July 17, 2011

christian love

Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 12:13b-13:7

Good morning.

Well, this morning we continue our sermon series on the spiritual life, or life in the spirit...

Last week, Heidi looked at Paul's discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. And from that she convinced us all that we are a bunch of charismatics - that we've all been given Holy Spirit gifts, or charisms.

Today we're going to look at the next chapter of Paul's discussion on spiritual gifts : 1 Corinthians 13, or as it's commonly referred to - you know - that one wedding passage. Love is patient. Love is kind. This is very familiar territory for most of us. This is a passage that we've heard so many times before, not least because it's been read at pretty much every wedding that we've all ever been to.

But my hope this morning is that we would approach this passage with fresh eyes, with fresh hearts and minds. Not with images of weddings and flowers and tablecloths that match bridesmaid dresses and other such things, but with the question, what is Paul really up to here? With the question, what might God have to teach us this morning through this passage - not just about love, but about specifically Christian love? So with that question before us, let's read our passage together.

Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:13b-13:7

Let us pray:

Gracious and holy God, may the words of my mouth this morning, may the meditations on each one of our hearts be holy and acceptable and pleasing to You, for that's why we're here. God we pray that You would equip us this morning to leave this place and to go be Your people in the world - in the world that so desperately needs to know Your kind of love. In Jesus Christ's name we pray, amen.

I once heard a lecture by Eugene Petersen in which he told a great story about the 5 th century missionary and bishop, St. Patrick. Maybe some of you have heard the story before. In the story, Patrick is baptizing and old Druid priest. And he takes the priest out into the river where he's going to baptize him. And Patrick has a staff in his hand and he has to have somewhere to put it, so he thrusts it down into the water, sticking it into the river bed below. And he takes that Druid priest and he baptizes him in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and then he raises him up from that baptismal water a new creation. A Christian.

And the man just stands there.

And after a few minutes, Patrick says to him, "You can go now."

And the man says, "I can't."

And Patrick says, "Why not?"

"You put your staff through my foot!"

And Patrick says, "Oh, my dear brother! Why didn't you say anything?!"

And he replies, "I thought that was part of it."

The theme of Petersen's lecture was doing a right thing in the wrong way - the right thing, baptizing that old Druid priest in the name of the Trinity; the wrong way - sticking him to the riverbed with his staff.

I think this theme, "The Right Things in the Wrong Way", is a decent summary of Paul's message to the Corinthians in the first three verses of our passage today. Paul had gotten word of some pretty impressive sounding, some very spiritual sounding activity going on in the church in Corinth.

  • Speaking in the tongues of angels.
  • Prophecy.
  • Knowledge of the heavenly things.
  • Giving to the poor.
  • Sacrifice.

These were the outward signs of a vibrant and healthy worshipping community. This is the kind of worship that's exciting, the kind of worship that a person might really proud to be a part of. This is the kind of worship that Paul - the spiritual father of these Corinthian Christians - might just be tempted to boast about. Somebody who didn't know any better might think that this church had it all together.

But Paul did know better. He had been in Corinth 3-4 years prior to receiving this letter. He had lived along the Corinthians for about a year and a half, laboring alongside them to form a Christian community - to form an alternative community in the midst of a decadent and upwardly mobile society...a society that placed enormous emphasis on social status. Things like: honor and wealth and esteem. Or alternatively, if you found yourself on the other side of the socio-economic spectrum, things like: shame and servitude, obeisance.

No doubt Paul had spent considerable time in his 18 months in Corinth teaching them not just about the spiritual gifts that we read about in our passage today, but like Heidi pointed out last week, many other ones besides these. For Paul, the whole range of these spiritual gifts - the whole gamut of these charisms - are precisely the right things. The actions proper to the spirit-filled worship of God for the body of Christ. Right things, yes. But in Corinth, not the right way.

You see, Paul had also gotten word that these Corinthians had drifted a long way from what he had once taught them. As we heard last week, Paul had taught them that spiritual gifts come from the one Holy Spirit for the purpose of building up the one body of Christ in the world, for building community, for the purpose of unity. But over time, the Corinthians had apparently lost sight of this. Exercising their spiritual gifts in worship had become not an expression of unity, but a reflection of their dis-unity...a sign of a deep sickness in the church.

