Anyone who has been to a Christian wedding has likely heard a reading from what's known as the Bible's "love chapter." Actually, the words usually read at weddings encompass the final verse of one chapter and all thirteen verses of the next one, 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13. This passage, which should be seen as a unit, is probably most famous for its final line: "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love"
There's nothing wrong with the love chapter being read at weddings. Its portrait of love as self-giving, forgiving, and forbearing is a good reminder for people in all their relationships.
But the original situation to which the apostle Paul sent these words in about 55AD, had nothing to do with wedding days. The first-century church in the Greek city of Corinth was, to put it mildly, deeply dysfunctional. I'll skip the bill of particulars for now. But one favorite dysfunctionality among them was the prideful elevation of some spiritual gifts over others. The "in crowd" among the Corinthian Christians insisted, for example, that the gift of tongues, that special prayer and praise language which God's Holy Spirit still gives to some people today, was the ultimate sign of God's approval and presence. Absent that, these "tongue snobs" said, Corinthians church members were only playacting at being Christians.
That's where the love chapter comes in. Paul himself possessed the gift of tongues.* But it is just one spiritual gift, he told the Corinthians. It's better, Paul said, to "strive for the higher gifts." The greatest gift of all, as Paul tells it, is love, not the mushy, indulgent, spineless stuff that passes for love in today's world, but love that comes straight from the Holy Spirit to all who believe in Jesus. It's love like that of Jesus, a love that we can't muster on our own, but which God will supply to those who truly trust in Jesus: love so great that is willing to die for the other.
And "the other" for whom such love is willing to die isn't just a family member or a friend. It may even be a stranger. It could be those who hate us.
This is the kind of love we need to make our relationships and lives work. Yet if we try to manufacture that sort of love on our own, we will always come up short. That's why Paul names it not only as one of the greater gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31), but also as the greatest of gifts (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Gifts cannot be earned. They come from God to those who open themselves to trust--or faith--in Jesus. "And the greatest of these is love."
*Later, in 1 Corinthians 14:18-19, Paul says, "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue" 19