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Heard at weddings, printed on countless T-shirts, collectibles and chotskies, the revolutionary definition of love that Paul writes to the ancient church in Corinth (chapter 13) often goes unheard, even when we hear it.
Paul wrote his theology and pastoral advice in Koine Greek. It was the universal language in his day, similar to how English is today in our world. In Greek there are four words for our word “love”: 1) Agápe (ἀγάπη) means unconditional, interdependent, inter relational, as in the love of God for humanity and of humanity for God. 2) Éros (ἔρως) is passionate love, which can be intimate, sexual and all-consuming 3) Philia (φιλία) is a friendship love between equals; & 4) Storge (στοργή) is the love, affection or natural empathy we feel in families as in between parents and children. Paul uses only agape : the fullest love, which bridges this world and the next, can only be known in receiving it from God and is our vocation to pursue.
Paul writes this about love, as he prepares for climactic conclusion in his letter of pastoral advice. He admonishes them to be community. Their togetherness is issued from their identity as a diverse gathered people called to a new way of being. They lived in a world in which importance was based on wealth, position, class and birth. Honor was the motivation for all action. Maintaining past honor. Gaining new honor. A self-focused and aggrandizing priority that all too often leads to reactive violence, destructive vilification and self-obsession out of a desire to always “save face.” Contrary to Roman civilization, Paul asserts that meaning comes rather from selfless, self-giving love, affirming both the other and the self in our mutual interdependence.
We read this about romantic love, or friendship. As it is, yet Paul is going deeper. Love is the universal force in which we are to be grounded in our faith and as a community. It’s our natural out-flowing response to God’s initial action. It may not seem like much – loving your neighbor as God love us – but in a world inundated with self-promotion, selfie-sticks, and in which we’re told we have to create our own identity through obligated self-promotion, it’s all too easy to get lost self-absorption, reactive verbal violence, vilifying polarization and paralyzing apathy.
Our actions then are part of a larger summed whole. But we’re easily distracted, divided and divided by disappointments, misunderstandings, and lack of discernment. We are all too human, in a world all too in need of God’s muscular mountain-moving love. A thick love, which we only have one word to describe. It’s a transformation force that we often receive as we share it.
Questions for Going Deeper: