1 Corinthians 13 is among the loveliest and most lyrical chapters in all of the Scriptures. It virtually sings in praise of love. Its truths are also, through the work of the Spirit, timeless. All of that and more, however, makes it easy to forget that Paul grounds this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson in the first century Corinthian church’s contemporary realities. So those who wish to proclaim it may choose to let the Spirit relentlessly apply it to our own 21st century contexts.
As we noted a couple of weeks ago, today’s Body of Christ that is the Church shares much in common with Corinth’s church. In fact, some our own local churches also, for better or for worse, share much with the church in Corinth. Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson have opportunities to share and reflect on some of those similarities.
As the New Testament scholar Shively Smith notes in her fine commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (Working Preacher, May 1, 2016), the Corinthian Christians were diverse. Their lives, values and experiences sometimes radically differed from each other’s.
Both married and unmarried people, as well as widows and children made up Corinth’s church. While most Corinthian Christians were converted gentiles, some of them were Jews. In fact, as Smith notes, some of those Jewish members of the church were among the most powerful people in their community. Crispus, for example, had served as a synagogue leader.
Most members of the Corinthian church were members of lower socio-economic classes. A few, however, wielded great power and influence. Erastus was Corinth’s city treasurer and Gaius had enough financial resources to be able to support not just Paul, but also the entire Corinthian church. While some members of the church were slaves, others were free.
This diversity offers 1 Corinthians 13’s proclaimers an opportunity to explore their own church or faith community’s diversity. They might share and celebrate with hearers how in that way Corinth’s church’s story is in some ways also our own. Local congregations may not be ethnically or racially diverse. But almost all of them are at least somewhat socio-economically and perhaps politically diverse.
Yet the Corinthian Christians’ lovely diversity also helped fuel some of the challenges and controversies that dogged their church. They disagreed theologically. They struggled with persistent sin, lawsuits among themselves, sexual immorality, and marriage. Corinth’s Christians disagreed on how to deal with food that had been sacrificed to idols and religious freedom.
That helps make their “song,” while perhaps having different “stanzas,” the 21st century’s Church’s song. It’s not just that the worldwide Church is racially and socio-economically diverse. Christians also have sometimes radically different political perspectives.
We find it hard to agree on just who may be intimate and marry. Jesus’ friends disagree on the causes and extent of climate change. And, perhaps more than anything right now, Christians disagree on the pandemic and efforts to mitigate it.
So what hope is there, not just for the Church, but also local churches? What can hold together diverse Christians with diverse viewpoints? The culture would probably answer that nothing can keep us together. So it suggests that Jesus Christ’s friends simply choose up sides and divide over our contentious issues.
The Scriptures summon God’s dearly beloved people to a different way. Their divinely inspired authors like Paul call Christians not to divide and isolate ourselves from those with whom we disagree. We, instead, love each other, wholeheartedly and unconditionally, the way God loves God’s adopted children in Jesus Christ. This, through the power and work of the Spirit within and through God’s dearly beloved people, is one of our best hopes for expressing the reality that we are “one body.”
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the Corinthians’ spiritual descendants have sometimes shrunk 1 Corinthians 13’s song of love to a wedding song. After all, people who marry presumably already love each other, in part because they like each other. Paul composes this love song not for people who like each other, but to Corinthian Christians who have already shown that they struggle to love, to say nothing of like each other.
Of course, any proclamation of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson requires that those who offer explain just what Paul means when he speaks so extensively about love. He’s talking about actions, not an emotion. Neither God nor those who proclaim the gospel expect people to like each other. But we have no choice but to love each other.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers should probably take some time to unpack just what Christian love looks like. Preachers and teachers might boil it down to this: to love someone is to both adopt a posture towards that person and act in certain ways towards him or her.
So to love is to view the other as someone whom God created in God’s image (no matter how much we think he or she may have blurred that image). To love is to view the beloved as someone whom God loves and for whom God desires the very best.
