“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1). People both of faith and of no faith seem to know this memorable verse. Many people, whether Christian or not, love the 13thchapter of First Corinthians. If you remember your wedding ceremony or someone else’s, it is probable that this scripture was chosen by yourself or your partner, or by the minister. Today’s scripture text is often associated with weddings.
So when we read this scripture our imagination is connected to marriage and partnership in love. At many weddings I have officiated, First Corinthians 13 served as my primary text. And when I spent time with the couple before the wedding, we thought about God’s love and how God’s love nurtures their covenant with each other. In each case the couple found it meaningful.
However, when I was preparing today’s sermon, I realized I had missed Paul’s point. Mind you it is generally thought that Paul himself was not married and that this discourse about love was not intended for weddings. 1 Corinthians 13 may have been used and abused by many without deep reflection on the social context of where the bible was written. Last week after the service many people talked about Jubilee. It may be a similar case that a lack of reflection may account also for the misunderstanding of the concept of Jubilee: many people may assume it refers to the Queen’s Jubilee and not know of its biblical origin. In both cases the original meanings of love and Jubilee lose their deep meaning.
For a deeper exploration of the meaning of love in 1 Corinthians 13, a critical look at my own limited understanding of the scripture seemed a good starting point. First of all, I needed to take more seriously the context of the Corinthian church and why and how Paul was responding to his readers of the congregation of Corinth and their context. I had been looking at the scripture literally without further analysis and biblical criticism or study of contemporary scholarship. We need to remember this when we read the Bible; the Bible was not written in a vacuum, but in the context of a concrete situation. We need to explore the social and cultural background of the Bible if we would better understand the meaning.
Let us imagine the situation of the Corinthians. They are members of the first generation of the Christian outreach movement in the first century of the Christian Era. The apostle Paul reached Corinth about the year 49 or 50 CE and stayed for about eighteen months. There he established a Christian community with at least one major house-church. The church in Corinth had expanded since Paul’s first visit. While he was away visiting other churches, Paul sought to help the Corinthian church in various ways such as prayer, letters and sending special helpers. Today’s scripture is one letter of probably what was a series of letters continuing an ongoing discussion between Paul and the community in Corinth.
After leaving Corinth, Paul continued to hear news and probably received letters from the people of the new faith community there. The church had become large and active, but the people were quarrelling with each other. Paul sensed it was a dangerous situation. This is the reason why he wrote today’s letter.
The first serious problem Paul identified was about the leadership style in the church. Some members of the church were acting as if their ideas, their wisdom and their spiritual paths were superior to others. Some of the elites were aggressive self-promoters. They had a strong influence in the church, owned much of the church property and goods and acted as gatekeepers. Some said, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12). They were divided into competitive groups and claimed they were more excellent than others. Paul, of course, was upset by this and responded firmly that no excellence could be God’s excellence and no truth God’s truth unless it was grounded in love. One can have all kinds of abilities but if there is no love, one cannot be wise and should not be trusted. Paul said, “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” (3). Yes, I am nothing, if I do not have a loving heart.
The other problem observed by Paul occurred when the people gathered in the church. The rich members were eating the communion meal before the poorer members arrived. The rich were not concerned for and did not care for the poor. The rich celebrated their bread and wine among themselves and not with the poorer people who came later. The bread and wine must be shared together not only in communion within the congregation but also in our communal life with all the members of God’s people.
Paul invited the people to change from their unloving ways with each other to the way of love, to live God’s gift of love with all others. Paul invited the Corinthians to change from their old ways of living to the new life of living in love. According to Paul, “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 wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (4 – 8a). God’s love rejoices in truth, supports, believes, hopes, and endures all things. Love is the primary gift of the spirit. Love is the purpose of the Christian life.
The word love as used by Paul is, as we can imagine, not a sentimental word. It is a socio-political word, used in a context of the great conflict and division. Paul’s and Jesus’ concept of love goes beyond being compassionate toward individuals, although it does include that. It also means standing against the dominant systems that rule our world. In this way love and justice are one; love without justice can be sentimental and justice without love can be cruel. Love is the heart of justice and justice is the social form of love.
So when Paul speaks about love it is related to justice: justice toward our partner, toward our community, toward our country and toward God’s global family. This love was known long before Paul. God showed this love to the people of Israel in their deliverance from oppression. Jesus showed this love through his ministry.
The Spirit encourages us to love where and when it is hard to love. The courage to love is God’s gift and our responsibility. Let us learn the lesson Paul sent to the Corinthians, not to celebrate only on our own but with others. Let us continue to discover many ways to enjoy our companionship with each other and celebrate life’s journey together. Let us love one another. Now we are invited to the table of Jesus. Come, come to the table of love and justice. Thanks be to God. Amen.