Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 3, 2019

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Commentary

In the more than twenty years that I’ve ministered with and to the church I currently serve, I’ve never preached on 1 Corinthians 13.  Now I remember why.  Not only is it so lovely that it nearly defies description.  It’s also like a figurative lit stick of dynamite.  So I take comfort in the assertion of a biblical scholar as wise as Stephen Farris that “this surely is one of the most difficult of all passages to preach” (The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings, Eerdmans, 2001, p. 211).

Those who proclaim the “difficult” Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may first want to explore its context.  That will include examining at least the least the identity of its first hearers and its setting within Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

We don’t have to read much of 1 Corinthians to note that the apostle writes it largely to address divisions within the Corinthian church.  After all, he spends only its first nine verses addressing the Corinthians and thanking God for the grace God has shown them.

Paul then hurries in chapter 1:10 to appeal to his brothers and sisters to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”  He subsequently spends most of the next nine chapters addressing those divisions that center on things like worship, marriage and lawsuits among believers.  If 1 Corinthians’ modern readers squint hard enough, we may think we’re reading something out of current issues of The Christian Century or Christianity Today.

By the time Paul and we get to I Corinthians 12, we may feel like we’re ready to take a deep breath.  We’re perhaps as ready to hear some good news as the Apostle is ready to deliver it.  Thankfully, then, Paul spends much of 1 Corinthians 12 describing the “spiritual gifts” (1) God so generously showers on Christ’s Church.  There is, the apostle marvels, both a remarkable unity and diversity in those gifts that God gives in order to advance “the common good” (7).

While some people argue that 1 Corinthians 13 is largely independent of what precedes and follows it, scholars like Farris (ibid, 211) point out that’s it’s actually anchored in its literary context.  First, it at least alludes to gifts of the Spirit, including the gift of speaking in tongues that Paul’s already said so deeply divides his audience.  Second, 1 Corinthians 13 picks up and expands on the theme the apostle’s letter has raised before of “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up” (8:1).

While the Lectionary doesn’t include it in the text it appoints for this Sunday, wise heralds of 1 Corinthians 13 will want to include chapter 12:31a in their proclamation of it.  There, after all, Paul invites his readers to “eagerly desire the greater gifts.”  In doing so he doesn’t seem to be just talking about, for example, the gifts of apostleship, prophecy and teaching, etc. (12:27ff.).  He also appears to be speaking of the “greatest” of the enduring gifts that is love (13:13).

Those who announce 1 Corinthians 13’s gospel might also take Professor Karoline Lewis’ (Preach This Week, January 31, 2010) advice by including chapter 14:1’s call to “Follow the way of love” in their proclamation of it.  That verse, after all, reminds its hearers that while love is a gift from God, it’s also a gift that God invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to cultivate.

How those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 13 actually do so will be shaped, through the power of the Holy Spirit, by the needs of their audience.  My colleague Stan Mast (Epistolary CEP Sermon Commentary, January 25, 2016) gives some excellent suggestions about how we might shape our proclamation to fit our own particular contexts.

Yet regardless of how those who proclaim this text apply it to our own situations, we’ll want to note, as James Boyce points out (Preach This Week, February 3, 2013) that when Paul begins it with “I will show you the most excellent way,” he’s using Epiphany language.  By contrasting the sinful divisions of the Corinthian Church with the unity the Holy Spirit instills through the practice of love, Paul shines light on a better way to be the body of Christ.

Of course, as countless scholars note, most western citizens of the 21st century, including Jesus’ adoptive brothers and sisters, have a very murky understanding of love.  We easily confuse it with things like lust, attraction, emotion or affection.

So those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 13 will want to consider ways to describe the kind of self-giving, determined love to which it refers.  But we want to anchor it in the love of God, particularly as Jesus Christ manifested it.  That will help those who proclaim this text avoid the murky waters of cheap moralism.  It will also ground our proclamation in the most perfect example the world will ever see of the kind of love Paul describes.

From a theological/literary standpoint, scholars often divide 1 Corinthians 13 into three sections or, since this is poetry, “stanzas.”  In the first, Paul uses the formula, “If I … but have not … nothing.”  There, says N.T. Wright (Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p. 173) Paul mentions some of the impressive spiritual and religious things the Spirit empowers Christians to do.  But the apostle goes on to insist that all those great things benefit no one unless they’re wrapped in love.

In 1 Corinthians 13’s “second stanza,” Paul tells his hearers what God’s gift of love is and is not.  The love that he commends has, after all, a very specific shape and flavor.  It’s not the amorphous love about which so many of our contemporaries sometimes swoon.  The love the Holy Spirit equips God’s adoptive children to cultivate is very concrete.

Because it’s at the heart of 1 Corinthians 13, Wright invites those (including, I’d suggest, those who proclaim it) who hear this second “stanza” to “take it slowly, a line at a time, and to reflect on at least three things: first, ways in which we see this quality in Jesus himself; second, ways in which we see it (or more likely … don’t see it) in ourselves; and third, ways in which, if we were like that, it would work out in practice” (ibid, 174).

1 Corinthians 13’s third “stanza” features love’s enduring and complete character in contrast with the exercise of the other gifts the Spirit generously gives God’s beloved children.  God’s people use those other gifts “for the common good,” but only imperfectly, incompletely and for a time.  The greatest as well as most enduring gift is that of love.

Those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 13 are surely aware of the dearth of the kind of love it describes.  We may be, as a result, tempted toward being unloving in our proclamation of it.  So those who prepare to proclaim this text might put on our computers, lecterns, pulpits and any other tool something like this paraphrase of Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 love song: “If I preach and teach like a combination of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. and Charles Spurgeon but don’t do so with deep love, I’m only a howling smoke detector.”

Illustration Idea

In her wonderful volume of sermons entitled Help My Unbelief (Eerdmans, 2000, p. 87-88), Fleming Rutledge recounts Mike Wallace’s interview of the great French film star Jeanne Moreau.  Cornelius Plantinga says that in it Moreau “completely locked Wallace up into inarticulate bafflement.”

Wallace tried to get Moreau to bite on his conspiratorial statement, ‘There’s a feeling in America that passion in a woman of a certain age is unseemly.’  After a long pause Moreau said, ‘They’re right.’

This astonished Wallace: a French woman, veteran actress in R-rated films, downplaying passion?  Wallace obvious discomfiture revealed itself in his ‘Passion is unseemly?’ ‘Oh, come on,’ Moreau replied. ‘Passion! When you get to sixty, you know about love. Love is not passion.’

‘But there’s nothing wrong with passion,’ Wallace protested, his face a picture of disappointment . . . Moreau replied, ‘I would hate—I would hate to still be overcome with passion.’ As though she were a wise grandmother talking to a teenaged boy, Moreau explained, ‘I have passion for life, but I know about love. Love and passion don’t go together. Passion is destructive. Passion is demanding. Passion is jealous. Passion goes up and down. Love is constant.’

As Wallace tried to recover, Moreau added, ‘Compassion. That’s what love is about. You give even more than you receive.’ It was, summarizes, Plantinga, as if Wallace was talking from a “secular, sensualist perch, and Moreau from 1 Corinthians 13. He was talking about eros. She was talking about agape. And her preference for agape made Wallace ‘gasp and stammer’.”


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