Sermon for Epiphany 4C

1 Corinthians 13

As of last October, I have been with you all here in Powell for 3 years. Now in my 4th year of ministry here, I have done several baptisms and funerals, but no weddings. Many of my colleagues would say that I am extremely lucky not to have done a wedding because of everything that’s involved with them. But I’d like to have the experience of at least one under my belt. And, our council just recently updated our wedding policy that hadn’t been looked at since 1992 or so, so we should be all prepared to host a wedding here. So, all of you who are here today, your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to go out and persuade engaged couples that for a Christian wedding, they couldn’t do any better than to come to Hope Lutheran Church. However, as you’re talking to these theoretical couples, you may want to mention this: I will discourage them from using 1 Corinthians 13 as one of the texts that is read at their wedding. I’m not saying that I would outright refuse to use it, but I think there are other, more appropriate texts to be used at a wedding. And here’s why: the love that the Apostle Paul is speaking of is not the romantic love that is paraded about in Disney films, that of the prince and the princess living happily ever after. It is not the kind of romantic love that is celebrated on Valentine’s Day, and it is certainly not the kind of romantic love that is uppermost in the minds of the newly married couple on their wedding day. Instead, the love that the apostle Paul speaks of is a decision, a choice, and is something that not only binds two people together, but rather, binds a whole community together as the body of Christ.

So, let’s set the scene for this famous chapter that Paul is writing and see if we can understand what he’s getting at here. Paul had helped to establish the church in Corinth with a couple whose names were Priscilla and Aquila. After staying there a while, he moved on. But after he left, the church in Corinth fell into trouble as factions formed and began to argue with one another. I really love the Corinthians, and Paul’s first letter to them, because it helps me see that not much has changed in churches over the centuries, and yet God has continued to sustain the church and has even caused it to flourish. Up until today’s section of 1 Corinthians, Paul has been writing about how the church is Christ’s church, not his, not Apollos’, nor any other of its leaders’. And then he begins to address specific questions that the Corinthian church has, which we unfortunately don’t have time to get into here today. Perhaps we will do this book for our next Thursday morning Bible study! But, in order to understand chapter 13, we do need to look back at chapter 12, which we have heard in worship for the last two Sundays.

The Corinthians had questions about spiritual gifts which the Holy Spirit had bestowed upon them. More specifically, they wanted to know which spiritual gift was the best, so they could justify the hierarchy that they had put in place. And the spiritual gift they liked best was speaking in tongues. Now, this gift is generally not common in the Lutheran branch of the Christian church today, but that is not to say that it doesn’t exist. I have heard people speaking in tongues, and it is an interesting phenomenon. These people are genuinely overcome with the love of the Holy Spirit, and are so ecstatic that they spontaneously begin speaking of that love in words that are unintelligible to the rest of us. It’s awesome and weird and fascinating all at once, and I can understand why the Corinthians, and some branches of the Christian church today, think that it is an important gift to have, if not the defining mark of the Holy Spirit upon someone.

But Paul dismisses that idea in chapter 12. He talks about how each person is given a gift by the Holy Spirit, and one person cannot say that he or she is better than another. Each of us needs each other to make the body of Christ work, he says, just as a human body needs all of its parts to work together. Paul also tells the Corinthians that speaking in tongues, while it is a cool gift, is not the most important one that the Holy Spirit can give. He names first apostles—those who are sent to bring the good news of Jesus to others; second prophets—those who speak God’s word to the people; and third teachers—those who teach others how God’s Word relates to their lives. Only then does Paul name other gifts, with various kinds of tongues being the last in the list. And then he gets really worked up about the whole thing and says that even though these kinds of things are indeed gifts of the Holy Spirit, without love, they are absolutely worthless.

