Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth give us a glimpse into a culture that is at once very distant from us in time and geography, and yet somehow remains oddly close and familiar.
Corinth was a city built on business – almost capitalist, in a way. Diverse cultures collided as they traded goods and services. There was a wide gap between those with plenty of wealth and those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
The church was diverse as well… This gathering of people definitely transgressed most of the traditional boundaries of ethnicity, gender, age, status and life situation. You would find among them both married and unmarried men and women, as well as widows and children. You would meet more converted Gentiles than Jews, although some of those Jewish members would have served as leaders in the synagogue previously.
You would be worshiping alongside many more people from the lower economic classes than from the elites. And yet at least one of the members had enough resources to meet Paul’s needs and support the church – all on his own.
That sort of diversity is beautiful.
That sort of diversity is also challenging.
A variety of perspectives can enrich a community, adding depth to conversations with the wisdom born of broader experience.
A variety of perspectives can also become a breeding ground for jealousy, distrust and conflict.
In the church at Corinth, the latter took hold. They had a tremendous capacity for discord and division. Boy could they argue.
They argued about sexual morality; they argued about eating meat sacrificed to idols. They argued about eating practices at the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, how to interpret the resurrection of the dead… They even argued about baptism. And they formed allegiances to different church leaders based on their teaching on such topics. And maybe a little by which was their favorite preacher.
We don’t have to do a lot of adapting for those arguments to sound familiar…
The church still has differences about how healthy sexuality
And whether to offer wine or only juice for the Lord’s Supper.
We are still arguing about who gets into heaven – and if there will be any Jews there from before Jesus’s time.
Schisms have erupted over questions like
How should we decide what to pay the pastor?
What color should we choose to paint the wall or carpet the sanctuary?
Can we do music that isn’t in the hymnals? Or bring in drums?
In the opening section of his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul asks a very pointed question in light of all these disagreements – Is Christ divided?
This question leads him to the metaphor we continue to use when we describe the church today: We are the Body of Christ, made up of many members. Paul’s greatest concern isn’t the theological arguments, so much as the division he sees, the disconnect between the members of that body.
Paul’s letter to the church is a call to unity. Not uniformity, but unity.
You see, after 18 months among the Corinthians, Paul knows – there truly is no way they will ever be a homogenous group. God has drawn together an amazing group that represents the beautiful – if chaotic – nature of God’s creativity. They are multi-lingual, multi-hued, multi-cultural, and multi-opinionated, thus multiplying the frustrations and conflicts they experience.
What’s a pastor to do? Especially when writing from another city?
First, Paul points to Christ, using the dispute over baptism. It didn’t matter who did the baptizing, the One in whose name that sacrament happened… Jesus, the Christ, that’s who matters. All of them had been baptized in the name of the Son of God who lived, died and was raised to life again.
Then Paul lays out what scholars call an ecclesiological ethic. Most of us would say something more like…Paul tells them what it’s going to take to be the church together.
He lets them know that he is aware of what they’ve been up to. He points out the ways that they’ve allowed conflict to seep into their community in ways that keep them from bearing witness to their faith in Christ and bearing witness to the power of the resurrection.
Paul acknowledges that they aren’t all bad, that there are lessons they have locked onto and that some of what they seek as they live in the Spirit is good. Then he sets them up for his exhortation by saying, keep at it… keep doing all those good things. AND I will show you a still more excellent way.
Love is the greatest power that humanity can bring to bear in any situation.
Love is the ultimate ethic.
Love is the only way to survive the disagreements that threaten to overwhelm a community made up of people with fundamentally different lives, values and experiences.
Love is the only hope for breaking apart the contentious groups that have taken sides against one another.
Love is what can reunite this fragmented community and allow them to enrich, rather than alienate one another.
Because in God’s Kingdom, diversity is non-negotiable, which makes love the most precious commodity.
Paul’s language is undeniably beautiful here. Poetic even, especially for Paul. But we are not doing justice to his passion if we read this as poetry. He’s not happy. He’s not celebrating a lovely moment in the life of this church family. He’s angry… spitting mad, you might say.
This is probably how it went down… Paul has an a scribe… a guy sitting near him with his writing materials, trying to keep up with Paul as he paces around and alternates between encouraging and chiding his friends.
When Paul thinks about the ways that the gifts of the Spirit, the elements of worship, have divided them. When he describes as good and helpful those things God has given the community to build them up and empower them to be Christ’s witnesses in Corinth – he gets more and more fired up.
