Maria Skobtsova was a Russian nun, whose residence took in Jews over the second world war to help in their hiding and escape from the Gestapo. This had some success until the house was shut and a number of people, including her, were arrested and sent to concentration camps. At Ravensbruck concentration camp, she spent two and a half years, during which the guards began to refer to her as, 'that wonderful Russian nun' and many saw God's love through her. Then, on Holy Saturday in 1945, as people were lined up for so-called bathing, she took the place in line of a terrified Jewish women, and died in the gas chambers, to save the life of another.
What do we mean by, 'love'? Unfortunately, like usual, the answer isn't particularly simple; when we are called to love all people, love is being used in a different, but not necessarily less powerful, sense to that in a marriage, for example. To clarify this, let's turn to four ancient Greek conceptions of 'love', as seen in C. S. Lewis' 'The Four Loves':
Firstly, so-called 'Storge' refers to the affection felt for someone whom you are familiar with, and the affection felt between family members.
The second concept, 'Phileo', is slightly different – it refers to the affection of true friendship that rises above friendship solely for selfish benefit, where individuals mutually enjoy each others' characters and genuinely care for their well-being.
The third concept, 'Eros', refers to the powerful forces of romantic love and attraction.
However, the forth, and last, concept, 'Agape', refers to unconditional, self-giving, selfless, outward, charitable and unconditional love. It is this love that is chosen rather than simply felt, and which never fails regardless of any change in the one who is being loved, and which is referred to in our passage, 1 Corinthians 13. It is the highest form of love, being God's love to always will the good of others, regardless of their appreciation, a form of love that is seldom glimpsed in human existence but is eternally part of God's nature.
Hence, with such a magnificent conception of love, we are challenged by these 13 verses to consider our attitude to other people, and our attitude to God's love. These verses apply firstly to ourselves, arguing that love is not simply good, but categorically required for true service of God, since, otherwise, we 'gain nothing'. We also see the emphasis on intention and attitude rather than the exterior act, so that each situation is judged individually, and the required agape love mindset is something which can be practised and developed, like a musical instrument.
However, a loving intention is not merely a moral and good motive; in fact, as written in 1 John, 'God is love'. Agape love is the moral paradigm, the height of moral perfection, the centre of the first and second greatest commandments.
We are called to love our friends, our neighbours, our rivals, our competitors, and even our enemies. We are called to follow the 'most excellent way'. We are called to be patient with each other, to work deeds of kindness, to be humble and not prideful, to be content with others having what we don't have, to honour others, to remain calm, to be selfless, to love the truth and goodness, to forgive unconditionally, to protect the weak, to always have hope, and to never give up on others.
Indeed, how far I, for one, have to go to even begin fulfilling the challenge presented in this passage! Yet, wonderfully, we can look back to the paradigm of moral greatness, of perfect agape love, God Himself, and His unconditional love for us, and be glad and secure. We need to keep faith trusting in Him, so that He can transform us from the inside, hope in His promises, and to continue propagating a true attitude of agape love.
This brings us onto the second challenge of this passage: as well as applying it to our imperfect selves, we can see all the descriptions of agape love applying to the Epitome of love Himself, God. What we are challenged to be in this passage, God already is: His love never fails, enduring forever (as the Psalmist declares), and He perseveres with us. God is love, and God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. God has full agape love, having moral perfection, and hence does nothing not in line with maximal love.
However, it must be emphasised, that, unlike other forms of love such as eros and storge, this agape love is anything but, 'fluffy'. God's agape is an active, powerful, passionate love, which will not tolerate injustice. It is love that despises evil whilst always desiring the good of the offender. It is love which has righteous wrath at hatred, misery and suffering, and which is prepared to discipline an offender for their own good. It is love that will not sit back and do nothing; it is a love that will experience terrifying crucifixion for the sake of a lost sheep. God's love can be severe, but it is infinite, and always ultimately for the good of the individual experiencing it.
We can, hence, trust always in God's love to work the good, even if it's through difficult means; we can rejoice and never despair, for we see that the agape that God is always perseveres with us and will never fail, or abandon us, and will protect us from falling. We can cast ourselves unto God, not for an easy ride, but for a difficult journey to an infinitely rich destination.
It is in response to God's intense care for us that we are moved to worship, and that we are moved to love others, and love Him, through our kindnesses to one another. We are challenged to consider our lives, and how they measure up to the standard of agape love which our Father in heaven upholds.