If I… but do not have love, I am… - 1 Corinthians 13:1
As we wade into chapter thirteen of the first Corinthian letter, we need to be aware that Paul is deploying his full rhetorical arsenal. While he is most certainly elevating love as that which is to be the controlling ethic for the body of Christ, he is also stripping other activities of the honor that has been over-ascribed to them. When he writes “If I speak in the tongues of mean and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (13:1), he is not passing judgment on the activity of glossolalia. For Paul, this is a common and accepted religious practice, embraced by the worshipers of any number of gods, which dates back hundreds of years before the advent of the church. However, it does seem to be a bit problematic for this particular church, and owing to that, he is engaging in rhetorical speech directed to those in the church that are vaunting themselves as being superior to others, or who are allowing themselves to be viewed as being superior to others, simply because they engage in this form of ecstatic speech, accepting the honor that, due to accepted societal constructs, would naturally come their way as a result. Paul acknowledges their activity, but indicates that it is not being performed in the right spirit, which is that of love---the greater gift and way that is beyond comparison.
He does not pick on speaking in tongues, but goes on to treat other perceived gifts in the same way, writing “And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains,” which appears to be a nod towards the Jesus tradition and His statements about faith, “but do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2). This “nothing” makes for quite the contrasting statement, because if somebody indeed prophesied, excelled in the revelation of mysteries, demonstrated knowledge, and had a commendable faith, they would enjoy the adulation of others, with a commensurate increase in their honor status. However, if a self-sacrificial, other-preferring, serving, equalizing love was not the basis for all of these things---if these things were motivated by love of glory and pursuit of honor, then as far as Paul was concerned, it was all meaningless. In fact, in a bit of a paradox, it stood apart from honor and was instead a source of shame, because it did not function to the accrual of honor for Jesus. With the sheer number of attributions, it may be reasonable to presume that Paul may have had one particular individual in mind with the statement of verse two.
With verse three, we hear “If I give away everything I own, and if I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit” (13:3). The use of “boast” makes us mindful of the constant jockeying for status and honor that was a component of the culture. Again, this seems as though it could be directed towards a single individual within the Corinthian congregation. If that is so, we can then hear Paul, while he is most certainly ascribing honor to love (and probably the one that is thought to embody love), taking aim at various members of the community, pricking the conscience of a number of those that are assembled and listening to the reading of his letter, as they hear “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious. Love does not brag, it is not puffed up. It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful. It is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (13:4-7). Clearly, some of these things have no place in the church of Christ, nor should they be on display between and among the members of that body. Envy, bragging, puffery, rudeness towards those inside the church, that would occupy a lower place in the social order outside the church, along with self-serving behavior, would stem from the pursuit of honor.
With all that has been said to this point, we should be sufficiently capable of catching the ethos of the remainder of chapter thirteen, as we listen to Paul in concert with his original audience and hear: “Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways” (13:8-11). All of these things that are being employed so as to gain individual honor will come to an end. What’s more, Paul equates the pursuit of honor as then in effect as little more than childish ways, which is ironic, in that children had no ability to function in the honor and shame culture---they stood outside. An adult---a mature member of the body of Christ---does not engage in such ultimately meaningless pursuits, though society would expect them to do so, especially if they stand in opposition to that which God expects from those that constitute His kingdom. “Paul continues on to write “For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (13:12-13). True honor will come from demonstrations of love that are not concerned with individual honor but with the honor of the one that is ostensibly being served.