The Greatest of These 02/03/19 (Epiphany 4C)

Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
February 3, 2019
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C)

The church in Corinth was in trouble. For eighteen months, Paul had joined up with several coworkers such as Timothy and Silvanus, Phoebe, and Priscilla and her husband Aquila. Together they organized several house-assemblies of Corinthians where Paul taught and the people learned to live and worship in a new way – a way that grew directly out of Judaism, a way given by Jesus, which would one day become known as Christianity. These smaller assemblies would come together periodically as one gathering to worship and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It is this larger gathering that Paul called “the church in Corinth” – and the church was in trouble.

After a year and a half with them, Paul left the Corinthian church to continue his work in Ephesus, and soon the Corinthian community began to fall apart. Serious conflicts had arisen, and the fabric of this fledgling community was beginning to show some major tears. Throughout the body of the letter, Paul repeatedly urges them to strive for unity. He addresses numerous divisions within the community, such as how to deal with a man living with his stepmother; lawsuits among believers; marriage and sexual relations; hair arrangement when prophesying; eating food sacrificed to idols; the procedure for celebrating the Lord’s Supper; the use of spiritual gifts; and the teaching about the resurrection of the dead. There was no end to the possibility for conflict, and it seemed as though the Corinthian church was exploring all of them!

Anyone whose church is struggling with divisions and miscommunication and angry arguments need only look to this first letter from Paul to see that such struggles are not unique to them. People are people, it seems, no matter time or place or purpose for gathering.

Issue by issue, line by line, Paul goes through each of these conflicts and attempts to lay out solutions. Although his advice and admonishments did not immediately solve the problems in the Corinthian church (which we know because of the existence of a second letter to them!), many of his teachings can still be found in our gatherings today.

By chapter 12, Paul gets to the question of spiritual gifts, specifically one question that is plaguing this community relentlessly: which gifts are the greatest? Speaking in tongues? Interpreting that speech? The ability to heal others? Or what about the making of miracles, or the gift of prophecy? None of these is greater, Paul argues. They are all necessary, they are all part of the whole. And each person who manifests one of these particular gifts is also necessary to the whole, just as each part of the body is what makes up the body in its completeness or wholeness. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” he writes. (1 Cor 12:27) He wants them to start acting like it.

“Leave behind your divisions,” he is saying. “Stop trying to rank spiritual gifts and therefore rank one another. You’re missing the point.”

And then he says, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” (1 Cor 12:31b)

This is the heart of Paul’s letter and the heart of his theology. What is that more excellent way? It is the way of love.

Here he launches into that great ode to love, Chapter 13, often called The Love Chapter. It’s one of the standard texts for wedding ceremonies, probably because there is so little about romantic love in the Bible. But the love Paul is describing has nothing to do with romance or marriage; it’s all about healing divisions and remembering the foundation of the way of life Jesus gave us.

Because of this – because of the context and the actual point Paul is making – I have always resisted reading this excerpt from The Love Chapter at weddings. We miss the mark when we confuse the kind of love Paul is talking about with the romantic love usually being celebrated at a ceremony of union between two people.

I think one of the reasons we get confused about what kind of love Paul is describing here is the way Paul’s words have been translated into English. We say, “Love is patient; love is kind,” etc. We think Paul is describing the nature of love – what it is. But in fact, the Greek is not so passive. Paul is describing what love does, not what love is. Love is a concrete action that comes with all action verbs. Seven out of the fifteen action-verbs listed in today’s passage have to do with what love must do: love must “do patience,” “do kindness,” “rejoice in the truth,” “bear all things,” “believe all things,” “hope all things,” and “endure all things.” Love does these things.

Then, the rest (eight of them) has to do with what love should not do: “not to envy,” “not to boast,” “not to do arrogance,” “not to do rudeness,” “not to seek its own way,” “not to do irritability,” “not to do resentment,” and “not to rejoice in wrongdoing.” It’s awkward in English, hard to put the words into action verbs without losing the flow of the prose. But we do a tremendous disservice when we leave the realm of doing and rest in the (perhaps easier?) realm of being.

One scholar puts it this way: “Love is a busy, active thing that never ceases to work. It is always finding ways to express itself for the good of others. The point is not a flowery description of what love “is” in some abstract and theoretical sense, but of what love does, and especially what love does to one’s brother or sister in the church.”

Paul is writing to a community on the brink of separation. Their unity is about to be destroyed, not because they have different opinions about various things, but because of the ways they are treating one another. As a colleague of mine once said, “Paul describes what it means to enter into the kind of fierce love necessary to support a disgruntled community and transform hearts hardened by division.” [2]

The way to transform those hearts? To act love. Not to feel starry-eyed and overcome with powerful emotions. But to do love.

So maybe, come to think of it, this isn’t such a bad text to read at a wedding. After all, what union of two people doesn’t include conflict and division from time to time? What marriage isn’t marred by the occasional amnesia about what it means to live love? Paul’s words are to the church, but it turns out that they could also be directed to a couple about to take vows of fidelity and commitment – as long as we understand that they are words about how to live with one another grounded in the only thing that matters: an active, fierce, determined, other-focused love.

This afternoon we will gather for our Annual Meeting. We will look at budgets and calendars for the coming year – necessary things for the survival of this congregation. But we will also look back at all we did in 2018: the week-to-week worship as well as special holy days and worship experiences; the celebrations of life for beloved members of our community as we said goodbye to them and bid them Godspeed on their journey from this life to the next; the dedicated care of our buildings and grounds.

But that’s not all! We’ll also look at the ways in which our love is extending beyond these walls. We’ll look at our involvement in various community events and our hard work to become an Open and Affirming congregation, explicitly welcoming and learning to be a safe space for our LGBTQ siblings. And we’ll celebrate the incredible work we’ve done to care for others in concrete and active ways. All in all, this Little Church with a Big Heart has donated goods and services that amount to about $7,000! From the Food Pantry to toys for local kids at Christmas to various one-time mission events to the Pumpkin Patch, we are busy doing the work of love.

We at 2CC have been blessedly free of major division and conflict for a number of years now (knock wood!), and I think that is due in large part to the fact that we have not forgotten Paul’s words: “Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Cor 16:14)

Thanks be to God.

[1] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.”

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