Read the text here: I Corinthians 13
Most of us are used to hearing the text of I Corinthians 13 read at weddings. In fact the passage – usually the entirety of chapter 13 – has really become associated with weddings. And it certainly is appropriate. St. Paul’s lifting up of self-giving love as a model for a marriage relationship is certainly what couples should be encouraged to strive towards. So it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Paul did not have marriage in mind when he wrote the words to I Corinthians 13. In fact, he is not talking about marriage at all, he is talking about community. Specifically, he is addressing this basic questions: How do we live in community?
The church in Corinth was having problems with community. They simply could not adjust their community life away from the cultural and societal values and expectations that had been a part of their lives before they became Christian. Specifically, they had a problem with social class. In the broader society class distinctions were very, very carefully drawn and people from differing classes simply did not intermingle socially. These lines were drawn carefully and lower class folks and upper class folks kept themselves apart from each other. This is what they were doing in Corinth, and this had especially become a problem with the sharing of Holy Communion. Upper class folks would not eat and commune with the working class and slaves. The problem is that this kind of exclusivity goes directly against the Gospel of Christ. And Paul lets them have it in chapter 11. Paul lets them know in no uncertain terms that to exclude folks from Holy Communion in this way is contrary to the Gospel. It is to this practice of exclusivity that Paul is referring in this well-known and often misinterpreted passage (I Cor. 11:17-19):
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.8Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
To be exclusive is to deny Christ, according to Paul. So the very first point that needs to be made in understanding this text is that we, the Body of Christ, is called to be radically inclusive. No one is to be excluded, no one is to be shunned or denied Communion and fellowship in the Body of Christ. All the categories that we humans like to put people in are shattered when we come together as the Body of Christ.
That is where we start, then from there we move, in chapter 12, to the issue of gifts and the use of the gifts that God has given to us. And again the Corinthian church had fallen into the trap of valuing some folks over others; of valuing some gifts over others and thus creating a hierarchy of gifts. “Since you can prophesy or speak in tongues,” they determined, “then you must be more important than that person over there who can only pray.” (Does this perhaps sound a little like our Gospel text from Luke 18?) Paul completely rejects this! God has given a variety of gifts to a variety of different people and the Body needs every single one of those gifts in order to function. Not one is more important than others. It is at this point that he launches into his well-known section (chapter 12:12-27) where, using the metaphor of the human body, he talks about how the different parts and organs are all needed and essential – “…If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of smell be?...” (12:17). So the 2nd important point to be made here is that God has gifted everyone with gifts that are essential to the Body of Christ, which is the church. In fact, the church cannot function without everyone and when one is absent or does not contribute the gifts God has given to him/her for the mission of Christ then the Body, the church, is thus impoverished.
This then leads right into chapter 13. And here is what Paul is saying – you Corinthians have really missed the point of the Gospel. You have divided yourselves and put people into categories and then further divided yourselves by creating a hierarchy of gifts. By doing this you are denying the Gospel because you have forgotten one very, very important thing – Love. Ultimately we are called to love. The community of Christ is a community of self-giving love; love that puts the needs and concerns of others above my own needs and concerns. Review again the passage:
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.
This is hard enough for married couples, but for a community like the church it can be next to impossible. But this is what we are called to: Love is the bottom line! And with the Spirit of God nothing is impossible! Now, love doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead, but it also means that we are to carefully consider how we administrate, how we reach out, how we do ministry and how we utilize the gifts that God has given us. From Paul we learn these important lessons: People are God’s first priority and love is the bottom line for community!
This is the first weekend of our stewardship program – Fulfilling God’s Purpose. And we begin with this important lesson which reminds us that in order for us to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives it means that we must be an active part of a Christian community, and that we must work within that community to reach out to all others welcoming and bringing them in, using the gifts God has given us for the sake of community – and that includes time, talents and treasures. And most important, that our bottom line as a community has got to be love – self-giving love which is modeled for us by our Lord, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again so that we all might have life and have it abundantly.