I wonder what Saul of Tarsus would think about words he penned being screenprinted onto a pillowcase? Probably not when he was Saul — or even Paul, who became an apostle after his conversion on the Damascus Road — could the man imagine such a thing.
Sitting on my spouse’s green couch, I am propped on such a pillow with an excerpt from Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth. “LOVE,” it says boldly, quoting 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. Could Paul have anticipated this text would be memorized, much less embroidered and cross-stitched into samplers? Does having these words on T-shirts and wall hangings ingrain them more deeply into our hearts?
The “Love Chapter” is oft-cited at weddings and marriage renewal ceremonies. But it was never really about marital love. In a first-century Greek city filled with different definitions and illustrations of apparent “love,” Paul wrote to cast a vision of love for followers of the Resurrected Christ. Paul had received an upsetting letter while he was in another Greek city, Ephesus, that the Corinthian church was struggling with jealousy, division and inappropriate behavior for followers of Jesus.
In the midst of such a mess, what does love look like? One could argue that we are still in the same mess — if not a greater disarray — than that of first-century Corinth.
Paul paints a picture of real, genuine, mutual, self-giving love. This is the late Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message version of the Bible:
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end (13:4-7).
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Sweethearts — the pastel candies with red words stamped on them — will not be sold this year. The maker went out of business. If it’s all the same, we might bemoan a tradition. But maybe, just maybe, we can pause and remember a deeper, truer love that steps beyond the bounds of holidays or iterations of couple-love. “We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled. (13:11 MSG) Maybe, we can recall that the Love Letter of Paul, of Jesus, of God, carries that message of love beyond human limits. “Until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” (13:13, MSG)