim the back of a cornflakes box at the breakfast table.

Thus, when we take the trouble to pause and ponder the things we have read, we frequently discover we’ve grasped the wrong end of the stick. And Nnowhere is this more apparent than in I Corinthians 13.

The King James Bible with commendable precision translates the word “agape” as “charity.” And the passage expounds the direconsequences of not loving one’s fellow men in a Christian manner. Bereft of this quality of charitable love, all of our other Christian virtues, he declaress, are absolutely worthless.

It does not matter, for example, how hard we work to spread the Gospel, if we are not acting in a spirit of love for our fellow men, our endeavors are useless. It doesn’t matter how great we are as preachers, teachers, singers and church builders. If we do have love towards our fellowmen are talents are valueless.

In other words, if there is one ability we need to cultivate above all, it is the ability to love our fellow men, no matter how unlovely they might seem to be.

This is not an option. It is a solemn obligation. Nothing else we have to offer can make up for its lack. It is a thought that should terrify us whenever we find ourselves griping about other people. GPH+

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