The Greatest Thing in the World

A little while ago I signed up to receive Holy Trinity Brompton’s ‘The Bible in One Year’ daily email (which can be signed up to here – Today’s offering was entitled The Greatest Thing in the World, and contained three readings, one of which was the very familiar 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13.

Normally, I can’t help smiling slightly when I think of that bit of Scripture. It always reminds me of weddings, that Nice Bible Reading that is picked out by most couples, normally surfacing at various nuptials that I have been to not as a guest, but as a singer. It’s ‘ah’-inducing, makes the congregation feel warm and fuzzy as they contemplate the love of the happy couple. The problem is, I’ve heard it so many times, it seems like it’s becoming devoid of meaning for me, and has reduced to some fluffy nice-sounding saying that’s a bit too Love Actually to be taken seriously.

Have you ever had that, where a text you know really well seems elusive somehow, and you can’t get at what it really means anymore? I get it a lot. Partly, this is from singing in evensong so regularly, where the awesomeness of the traditional English text of the Magnificat has become so dead to me I can’t listen to it without humming some setting or other. But it also happens with the Lord’s Prayer (both in traditional and modern translations) and even with stereotypical ‘Christian’ phrases like ‘edifying’, ‘soften hearts’, even some of Jesus’ own words like ‘repent and believe the good news’. What does it actually mean?

The relationship between words and meaning, along with my thoughts on what this has to do with Scripture, will have to wait for a further post (it’s something I’ve been idly thinking of a fair bit recently, crossing over with Linguistics as it does, but I have few coherent thoughts at this stage). Today, however, I read ‘The Message’ translation of some of the verses I quoted above, and, rather than thinking about wedding dresses, pretty flowers and cooing relatives, was struck fully by the self-sacrificing nature of love, the ‘greatest gift’ that I know St Paul is describing in this part of his letter  (‘be struck’ is, incidentally, another of those phrases that now eludes meaning for me …) I rejoiced that sometimes something as simple as reading a familiar text in another translation really does help me to engage with it.

The Bible in One Year email also told of a missionary who vowed to take the reading and substitute the word Love with her name, and stop where she got to a characteristic which she knew was not true of her. The plan was to do this every day until she died, in the hope that by the end of her life she might be able to say the whole thing. Awkwardly, I gave it a little go. It was embarrassing to do. And so humbling. Substituting Love with Jesus was easy, however, highlighting even more the difference between mine and my saviour’s behaviour and attitudes. If ever someone was going to ask me to formulate some sort of response to the recent rioting, I’d start right here, and challenge every single person to try substituting their name where Love is, that’s rioter, politician, media commenter, those who helped clear up, parents of those involved, school teachers, those whose property was looted. It might remind us of how we all too easily have one standard for ourselves and one for others. It might remind us of the perfection of God, who is love, manifested in Jesus dying for us and rising to new life so that we can share in his new life. It might make us more fully aware of our own sinfulness. It certainly did me. Why don’t you try it?

‘Love never gives up [‘Love is patient’, NIV]
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’

(vv.4–7, The Message).