Yet to love someone is also to act, to work and pray for his or her well-being. Christians love each other when we treat each other as fellow image-bearers of God. We love our neighbors when we work for the welfare of their whole person. We love when we forgive and pray for even those who have declared us their enemies.
So we may not like the people who don’t share our perspective on COVID and efforts to deal with it. But God calls God’s adopted children to love them. We may not like the people who sit on the other side of the political aisle from us. But God calls us to pray for their well-being. Christians may not like our co-workers who gossip, neighbors who let their property deteriorate or enemies who betray us. But God calls us to work for their well-being.
Of course, such love has a cruciform shape. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s verses 4-7 insist that, like Christ’s love for his adopted siblings, love is tenacious, sturdy, and durable. Christian love, in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13, “doesn’t fly off the handle [and] doesn’t keep score of the sins of others.” It “rejoices with the truth … always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
The apostle spends much of chapter 12 inviting Corinth’s Christians to discover and use their manifestations of the Spirit for God’s glory and our neighbors’ well-being. Paul, in fact, closes that chapter with a call to “eagerly desire the greater gifts.”
Yet with chapter 13’s next breath he quickly moves to remind his readers that even the gift of great eloquence that’s not soaked in love is nothing more than what Eugene Peterson calls “the creaking of a rusty gate.” Even the ability to speak God’s word powerfully and clearly that’s not soaked in love has no value. Even the manifestation of the Spirit that is complete surrender of one’s possessions and even life that’s not motivated by love is worthless.
The various manifestations of the Spirit about which Paul speaks are nothing less than gifts of God’s grace. But they have no value if they aren’t characterized by love. In fact, those gifts that aren’t drenched in love are subject to abuse that causes far more harm than good.
What’s more, virtually all gifts are temporary. Prophecies will someday cease. Sooner or later speaking and praying in tongues will end. Knowledge will eventually die. But, as Paul writes in verse 8, “love never fails.” Love, as Peterson paraphrases this, “never dies.” It’s the greatest of the three pillars of Christlikeness that will never end (13).
Does Paul, however, at least hint in verses 9-12 that even the greatest love is, on this side of the new creation’s curtain, imperfect? Certainly he strongly suggests that gifts like knowledge, prophesying, and seeing are imperfect. Perhaps the apostle is also at least implying that human love too is flawed. Only God’s love is perfect. But by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit, Christians can love in ways that don’t just glorify God, but also enhance our neighbors’ welfare.
In his book, Caring and Commitment, (Harper and Row, 1988) Lewis Smedes tells the story of James Ettison who fell in love with a gentle and lovely woman named Alice. When they married, they settled into a life largely characterized by happiness.
But just two years after their wedding, Alice’s car skidded on a stretch of ice and into oncoming traffic. Though Alice survived, Smedes says she did so only after tilting “toward death for a year.”
She was, however, never the same again. Alice was basically paralyzed from the hips down. Her memory was both spotty and selective. Alice spoke a language that James had to learn as if learning a very difficult new language.
As the months grew into years, the past made its way in fits and starts back into her memory. Yet while that might sound to us like good news, Smedes says it in some ways made life harder for Alice. It made her that much more aware of her other disabilities. Most days Alice bore this with the grace of a saint. But she sometimes for weeks and months on end slipped deep into depression.
Alice’s husband James quit his job after her accident and basically devoted his entire life for caring for his dear wife. Smedes says he never heard his acquaintance complain about his new job. He turned out to be what Smedes calls “a world-class keeper of commitment.”
When Alice died nearly fifteen years after her accident, someone asked James how he had done it all so patiently. How, they wondered, had he given Alice so much when she seemed to give him comparatively little in return?
James said he’d never thought to ask, though he sometimes asked God why Alice was stuck with living that gave so little back to her. Yet when his friend pressed James a bit, he simply answered, “I just loved her (italics mine).”
Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 30, 2022
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Commentary