This Sunday is the last stop on our journey through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and the inaugural stories of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. We made our way through Chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, with Paul’s description of a variety of spiritual gifts, all coming from one source, God; and then Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ, in which again there is diversity, but always united in a common purpose. And today Greg has read for us Chapter 13, one of the best known pieces of Scripture.
In the Gospels, we began with Jesus’ astounding miracle of producing vast amounts of wine to keep the party going; and then last week we heard the first part of the story of Jesus’ first hometown sermon. It seemed to go well last week, but then things take a turn in the passage Greg read this morning. Over the past two Sundays, we’ve been reflecting on the ways that these stories challenged their original hearers, and on the ways they challenge us as a twenty-first century church.
And I want to continue that theme today, of exploring how these texts continue to challenge us. It’s my belief that the circumstances we find ourselves in today in the church are in many ways very similar to the circumstances the first Christians faced.
So, let’s begin with 1 Corinthians 13. This is one of those texts that can be difficult for us to engage, because we’ve heard it so many times that it’s become almost impenetrable for us. It’s like a favourite song that we hum or sing in our heads: it’s there, as a pleasant accompaniment, but we’ve long since stopped listening to the words. In the case of 1 Corinthians 13, it’s made even more complicated by the fact that the place we most often here it read is in the midst of a wedding service. We hear, “Love is patient; love is kind . . .” and we kind of go ohhhh . . ., how romantic!
But of course it’s not romantic love that Paul is talking about here. There’s a whole other word for that in Greek—it’s eros. Here Paul is talking about a different kind of love—agape—self-sacrificing love in the service of others.
Paul is talking about the love of God for us shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s love for us that holds nothing back; God’s love for us that is poured out to us, whether or not we deserve it; God’s love that is so far beyond our human capacity to love: love divine, all loves excelling.
If we can shift our way of thinking about this passage out of the romantic sense of love, into this self-giving, other-serving, kind of love, then it is an appropriate text for weddings. Speaking for myself, I’ve never known anything more wonderful, and yet more challenging, than the love we are called to share in marriage. For a marriage to endure, it requires this kind of costly love.
I’ve also taken to reading this passage at funerals, because Paul speaks of love as the one essential thing, the thing that matters most, the foundation for everything else in our lives. Without love, we are nothing; all our accomplishments, our achievements, the toys we amass: they mean nothing without love. And while they will all wither and fade and pass away, the one thing—love—love never ends. Love survives even death.
This is the kind of love Paul is calling the Corinthians to. And as I have said in the past two weeks, the reason Paul is doing this is because the Corinthians have forgotten who they are, what their purpose is as a church, and how they are meant to be together. I’ve mentioned that the Corinthians have been divided, that they had been having conflicts over which spiritual gifts were more important, and conflicts fuelled by class differences, differences between richer and poorer members of the church.
In short, the Corinthians have been falling back into the patterns, the ways of life, that prevail outside the church in their first-century Greco-Roman culture. That was a culture where status differences mattered, and socioeconomic differences mattered, too—they made a difference as to how often and how well you might eat! Paul had drawn them out of that world, and its system of values; and had drawn them into a church—a community, a family, a household—organized around a completely upside-down set of values. Paul reveals to them a God who is most known to us through costly, self-sacrificing love.
In a world where everyone sought after honour and esteem—to be thought most highly of—Paul tells the story of God who, out of love, chose to renounce a heavenly throne and to go to the very bottom of human existence: to be born in a stable, to break bread with the outcasts, to touch the untouchables, to die on a cross.
It was a story they found very hard to believe. But for those who did believe, it changed their lives, and their whole sense of what life is about, what ultimately matters. With Paul’s guidance they formed a community that, in some ways, was quite similar to other types of community in their culture; and in some ways, was quite distinct from other groups in their culture.
What we have in the Corinthian correspondence—as well as in Paul’s other letters—is his continued guidance to these communities. He finds he has to remind them of the core, original story around which they have gathered—the story of Jesus—and of the ways that that story should shape all of their actions and interactions, both within the church community and with the wider world.
Here Paul is reminding the Corinthians that, no matter what great things their church achieves—even if they’re packing the house every Sunday, and the Sunday School is full to bursting, and they have a terrific music program, and they are doing amazing outreach—that none of it matters if it is not rooted in this story of love.
That the community’s output is hollow unless it is the outgrowth of genuine and costly mutual love. God’s love for us is made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and then we are meant to love and serve one another, and to love God. That’s the indispensable foundation for our life together.
This can be a hard message to hear. And maybe like the crowd around Jesus, you’ll be looking for a cliff to hurl me off! Of course, in the gospel story, what angers Jesus’ listeners is that he extends God’s love and mercy to their enemies. Like last week, we have this pattern where Paul calls us to love one another in the church and not make distinctions; then the Gospel widens it out, and calls us not to make distinctions in the wider world, to not divide the world into us and them.
