“Love never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13:8 (Common English Bible)
One of my most dramatic experiences occurred one evening during a semester of study in Coventry, England. I gathered with other students to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah in Coventry Cathedral. Hung from the chancel wall of that cathedral is a large tapestry that depicts Jesus seated in power over all creation, his two hands held up as if to communicate a blessing. We listened to the beautiful music from that oratorio, aware that we were being grasped by it’s message about the way the world ought to live, that we are to follow the way of Jesus and his example of love. As the Hallelujah Chorus began, the lights of the cathedral were dimmed, and then extinguished all together, leaving a bright spot light on the tapestry – a bright light on the seated Jesus offering his blessing to the world.
I was overcome with emotion. I stood to exit the cathedral to keep my tears private. As I turned my back on the chancel, turned my back on the seated Jesus now lit-up in the darkness, the visual impact almost brought me to my knees. The light on the tapestry was reflected on the all glass facade of the cathedral. Just outside of that cathedral, which was constructed following the Second World War, are the ruins of the original cathedral destroyed in the war. The visual impact that I experienced was Jesus seated in power, hands raised with a blessing, juxtaposed over the brokenness and devastation of the world. Since that evening I have often reflected on what it would mean if the world were to give itself completely over to the love of Jesus Christ.
This chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church, chapter 13, is regarded as his keynote address – Paul’s great oratorio of love. Like the twenty-third Psalm, this is one of those passages of our Bible that is so saturated with imagery, and beauty, and power that the substance of our faith reveals itself in uncommon ways. While it daunts the reader it also fascinates and challenges. For in this hymn of love, Paul does more than assert the supremacy of love. Here, Paul declares that it is love that gives every other gift its value. He names many of the treasured gifts of the Christian faith – the gift of tongues, the gift of prophecy, a sturdy faith that can move mountains, and a generosity beyond compare and boldly states that they amount to nothing without love.
Paul turns the searchlight onto our lives. In our Christian walk, in our corporate worship, do we have love for one another? He helps us examine ourselves deeply and honestly. Are we patient with one another? Are we kind? Do we practice humility rather than arrogance? Do we put aside irritability and complaints and the insistence on our own way and consider the well being of others? Have we developed the capacity to think beyond ourselves to consider what may be best for the larger faith community? Paul is relentless. He pushes the question further. Do we still behave as a child who protests much when things are not going our way or have we matured in the faith and placed away childish things? This is how Paul concludes his keynote address. And the question lingers for each one of us to answer, have we love for one another?