First Mennonite Church
March 18, 2018
Being Church in a More Excellent Way
Text: 1Corinthians 13:1-13
This chapter is one of Paul’s most well-known passages in the New Testament. Some call 1Corinthians 13 the “Poem to Love,” some others the “Great Hymn to Love, and yet others call it, “The Song to Charity.” Often times this passage is seen as an idealistic concept about love but unachievable. In the context of the Christian church, this chapter is often used for wedding sermons. Because of it, this chapter is often read with romantic feeling. And sure enough, for such a life-commitment as marriage is, love in all its beauty, qualities, and characteristics is necessary. In order to sustain and thrive in a life-long relationship, love is of the essence. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not insist on its own way. Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things. Yes, love is essential in all its dimensions and qualities to stand the challenges of a life-long commitment.
Although chapter 13 of 1Corinthians makes a suitable text for wedding sermons, Paul’s reason for writing it was another. First and Second Corinthians were written to a church known for being a “troubled-church.” There were all kinds of divisions among the members of this church (Chapter 1). They what Paul called, “infants” whom he said could not feed them with solid food (Chapter 3). Some were boasting about their knowledge and wisdom (3:18). Some were brazenly bragging about a disturbing case of immorality taking place among church members (5). There were abuses in their practice of the Lord’s Supper (11). Someone in the church was taking another member to court to solve his grievances. There were confusion and conflicts over spiritual gifts. There was confusion over doctrinal issues regarding those who were dying from among them. But the issue that finally led Paul to write these words was the church’s dissension over spiritual gifts.
In chapter 12, Paul addresses the issue of spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, utterance of words of wisdom and knowledge and the interpretation of tongues. And the Corinthian church was much engaged in these spiritual activities. But some members began to see some of these gifts as superior to others and envy erupted among the church members. And in correcting this problem Paul used the human body to illustrate his point. The body has many members. Yet, each member in the body is necessary, despite the obvious differences among them. There could not be only eyes or hands or feet in the body. Each member in the body is different but has an important function that benefits the whole body. The body is just one. Thus for the body to be whole and healthy each member has to perform a specific function. Paul argues that if there were competition, envy, and diminution among the members of the body, death would rather eventually come. Yet, in order to address the problem of divisions, envy, diminution, and competition among the members of the church, Paul offers to show them a “more excellent way.” Therefore, what we have in 1Corinthians chapter 13 is Paul’s description of a “more excellent way of being church.”
Paul begins by stating, “If I speak in angelic or human tongues but do not have love, I am just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Just imagine the reaction of the Corinthian church members who had been fighting, belittling one another over the spiritual gifts, or had been claiming superiority because they were given the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. They might have cringed or would have been obviously embarrassed about themselves. You see, some in the Corinthian church believed their gift of speaking in tongues made them superior to others. Some others believed that their knowledge into the mysteries of God gave them authority to belittle and reject those who had other gifts. But Paul tells them that none of those things mattered regardless of how spiritually important they might be. If the love of God is not in the church, it’s just a banging empty drum!
Paul lists 16 characteristics of love. Seven of them describe what love is. Love is patient, kind, rejoices in the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hope all things, and endures all things. Paul includes nine things that love is not. 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 wrongdoing. Love never ends.
As pastor of this congregation I wish I could speak the deep mysteries of God in perfect English. I wish we as a congregation could have all the knowledge of God and have the faith that summons God’s power to perform wonders and miracles. I wish we all were solidly grounded in the knowledge of the word of God. I wish we as a congregation would be making all kinds of sacrifice in order to save and invest every penny to feed the hungry or to shelter the destitute. But then Paul would remind us in this chapter that if we are failing to embody the characteristics of God’s love toward one another, we are simply missing the point.
Love can bridge all kinds of differences in the church, because love is patient and is not irritable. Being patient means putting my ego, your ego in the back seat. It means bearing the other even when self would be screaming to drop the other person on the ground. Being patient means showing concern for the other despite your nature telling you enough is enough. Being patient means listening to the other even when you disagree with the person speaking. God’s love in the church is demonstrated through our being patient with those hard to bear, those whose views differ from ours. Jesus said, “if we love those who love us and we can add, if we love those who think like we do, what of amazing is there to that? Even the pagans do that.” But if we love even when not loved, then we reveal the nature of God’s love in us. This God, Jesus says, causes his sun to rise on both righteous and unrighteous. He makes the rain to come down on the just and unjust. When we love the way God loves, then God abides in us, says the apostle Peter, because God is love.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Many out there in the world cannot bear the least inconvenience from others. There is much skepticism, cynicism, and intolerance in the world we live in. The trouble is when these attitudes creep inside the church. The love of Christ frees us to be welcoming to one another. The love of God in us empowers us to trust one another. Suspicion is transformed into hospitality and a welcoming spirit. Hopelessness is replaced with hopefulness because the love of God has been poured into our heart by the Spirit of God. Intolerance is replaced by patience and consideration, even to the point of considering the other as superior to us. Love does not insist on its own way. We have heard the saying, “my way or the highway!” It is only the love of God that gives us grace to work alongside each other, despite our differences.
Paul ends the list of characteristics of love by saying that “love never ends.” If we were to realize that love will never end while everything we deem important to us will, we would be compelled to pursue the way of love in our treatment of others. The crisis, clashes, and tensions in the Christian church today are due to various issues. There are all kinds of divisions in the church: from ideological to the theological, from worship styles to personality preferences, from geographic location to the demographic composition of the church. In light of all these types of divisions, Paul would want to ask us as he did the Corinthian church: Is Christ divided? (1:13) The obvious answer is “No.” Christ is not divided. He is the head of the church and the church is his body. And for that body made up of people with different backgrounds, what if not love to keep it united? What if not love to bridge the racial tensions between Jews and Gentiles? What if not love to overcome the barriers of social and economic stratification that existed between masters and slaves in the church? What if not love to give them the power of being a radically alternative community to other groups of people? What if not love to give continuity to the work of God in the way and spirit of Jesus?
Paul then establishes the supremacy of love. Prophecy will end. Tongues will cease. Knowledge will come to an end. Even when these things are useful and God-given gifts to the church, none of these is the full embodiment of God’s character. One day will come when in fact the Bible will become useless. On that day we will know as we have been fully known by God. And even when there are three lasting virtues: faith, hope and love, the only one that will last forever is love. Love never ends because God is love.
Second Corinthians chapter 13 has a clear and simple message for us as a congregation. To you and me God has given gifts by his Holy Spirit. The gift each of us has been given might be different for each of us. Besides our difference in the gifts each of us has, we are all different from each other in many ways. Also, each of us sees the world through a different set of lenses. Yet, regardless of the differences we have, we have been called to be one body in the Lord. In this chapter, Paul wants to remind us that there is a more excellent way of being church. No amount of sound knowledge will make the world know God is among us. No particular gift of the Holy Spirit will give testimony that God is present in our lives. Only love will give evidence that God dwells in us and that we abide in God.
Let us see beyond our differences, which means, we do not deny them existing among us. Let us extend our hand to those who see the Bible differently. Let us overcome the barriers that prevent us from connecting with others. Let us walk patiently even the second mile, as Jesus commands. Let us love not only those who look differently, who think differently, but even those who curse us, those who are enemies of Christ. In so doing the world will know that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. By pursuing the supreme virtue of love we will be a church pursuing a more excellent way of being the church of Christ. Amen!