I think these stories are important to us because I think, like the Corinthians, we are always at risk of forgetting our story—our first story—and of importing into the church all kinds of other stories from our culture.
I’ve been reading a terrific book by Phyllis Airhart called A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada. Airhart traces the history of the United Church, from the time of the negotiations leading up to church union in 1925, up till about 1970. As I read it, it seems to me that our church has always struggled with this issue: of what is our core story, what is the story that animates us, that gives our church it’s meaning and purpose?
It seems to me that our church has continued to navigate between our first story—the story of Jesus—and stories that come from our culture. It’s not easy to tell—now, or in other periods of our history—if our driving motivation has been the Gospel or the values of the surrounding culture. At times the United Church has been driven to moral crusading, on the issue of alcohol consumption for example.
At other times, in the 1930s for example, our church was swept into the ideological debates about capitalism and socialism. Then, during the 1950s, the United Church moved out to the suburbs and built many new churches, and created all kinds of programs for families. Those were boom years for our churches. In each of these instances, our church was embedded in the great cultural movements of the day; but was the church rooted in this story of love, the story of Jesus?
Now of course, all those crusades, debates, and programs have come to an end, like those things that Paul talks about coming to an end. But what is at the centre of our life as a church today? Is the story of Jesus central for us?
Personally, I suspect that it has become less central for us, that it hasn’t withstood the encroachment of other stories, other principles around which we continue to organize ourselves. That’s very obvious in the case of the atheist minister in Ontario. There is clearly a stated intent to make another set of values, another story, the centre of that congregation’s life.
But I think that many of our congregations find themselves somewhere along a continuum, from that outright atheism all the way over to an evangelical, orthodox expression of Christianity. Now, this is what I am hoping to explore in my Doctor of Ministry thesis in the coming year, so no doubt you will hear more about this. For now, I want to say that I think this is a critically important question for us.
Paul tells us that the story of Jesus—the story of God’s love revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—needs to be at the centre of our lives together as a church. That this is the only story powerful enough to break the hold of all of the other stories that compete for our allegiance.
The story of God’s love seen in Jesus is more powerful than ideology; it’s more powerful than gender; it’s stronger than racism, or sexism, or capitalism, or socialism; it’s more enduring than either wealth or poverty; it’s more promising than the most promising election platform or slogan. All of those things tend to divide us, but the story of God’s love in Jesus ends all of those divisions.
It’s the story that makes life possible, not only for us, but for others.
I want to close with a story.
I want to close with a story. When I went down to North Carolina in January, that was the last time for our class to be together in person. Because of that, our teacher wanted to organize what he called a “last supper” for our class. It was held in the dining room of a very fine hotel in Durham, on a golf course. We were asked to dress up, because of the setting.
Well, this teacher had also just written a book—based in large part on Paul’s Corinthian correspondence—about status and hierarchy and ambition in the New Testament. He had taught us, in regards to our own ambition, to follow the example of Jesus; to model our lives on this hard-to-believe story of One who relinquished a heavenly throne, and went straight to the bottom of human existence. A teacher and a leader who chose to be a servant to all, including to his closest followers. When he gathered with them for the last time, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus got up from the table and proceeded to wash his disciples’ feet.
So I put these two things together, and I came up with this crazy idea of organizing a foot washing at our last supper at the fancy hotel. I wanted to find a way to let my teacher know that I considered his lesson about modeling my life on Jesus to be the most important thing I’d learned at Duke. It was more important than the essays or projects, the readings or the lectures.
I really wanted to do this, and I thought it was crazy. After all, it would be breaking all sorts of cultural rules. We were dressed up; it was a fine dining room; there were staff and other guests. And though by this time, we could say that we loved one another around that table, taking someone’s bared foot in your hands is still an act of unusual intimacy.
In the end I couldn’t do it without confiding in two of my classmates, two Southern gentlemen. Together we overcame the inhibition, and organized a bowl of water and a towel. When dinner was finished, we nodded to one another, and one of them told the story from John’s Gospel. Then I invited my teacher to take my chair, and I proceeded to wash his feet.
Then I was approached by a fellow student, also named Jeff, who also serves a congregation called Trinity. He serves Trinity Bible Church in Texas, and he’s a conservative evangelical. Jeff invited me to take a seat, to take off my shoes and socks, and then he proceeded to tenderly, carefully, lovingly wash my feet while telling me what a blessing I am.
We are at two ends of the theological spectrum. We were the people most likely to be in conflict with one another. But the story of Jesus—the story of God’s love for each of us, made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—enabled us to express this depth of love for one another.
Now, I haven’t told you this story to make myself look good. It was hard for me to do this, to overcome all of the obstacles. It would have been much easier to not do it; no one would have known. But doing it was such a huge gift to me; I will remember that night all my life, and I think all of us will. And doing it I know will make it easier for me to love more boldly in the future. This is the kind of difference that remembering our story can make in our lives in the world. Amen.
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