Monday, February 08, 2016

A Better Way

A Better Way
1 Corinthians 13:1-13[1]
Most pastors have a way of developing routines or habits in the way they go about their ministries. For example, when I lead a wedding rehearsal, I try to take a light-hearted approach. I go through the elements of the service and say, “Now I’m reading Scripture, blah, blah, blah.” “Now I’m praying, blah, blah, blah.” Well, as many of you know, I recently performed the wedding service for my son Michael and his new wife Jaime in Canada. And I did my usual routine with the rehearsal. But as I was actually reading this scripture, 1 Corinthians 13, during the wedding, my adorable 5-year-old granddaughter Helen started saying “blah, blah, blah.” Right in the middle of the service. Out loud. I guess I may have to re-think my approach to wedding rehearsals.
But, as they say, often times “from the mouth of babes” comes truth we’d rather not hear. I wonder if, because of the fact that we’ve heard this passage so many times, we’ve gotten to the place that all we really hear is “blah, blah, blah.” I’m afraid that can be true for a lot of us. We’ve heard familiar passages from the Bible so many times that, while we may have warm feelings from hearing favorite verses, I wonder if we really hear the message. Unfortunately, time and familiarity have dulled the edge those Scriptures were originally meant to have.
One of the most helpful ways to try to get around this over-familiarity is to take a closer look at what’s actually going on behind the scenes. In the case of our lesson from 1 Corinthians for today, St. Paul was addressing a congregation that was troubled and torn by factions and divisiveness. He has spent most of his effort in the previous 12 chapters trying to sort out the issues that were causing problems. At this point, he’s dealing with “spiritual gifts.” These were the various abilities that Paul said the Holy Spirit had given to the members of the church in order to build it up, gifts like preaching, teaching, leadership, service, and others.
One of the gifts practiced in the church at Corinth was “speaking in tongues.” While there has been some confusion about what this means, it would seem that it was some kind of non-rational prayer language. Though this may look strange to people who value clear communication, Paul validated it as a genuine gift of the Spirit. He even admitted that he himself had “spoken in tongues.” Unfortunately, those who practiced this gift at Corinth seemed to have developed the attitude that because they could speak a “heavenly” language, they were on a higher spiritual plane than others.
As you can imagine, it didn’t set well with folks in the church at Corinth that there was a group that basically saw themselves as spiritually superior to the rest of them. And part of what St. Paul was trying to accomplish with them was to bring some balance to the congregation by pointing out that all of the gifts are important for the welfare of the church.[2] He used the analogy of the parts of the body to try to help them understand that everyone in the church has something of value to contribute.
In the passage for today, Paul says he is showing them “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). The “better way” that Paul advocates is the way of practicing the gifts of the Spirit with an attitude of love for one another. In fact, he goes to some effort to make it clear that even the most impressive spiritual gifts are essentially useless if they are not practiced in an attitude of love for others.[3] And so he describes the kind of attitude he has in mind when he says, “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” (1 Cor. 13:4-5). It would seem, in fact, that he is speaking rather bluntly to them here. Earlier in the letter, Paul has already called them out on the fact that they were being envious and boastful towards each other. Here he makes it clear that is not the “better way.”[4]
On the contrary, I think the “better way” that he wants them to practice is the way of Jesus Christ.[5] It is the way of God’s love for us. Paul describes it this way, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). He’s not talking about love as a feeling, but rather love as a way of life, love as a basic attitude toward others, love as a commitment to follow Jesus’ example. It is a love that sacrifices for the sake of others; it is a love that is essentially unselfish and giving and generous; it is a love that bears with others with all their flaws and shortcomings.[6] This is the “better way” according to Paul.
This passage of Scripture wasn’t written primarily for married people. Paul is addressing the whole church about the way we are to live in the community of faith. I would hardly say that this church is one that is torn by factions and divisions. But the reality is that the kind of love the Bible teaches us to practice towards one another requires a great deal of us, and we don’t always live up to it. Let’s face it: sometimes it’s not easy to love one another in the church. Sometimes people in the church can rub each other the wrong way. And yet it is the love that we maintain for one another that sets the church apart from any other civic organization. Since we can all fall short, I think it’s important for us to see that the love that St. Paul says “never ends” is God’s love for us.[7] That is, after all, what enables us to keep trying to love one another.[8] It is the love that God shows us day by day, and the love that Jesus taught us by his life and death, that call us all to keep seeking “the better way.”

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/31/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 221: “The purpose of chapter 13 is to portray love as the sine qua non of the Christian life and to insist that love must govern the exercise of all the gifts of the Spirit. … Paul is trying to reform the Corinthians’ understanding and practice of spiritual manifestations in worship.”
[3] Cf. J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” New Interpreters Bible X:952, where he says, “no matter how magnificent the accomplishment, power, or action, when love is missing the exercise in question becomes vain, selfish, fruitless, and individualistic.”
[4] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 222, where he quotes John Calvin as saying, “I have no doubt that Paul intended it [1 Corinthians 13] to reprimand the Corinthians in an indirect way, by confronting them with a situation quite the reverse of their own….” Hays himself says (p. 227), “the Corinthians will surely have gotten the picture: Paul is implying that everything about their behavior contradicts the character of love.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:330, where he says of this chapter, “which we shall best understand if for the concept ‘love’ we simply insert the name Jesus Christ.”
[6] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 232: Where he says, “Love is not just a matter of feelings: feelings come and go, while love abides.” He continues by insisting that the actions that define love “are learned patterns of behavior that must be cultivated over time in the context of a community that models and supports such behavior. We must learn patience, we must be taught not to keep score of wrongs done against us.”
[7] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:372, where he says, “Paul expressly says of love in 1 Cor. 13:8 that it οὐδέποτε πίπτει [never fails]. He means that it will still apply to the being and activity of the redeemed in the world to come.” Cf. also Hays, First Corinthians, 231: “Love is the greatest of the three because—unlike the revelatory gifts and even unlike faith and hope—it will endure eternally when the love of God is all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). It is also the greatest because, even in the present time, it undergirds everything else and gives meaning to an otherwise unintelligible world….”
[8] Cf. Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” NIB X:955: “Faith, hope, and love endure; gifts do not. Gifts are finite; they are given to persons who employ them for a period within the community. Love is the matrix of the life of faith; God’s love for people becomes the force that enables them to love others.”

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