The church in Corinth had taken to dividing itself into different factions. There were groups who were more spiritual. And then there were some groups who were less spiritual. There were people who were the special keepers of all the knowledge. And then there were people who weren't ever in the know. There were those with strong faith, and then there were those whose faith was considered weak. There were the rich and there were the poor. There were the powerful and then the powerless. In other words, the world's ways of thinking and doing things, of prioritizing people according to merits, wealth, spiritual gifting even...these had made their way into the church: here's me and here's you, honor and shame, power and servitude. The divisive ways of the world had become the ways of the Corinthian worship service as well.

I like the image that Heidi gave us last week. That if somebody were to kind of peek in on the Corinthians in worship, they wouldn't be looking through a window at the kingdom of God, where Paul would say there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus. No, instead, they'd be looking in a mirror. They'd be seeing a reflection of the world behind them.

The worst part of all this was that it was spiritual gifts - you know those God-given gifts for the purpose of building up the church in the world? It was these by which these divisive structures were being propped up in the church.

  • I speak in tongues, but you don't.
  • I give lots of money to the poor. What do you give?
  • I know about heavenly mysteries. You couldn't possibly know anything.

Can you imagine such a thing? The church adopting the world's ways of doing things rather than submitting to God's ways? The church becoming divided because some proudly put themselves up on a pedestal, prioritizing their own spiritual well-being over that of others. God's people treating God's gifts, God's charisms, like personal possessions...maybe even like weapons to be used self-righteously against their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Can you imagine such a thing?

Of course we can imagine such a thing! I mean, if you've ever spent more than 5 minutes in a church - and I happen to know you have - you've probably noticed similar things going on. I don't know if you've paid much attention to the politics of our denomination lately, like over the last 20 years or so. But if you have, you might well wonder what a letter from Paul addressed to the PC(USA) might have to say about how, and to what end, some of us have been using our so-called spiritual gifts.

Or, to bring it a little closer to home, what about our church? What about Bethany? What would Paul have to say to us about how we use our spiritual gifts? It's worth pondering.

Or what about you? What about me? What would Paul have to say to me if he could peer inside my heart? If he could evaluate how I use my spiritual gifts? Or how I sometimes don't use them? Or how I sometimes judge others for how they use their spiritual gifts? These are the kinds of questions that our text today invite us to think about. The right things, yes. Definitely not in the right way. This is what Paul is saying to the Corinthians.

So what, then, is the right way?

Well, it's kind of hard to miss, isn't it? I mean Paul says it over and over again in our passage. It's love. Paul says, your speaking in tongues, your prophecy, your knowledge, your theologizing, you preaching, your teaching, your service to the poor, the outcast, your service as a deacon, as an elder, as a greeter, as a musician...if these aren't done in love, well, Paul says, they're pretty much worthless.

The right thing: exercising our spiritual gifts.

The right way: doing this in love.

Sounds so simplistic, doesn't it? I mean it almost even sounds trite to me. But of course this would depend on what Paul means by love. Notice he still hasn't told us. I mean, to this point, it's open to as many different interpretations as there are people in the room. I can just imagine some of the responses as these first three verses were read out loud in Corinth. I'd be willing to bet there was more than one self-assured nod around the room. People thinking that Paul was gearing up to support their way of viewing things.

  • Yes, love. We've got to love those weak Christians into some better spiritual shape.
  • Yes, love. Sure, there are some shameful things going on right here in the body of Christ. Some things going on that give Jesus Christ a bad name around town, but we shouldn't be too hard on those people. We should love them instead.
  • Yes, love. You people haven't been loving me like I deserve to be loved!

But what all these people are about to learn is that Paul has something else entirely in mind. That Paul's notion of love gets its bearings not from the world, but from God in Jesus Christ. The love of which Paul is speaking is very specific. It's Christian love. The kind of love that, as he says at an earlier point in the letter, is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved is the very power of God.

Actually we should probably say here that Paul is about to remind the Corinthians all about this specific kind of love, this Christian love. Because they already knew...they'd already experienced the upside-down nature of the love of God. They already knew that Christian love doesn't mimic the world's wisdom but confounds it. But apparently they had forgotten all of this. I mean, who among us hasn't forgotten this at one point or another? Who among us hasn't gotten caught up in the world's ways of thinking and doing things?

And so Paul has to remind them - which is precisely what we encounter in the 2 nd part of our passage: verses 4-7. Now let me just pause here for a moment to confess that this is where I begin to get a little bit uncomfortable with the way this passage is sometimes treated in things like wedding homilies or greeting cards.