Paul realizes that he needs to paint a picture of what could be. Not a tribute to what is, but a picture of what could be… what should be. Paul is laying out a new action plan, a strategic plan, even, that will assure the community’s survival in the future. He is emphatic about making sure they get it.
Listen again- this time in the plain language of Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message… I think you’ll hear some of that passion shine through a little more clearly.
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Without love, we are Bankrupt. Flat broke. Nothing and nobody.
Most of our English translations lose their steam as we move into Paul’s descriptions of what love looks like in this imagined world. They turn into passive sentences – a subject connected to adjectives that describe what love is or isn’t. In some ways it gets a little too touchy feely.
Paul’s not talking about feelings here, though. He is talking about the actions we choose when we choose love.
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Paul says that love…
Isn’t always “me first,” My way or the highway
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, and whether or not we’re even
Doesn’t revel when others grovel and beg
Takes pleasure in the blossoming of truth,
Love puts up with anything,
Love trusts God always…. always,
Love always looks for the best, and believes the best of others
Love never looks back,
Love keeps going to the end. (italicized phrases from The Message)
The work of love is the work that is missing in the church in Corinth.
Because it is work.
We have a choice, in Paul’s view. And when we choose love, we choose the way of Christ. We choose to speak and act in ways that are counter to a culture that fears those who speak or act or dress or love differently. When we choose love, we choose to affirm the humanity of every person, including those who are not like us.
Love is the only means by which we have any chance on this earth to live fully and completely in the knowledge and fellowship of God.
Love leads us into unity without requiring uniformity.
Too often, we churchy-folk act as if the mission of the church is to gather up a bunch of other people who are like-minded – people who think the same way we do – especially if they are likeable. Perhaps because we think or hope that it will be easier to love one another if we’re enough alike. Or at least to feel like we are loving people.
Then the disagreements come.
We stumble onto something that reveals how differently we think. No longer like-minded, no longer unanimous. We begin to lose trust. And it doesn’t feel like love when we argue.
But You know what Paul doesn’t say in this chapter about love?
Paul never says that love feels good.
The love Paul describes requires work. It requires being vulnerable and flexible. It requires being adaptable. It requires admitting that we don’t know everything about everything. It requires admitting the times we pretended to know everything and got some of it, maybe even a lot of it, wrong.
Love takes risks that logic never would.
All of which leads me to wonder…
What if the measure of how well we love isn’t how often we agree or how often we convince others to pretend to agree with us?
What if the truest measure of love was how well we maintain unity in times of tension and disagreement?
What if we lived like we believed that love makes room for faithful and faith-filled disagreement.
What if we lived like we believed that love doesn’t play zero-sum games, the kind of games where winners take all and losing feels like you’ve lost it all.
Love reshapes us individually and together into whole and holistic people, people who are anchored in the well-being of others. I don’t know about you, but I’ve rarely experienced being reshaped and transformed as being easy or pain-free. Unless I am willing to release my fear of being changed and allow God’s perfect love to cast out my fear.
The second most beautiful passage on love, in 1 John 4:7-21, reminds us that love is of God. And that GOd’s love reaches its intended purpose, not just as we each come to love God in return for the gift of love in Christ Jesus.
God’s love reaches its intended purpose when it creates a community of continuing love, love that is among us and extending out beyond us.
Love of self, love of being right, love of power and privilege… These are, more often than not, the fruits of fear. Fear of loneliness, fear of shame, fear of oppression and loss/
God’s love for us through Jesus the son,
God’s love for us through the empowerment of the spirit,
that love sets us free from pursuits fueled by fear.
Dear ones, we are to love one another. Not in spite of our differences, but in light of our differences.
Love is of God – who was and is, and who ever will be.
And thus love never, ever, ever, ever…
We know love only because God loved us first, and made that love known in Jesus, whose obedience and saving death we recount and proclaim at the Lord’s Table.
We remain in God when we remain in love. And God remains in us.
God’s spirit will continue to send dreams and visions.
We will speak and be given wisdom beyond our own capacity.
We walk by faith today, but it will one day be sight.
Hope will end in fulfillment when God’s Kingdom finally comes as we pray it will.
But even on that day at the very end of this age, love will abide.
Love will remain.
Because God’s love will never falter or fail.
That is the love that we are drawn toward,
It is the love that we are shaped by,
the love for which all people hunger and thirst
The love in which we are drenched by grace
The love to which our lives must bear witness today and every day
That is the love with which we are filled – God’s love – the most excellent love of all.