A More Excellent Way. Sermon for February 3rd, 2019 Based on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
This is the third week that we’ve been reading along from Paul’s first letter to the folks in the Church in the city of Corinth. Today’s epistle reading from Corinthians chapter 13 will no doubt be familiar to many of you as it’s often read at weddings, and is frequently quoted and even misquoted in various types of media! It is sometimes called Paul’s “Hymn to Love”i. It is a beautiful piece of writing, and while it can be very meaningful as a stand-a-lone reading, it becomes much more meaningful and insightful once it’s put into place with the verses that come before and after it.
So just what is happening in this first century Corinthian community to whom Paul is writing that has him waxing so poetic? We will get a better sense of the bigger picture by looking back into chapter twelve, the epistle readings from the past two Sundays to get the context as to why Paul is discussing clanging cymbals, handing over his body, ending prophecies, ceasing tongues and dim mirrors. So let’s do some review of the last couple of weeks.
“Corinth was the first major urban center to which Paul brought his mission” ii and he spent eighteen months organizing and developing the church in the city of Corinth, along with Prisca and Aquila, Timothy, Chloe and Silvanus. In this letter we call ‘First Corinthians’ Paul is actually responding to a letter he had received from the Corinthian church wanting clarification about several issues and he’s addressing some news that he had received from Chloe’s people about some pretty serious conflicts that had developed over the number of years since Paul had left the community in the care of his co-workers.iii
What were the issues that Paul was addressing when he wrote this ode to love? Well, if we go back to the beginning of chapter 12 which we read two weeks ago, we’ll get a good clue. It seems there was some discrimination going on amongst the church members based on the spiritual gifts that they had received, and it was certainly causing dissension in the ranks. Paul is very clear as to how people come to receive these abilities and regardless of what gift it was, they are all spiritual graces, gifted to them by the Holy Spirit. He then lists a group of them, which we can assume are the ones most in dispute. And these gifts of the Spirit, Paul tells us are given by the Spirit to the members of the body of Christ as the Spirit chooses, so truly none is better than another, it seems almost arbitrary in terms of who gets what. And to top it off, Paul says: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1Cor 12:7), for the good of the whole assembly, not to determine the pecking order in the church, so to speak.
And last week we read the amazing analogy that Paul created describing the members of the church –the body of Christ, as though they are members of an actual physical body, and how the body is inter-dependant and complemented by the sum of its parts, that one part is not better, more honourable or respectable than any another. What I didn’t realize until I did some research on these verses is that “The body was commonly used in antiquity as a metaphor for human society…(and) was an image…exploited by (the) elite classes to justify inequality…”1 The ruling classes represented themselves as the head and the belly, as these were considered at the time to be the most indispensable and honourable parts of the body.2 So this viewpoint of Paul’s that all parts of the body were of equal value, and then by inference, all members of the church are indispensable and honourable, including those who were less visible was an astounding statement. He goes so far to say that “…God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity.” (vs 26 NLT) That was almost subversive, certainly in direct contradiction to the elite classes’ use of the body metaphor to justify their own importance, and devaluing others. Paul was re-affirming to this Christian community the counter culture message that Jesus too preached, no one is of more value than the other, in the faith community or in society for that matter! We are all one in Christ, interdependent on each other for full and healthy functioning of the body of Christ. If we are honest, it’s still a challenge for us today, and still counter cultural in our western society.
It seems the Corinthian membership, much to Paul’s consternation, put great emphasis on the ability to speak in tongues, which is a special and divine language. He addresses it here and later spends considerable time discussing his concerns about this in chapter fourteen. So Paul flat out tells his Corinthians church members which are the most important for the church: first apostles, prophets and teachers, then deeds of power, gifts of healing, assistance, leadership and then speaking in tongues (which he lists last) and Paul tells them to strive for the other, greater gifts, AND, he tells them, he will show them “a still more excellent way”! (1Cor 12:31b) This is where his ode to love begins. By using himself as the example, no doubt to soften the tone somewhat, he’s been very stern to this point iv, he begins:
“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. 3 If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” (1Cor 13: 1-3 NLT)
Without love, even the most glorious and extra-ordinary gifts, talents or abilities –like the Corinthians favourite, speaking in tongues—are, really, well, as ineffective and noisy as a clanging cymbal. If not used or shared in love, all the knowledge, faith, prophecies or strength of spirit are nothing, are empty. Even self sacrifice given without true caring really has no value. These gifts of the Spirit, when used to promote self interest–“to boast” are the words Paul uses, really don’t do us any good, we “gain nothing”, he says.
There is a “more excellent way”, a way that does truly benefit all of us, those who give and who receive. We are to use our God given talents and gifts, to share those gifts unique to us with our brothers and sisters—our fellow members who make up the body of Christ. Instead of asking: “’What’s in it for me?’ (or ‘What’s best for me’), love first looks to the other and asks, ‘What is best for you?’ ‘What would help you?’v, which is another counter-cultural way of thinking, it goes against the way our culture tells us how we should be thinking these days, doesn’t it? True Christian living is counter-cultural!
Next Paul quite beautifully and poetically lists the sixteen virtues of true love: eight things it is, and eight things it isn’t:
Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1Cor 13: 4-8a)
Now, I seriously doubt that Paul is providing us with this list of love’s attributes and virtues so Christians can have a few beautiful verses to quote in wedding ceremonies! What he is describing is a truly mature and selfless love, which is what I think he means when he says “as an adult I put an end to childish things”, a God-like love to which we all aspire, but as imperfect beings, we don’t always attain. I know I fall short, even though I try, and there are days when I’m tired or when I’m upset, I don’t always react or respond with true Christian love. And that’s when we have to apologize, own up to our short fallings, and take it to the Lord in prayer, and ask forgiveness. Because we know that God’s loving care and kindness never fails!
This perfect love, this is the immensity of God’s love, the love that forgives us when we fall short, the love that comforts us when we’re hurting, the love that knew us before we were even born to paraphrase our reading from Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5), the love that gave us Jesus to save us from ourselves —that’s the love of God. This is the love never ends, the love we can count on, because it is always there, no matter what, and it always will be. And God shares this wonderful amazing, selfless and unconditional love with us, the immensity of which is beyond our human ability to fully and completely fathom, but which we are blessed at times to get glimpses of—kind of like seeing a reflection in a dimly lit mirror, but in time we will see face to face.
(But) “for now there are faith, hope and love. … of these three, the greatest is love.” (1Cor 13:13, CEV) Amen.
Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector
The Regional Ministry of Hope
2 The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fifth Edition. Commentary on 1Corinthians 12: 22-26 p. 2053
i Verlyn D. Verbrugge, “Commentary” on 1Corinthians 12:31b-13:13 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary,
eds. Temper Longman III and David E. Garland. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 371.
ii Richard A. Horsley, “Commentary” on 1Corinthins in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 267 New Testament.
iii Horsley, 267NT
iv Andrew T. Lincoln, “Commentary” on 1Corinthians 12:31b-13:13 in The New Interpreters Bible Vol. X,
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 952
v Lincoln, 951