You see here in these 4 verses, Paul waxes eloquent about love, doesn't he? And it's really tempting to treat it either as simply a beautiful love poem but without much (you know) "Christian-ese" stuff to it? Or to treat it like Paul is giving us some sort of timeless checklist of actions that, when we add them all up, they amount to love - like a "to do list" that we can stick on our refrigerator and checked off at the end of the day to gauge whether or not we have loved our spouse?

"Honey, guess what?! I looked at Paul's list. I totally did all those things today. Congratulations to you! I've loved you today."

Don't get me wrong. That kind of a checklist might not be a bad idea for some marriages. It might even be good for a lot of us. But my point is just that this isn't what Paul's doing in our passage. And actually when we think about our passage in light of everything that's come before it in this letter - the 12 chapters that have come before it - we kind of find that what Paul is up to here is actually, well, it's actually pretty harsh.

So Paul runs through these characteristics of love, right? It's patient. It's kind. It doesn't boast. It's not envious or arrogant or irritable, and on and on. We get that. We see that. What is sometimes easy to overlook, though, is that Paul has just spent 12 long chapters admonishing these Corinthians, exhorting them to stop being impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant, irritable, and on and on. Almost everything Paul says here can be tied back to something else in the letter - some admonition he's already given them.

Do you see what he's doing? He's essentially saying to the Corinthians, "The right thing is exercising your spiritual gifts in love. And love is pretty much the opposite of what you've all been doing."

And notice that Paul, he started out talking about worship, about what happens in church. But he's expanded the conversation here. Now he's talking about their entire way of being the body of Christ in Corinth. This is what he's calling into question.

So this is no sappy love poem. It's a really hard pastoral rebuke if ever there was one.

Well, fortunately it's not all bad news. And just as a side note, when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the bad news is always followed by a "but." And we have a big "but" to talk about in this passage here today. Yes, Paul was rebuking the Corinthians pretty harshly, but he's doing something else here as well. Yes, Paul is telling the Corinthians that the way they have been practicing their spiritual gifts has been pretty worthless because it's been devoid of love, but he's also subtly reminding them of what love actually looks like. Reminding them of who Christian love actually looks like.

Karl Barth once suggested that we could best understand the concept of love in 1 Corinthians 13 if we simply insert the name Jesus Christ in place of the word love. I really like this. Jesus Christ is patient. Jesus Christ is kind. Jesus Christ is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. Jesus Christ did not insist on his own way.

  • Christian love exercised in Christian community, Paul is saying, is patient like Jesus is patient with us.
  • Christian love exercised in Christian community is kind, like Jesus Christ is kind to us.
  • Christian love exercised in Christian community is humble, because Jesus Christ was humbled for us.

So, yes, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is saying, "Hey, you Corinthians. Love doesn't look like what you've been doing." But he's also saying to them, "Hey, pay attention, ‘cause right now I'm reminding you of something you already know - that Christian love doesn't look like the world, but it looks like the love of God in Jesus Christ."

I like to imagine this scene there, and I kind of wonder how long it took people in the room - these people who had just been so soundly rebuked by Paul - to realize this side of what Paul was up to. My guess was that it started to dawn on people right around verse 7, which we haven't mentioned yet. For my money, this is the verse that pretty much says it all: "Love bears all things. It believes all things. It hopes all things. It endures all things."

I also wonder if, during his long stay in Corinth, Paul had ever spent time meditating with his young converts on Isaiah 53 - that beloved passage that Heidi read a little while ago: "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised, rejected, a man of suffering. He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, oppressed...poured himself out to death."

Do you suppose Paul might have ever recited with his young Corinthian church the well-known Christ hymn that he later writes down to the church in Philippi - "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

I imagine that Paul would have used important texts like these, and probably many others as well to teach the new Corinthian believers about Jesus Christ - to teach them about his kind of self-sacrifice, his kind of forsaking of self-glory, his kind of focus on the other. To teach them that this is the model for Christian love, exercised in Christian community. To teach them that this is the kind of love the body of Christ - if it is to be the body of Christ - will embody.

What is the specifically Christian love about which Paul waxes so eloquent in 1 Corinthians 13? What is that love without which all those impressive sounding spiritual gifts are just a bunch of noise? It is Jesus Christ, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things. It is Jesus Christ who endured all things, even death on a cross, for these wayward Corinthian Christians. For you. For me. For the world outside those doors.

The right thing - spiritual gifts. The right way - exercised in the self-sacrificial other-focused, cross-shaped love of Christ.