Now, while the person who read 1 Corinthians 13 today did a fine job, I’d like to read part of this again, and this time, I want you to hear the anger in Paul’s voice as he writes these words. The Corinthians should know this already! Didn’t he do a good enough job of teaching them this stuff when he was there? Did they not listen to him? Why must he repeat himself? (read 12:27-13:3) Can you see now why this wouldn’t be my first choice of a text to be read at a wedding? While I don’t think Paul is quite as angry with the Corinthians as he was with the Galatians—a topic for another time!—he is definitely irritated with them. And out of this irritation and this strong desire for the Corinthians to truly understand what the most important thing is in their relationships with one another comes some of the most beautiful language describing what love is really all about.

And even with good translations, and as beautiful as this chapter sounds to our ears, the English still doesn’t get the meaning of the Greek quite right. And that is because in the Greek, love is actively doing things and is not an abstract concept that needs adjectives to describe it. If we were to translate the Greek more accurately, the sentences would read, “Love shows patience; love acts with kindness; love does not get envious, it does not boast, it does not act arrogantly or rudely.” In other words, Paul is saying, you Corinthians who think you have spiritual gifts, don’t be arrogant around those who don’t have the same gifts as you, because that is not showing love. And those of you who don’t have the gift of tongues, don’t be envious of those who do, because that is not showing love. Love is a choice. Love is a decision that you make, sometimes day after day, to want the best for the other person, even when that means you might have to sacrifice something that you want. And that decision should not be one-sided, but it should go both ways. For if we are the body of Christ, then we need to strive to be like Christ, who loved us so much, who wanted what was best for us, even when we were not worthy of it, that he suffered death for us on the cross. This type of love is what overcomes all earthly divisions and is what binds us all together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

This congregation has seen this type of love for one another. When this congregation divided in 2005, those that remained with Hope made a conscious decision to stay together as the body of Christ, and that is still happening today. Those who become part of our congregation today are also making that conscious decision to stay with us. We are not always in agreement over things in the world, like politics, or social issues that affect us here in the church. And yet, this congregation has decided, over and over again, to remain together as a manifestation of the body of Christ here on earth. That conscious decision to actively love one another, to act in kindness to one another, to be patient with one another, in spite of all of our differences, is an example of the kind of love that Paul is talking about here. Is it a complete and whole kind of love, like what Christ showed for us on the cross? Of course not, and it will never be until Christ comes again to set all things right. But through Christ, we also know that loving one another means forgiving one another when we mess up. And that forgiveness is part of the love that Christ showed for us in his life, death, and resurrection.

After worship today, we have an opportunity to actively love one another and determine how we, as a congregation, are going to actively love others outside of these church walls. And that opportunity is called the annual meeting. I was speaking with someone this week who was trying to determine why more of the congregation didn’t come to the annual meeting. And when the question was asked, I thought back on my experiences with annual meetings before I became a pastor. What I remember is that they were either boring—for me, my mind glazed over when the budget was discussed—or that they were opportunities for, shall we say, sharp disagreement among the members of the body of Christ, and even some political maneuvering. Perhaps that is why some of us choose to stay away, or perhaps there are other reasons. But what would happen if we approached the meeting as a way to actively love one another, to want what is best for each other and for us as a whole despite any personal disagreements we might have? This meeting could then become an opportunity for us to work together and to make even more of an impact on one another and upon the surrounding community.

In the end of this chapter, Paul tells us, “Love never ends.” God’s love for us frail human beings never ends. God’s love is what holds us together. And when all other things in and on this world come to an end, God’s love will still be there. This is the love that Paul calls us to strive for. This love for one another is why the Holy Spirit gave the Corinthians, and continues to give us, all of these various kinds of spiritual gifts. The point is not the gifts themselves, but the point is how we use those gifts that we have to show love to one another. When this chapter is preached to a couple on their wedding day in this way, perhaps it is appropriate, for their romantic love will fade and they will have to choose each day to love one another. But the love that Paul is talking about is so much grander than husband and wife. It encompasses all, and it is all in all. Through Jesus Christ, God has shown us his love for us and asks that we strive to show it to one another. May that love permeate our being with one another and be shown throughout our imperfect lives. Amen.

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