This morning we hear Paul’s beautiful chapter on love from 1 Corinthians 13. It is lovely just by itself and I often hear it read at weddings or see it put on posters but there is a lot about the context of this passage that really helps us understand why Paul wrote this and what exactly he was trying to say.
Corinth was a thriving metropolis in what we now call Greece. It was a port town with a diverse population. Paul visited this area early in in travels and established a Christian community there. It is likely that they met regularly in small groups, house churches, and then gathered regularly in the larger group for a meal and worship.
Paul is in Ephesus, and he corresponds regularly with this congregation through letters and visitations to him by members of the congregation. Paul is responding in this letter to a number of reports and complaints he has received concerning this congregation.
He begins the letter by telling the congregation he is grateful for them, he says, “I give thanks to my God always for you” (1 Cor 1: 4) and he reminds them that they have everything they need to flourish and be successful. He tells them they are “not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1 Cor 1:7), but he is also deeply concerned for their spiritual health.
Cliques have risen up in the congregation. Some people are boasting about who baptized them, others seem to be bragging about certain spiritual gifts, in particular the gift of tongues. Paul appeals to them early in this letter saying, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1 Cor 1:10)
Besides the divisiveness in the congregation, in Paul’s absence many have reverted to old habits and practices contrary to Christ’s teachings and Paul makes it clear that while these things are to be expected of the people outside of the church and they are not to separate themselves from the world they are seeking to evangelize, they must not engage in these behaviors themselves and must hold one another within the church accountable for their behavior. He is hoping his fatherly admonitions will be enough to set things right. He asks them, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor 4: 21)
In the next few chapters, Paul addresses sexual immorality, church members suing one another in court, practicing the Christian life in whatever circumstances they find themselves – married, unmarried, circumcised, uncircumcised, slave or free and not fretting over what they do not have, being aware of their actions on the weak in faith, for them it concerned eating food sacrificed to idols and celebrating certain festival days.
Paul reminds them that they have been freed from the law through Christ, but that does not give them the right to flaunt the law, to live scandalous lives or to be insensitive to others.
He states, “So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (I Cor 10:31-11:1)
Paul is not talking about being wishy-washy or hypocritical. He is saying to try to avoid offending anyone inside or outside of the church or as we would say in our baptismal covenant, “respect the dignity of every human being”. (BCP 305)
You do not need to abandon your personal beliefs and convictions, but you should learn to disagree graciously and sometimes agree to disagree without insults and name calling, without snubbing or gossiping about others. It sometimes means doing or not doing things that may seem inconvenient to you, but might cause your neighbor spiritual harm or unnecessary anxiety. For example, if one is aware someone they are with should avoid alcohol, then we should not put them in a place where they might be tempted or feel left out by our choice to drink in their presence. Wearing of masks is another, you may prefer not to wear a mask and choose not to in most situations, but there are places where it is the polite thing to do because of the anxiety of others. This is not easy. It is hard to give up personal freedoms to make others feel included or less threatened. It is hard to carefully coach our words when we feel passionate about something, but short of denying Christ or lying about our beliefs, we should try to live in harmony with one another being aware of the feelings of others and trying not to injure one another physically, mentally, or emotionally.
This is the background for this passage on love. Paul is not just waxing poetic. This is a desperate plea from a father to his children to get along, to behave, and to love one another.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I had over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13: 1-3)
The gift of speech, natural or supernatural, knowledge, wisdom, foresight, faith, generosity, voluntary poverty, ascetic practices, even martyrdom serve us no purpose if we do them for the wrong reasons. There is an interesting series on Netflix called the Good Place. It’s theology is not Christian, and I don’t agree with them on many things, but it makes some profound observations that I think are true. In it two of the characters, one a social activist and the other a professor of moral philosophy, are among those who don’t go to the Good Place at the beginning of the show and the reason is their motives for what they did were selfish. Fortunately, as Christians we don’t depend upon works righteousness for our salvation, but we should be cognizant of our own motives and seek to do things from the position of love for others than from our own selfish desires.
Paul explains what it means to really love. “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 wrongdoings, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13: 4-7)
Again, this is hard. Paul says learning to love in this manner is part of our growth process. “When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became and adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (1 Cor 13: 11) Paul even admits that he is not perfect, he doesn’t have everything figured out yet, nor does he have complete control of his behavior. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly… Now I know only in part” (1 Cor 13: 12) and he will later tell the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)
The blessing in all of this is that we are the recipients of Christ’s mercy and through Christ we have the strength and power to love one another, to show mercy to one another. In fact, in the Lord’s prayer we say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” (BCP 364)
Paul concludes stating, “Love never ends….faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13: 8, 13) Let us go forth in love.