Paul planted the Corinthian church in March of 50 AD on the middle leg of his Second Missionary Journey. The church was in the right place at the right time. It was also left in the hands of gifted leaders. There was no ceiling on the potential of the Corinthian church! Seven years after leaving Greece, Paul is informed that substantial problems had developed. To address them, Paul wrote a letter of correction that was rejected and has been lost to us. What we call I Corinthians is a follow up to that original letter. After a short introduction that celebrates the amazing potential of the congregation, Paul expresses his disappointment that the church has failed to grow spiritually. Rather than become a great church, the Corinthian church had digressed into a baptized reflection of the larger culture.
If this is a diagnosis of the Corinthian church, Paul offers a clear prescription. Love. I Corinthians 13 is often called the “love chapter” but it sits within a very unique context. Chapter 12 points to sharp divisions within the church. The internal conflict centers around people having diverse gifts and passions and thinking their gifts were the best and castigating people who didn’t share their passions. Paul used the metaphor of the human body to illustrate that differing gifts and passions are a good thing for they contribute to the whole. Let’s take a quick look at gifts, passions and roles.
GIFTS: Often in the church, people think the “up front” gifts are the most prized. Because of our cultural infatuation with celebrity, those in the spotlight can seem brighter than the rest. Some people even feel “lesser” because they are blessed with gifts that take them behind the scenes but this is absurd. We are ALL needed in the church. You don’t need twelve people trying to preach a sermon at once but we need a hundred people in that moment to mix the sound, program the lights, handle the computer graphics, make sure we stream to the internet, respond to our on-line audience, insure our campuses get the video messages, welcome us, pour into our children and keep us safe.
PASSION: I can’t tell you how many times I have seen this scenario. Someone goes on a mission trip or engages in a ministry and experiences God in an incredible way. Soon, that place or that call fills their lives with meaning and they want everyone they know to experience what they have experienced. That is all awesome! But then they have an epiphany; most others are not as interested in “their thing” as they are. I have had dozens of conversations over the years simply explaining, “God has given you a thing and that is awesome but that thing isn’t going to be everyone’s thing. Otherwise God would just be doing one thing. You can’t get frustrated that everyone is not interested in your thing because if you get honest, you are not interest in their thing either.”
ROLES: Next Paul outlines the roles to which God calls people in the church. The question becomes, “If we are all gifted differently, have different passions and serve different roles, how can we find unity. DO YOU HEAR THIS? May I apply to a cultural context? “If we all see things differently, vote differently and are impassioned about very different things, how can we possibly get along?” And now Paul offers the single answer to the questions before us; we are going to figure out how to love each other.
I Corinthians 13
1 If I could speak with the tongues of men and angels but don’t have love, I am just making noise The Corinthian church had told Paul that he wasn’t a great communicator and pulpit preacher. He lacked stage presence and could get a bit dry. I doubt Paul was very funny either. Paul replies that even if he were more eloquent than the golden tongued angels of heaven but lacked love, all his giftedness would be of no account.
2 If I had prophecy, insight, knowledge and faith but lacked love, I would be nothing. Now Paul expands his argument, “This isn’t just about preaching, even if I was off the charts kind of spiritually gifted, without love none of it would matter.” Spin this and Paul is saying to the gifted but divided and conflicted church, you have everything that doesn’t matter and nothing that does. You value lesser things to the neglect of greater things. Until you learn to love each other, you are destined to be chronic underachievers. HEAR ME CHURCH: Until we learn to love each other, we are destined to be chronic underachievers.
3 If I gave everything to the poor and became a martyr but lacked love, it would be for nothing In a city consumed with the relentless pursuit of more and in an emerging faith hotly persecuted by the Roman Empire; who in the church would be more respected than the persecuted? Especially those who gave all for the sake of the Lord. But Paul states that even the ultimate sacrifice would count for nothing without love.
Before we wade in any further, I am going to call something out. Over the past couple of years, I have preached messages solely based on Biblical texts and people have messaged me that they wish I would “stay away from politics.” And for every message I get like that, I get another one asking why I don’t make political stands. To my knowledge, I have never talked about partisan politics in twenty-three years here. What I DO talk about is the Bible and I do my very best to communicate the author’s intent and to contextualize it historically and in the whole of the Biblical narrative. My goal is to teach you the word of God in a level handed way and then you can decide how that plays out in your life. I said all that to say this, The American church must stop viewing theology through a political lens and we must start viewing politics through a theological lens. Rather than let your politics inform your view of Scripture, I challenge you to let Scripture inform your view of politics. And even if you do that, are we all going to come out with the same conclusions? Of course not! So how do we all get along in the church when we don’t all think alike? That is where love comes in! Paul first establishes what love is not and then moves to what love is:
Eight Things Love Is Not:
- Jealous In the way the word translated jealous is used here, it means far less desiring what others have, than being bitter about what you don’t have. It is to be obsessed with what you desire.
- Boastful A Christian who always talks about themselves is in love with self, a Christian who always talks about Christ is in love with Christ.
- Proud. The Corinthians were proud of things other than God and things that did not matter to God.
- Rude The Greek word used here is not easily defined but is the antonym of charming. Love doesn’t go around acting like a jerk.
- Demanding Demanding people believe they are better than everyone else, their time is more valuable than everyone else’s and view people as servants to their greater agenda.
- Irritable Love isn’t in a bad mood.
- Scorekeeping Greek word is an accounting term meaning to make a permanent entry into a ledger. Love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs.
- Glad about injustice Justice is a politicized word today. What it means in the Bible is “what is actually right” and it has legal connotations in the Greek. It begins with law based on God’s law. God is just so God’s laws are just. Then it moves to application. When the innocent are set free every single time, no matter who they are or are not; no matter how well they are connected or not connected and the guilty are condemned every single time, no matter who they are or are not or how well they are connected or not, we have Biblical justice. (BOB CHRISTY QUOTE)
Eight Things Love Is:
- Patient The Greek word used here does not mean patient with circumstances, it means patient with people. There are some circumstances, especially unjust ones, about which we should not be patient. The definition here pivots on how God is patient with a sinful humanity and then requires that God’s people extend that patience to their neighbors.
- Kind Treats others well…especially those others don’t treat well and the people who could never do anything for you.
- Truth loving Rejoices when the truth comes out even if it is painful or doesn’t fit your preferred narrative.
- Relentless (Never gives up) Love refuses to give up on taking God at His word and in believing the best about people.
- Faith keeping Ability to maintain optimism for the future despite significant stressors and setbacks in the present.
- Hopeful “I can’t wait until tomorrow because I get better looking every day!”
- Enduring There is an overcoming element to this kind of endurance because the hardship makes us stronger. We are not just gutting out the race, we are not just going to finish the race; we are going to win this thing!
- Eternal There is only one Biblical teacher more adamant than Paul about parsing things temporal from things eternal…Jesus Christ. Christianity must be lived with an eye toward eternity.
11 When I was a child, I talked and thought like a child but when I grew up I put away childish things Children want to “take their bat and go home” or start crying, yelling or screaming when things don’t go their way. Love brings out the grown-ups.
12 We don’t see things as they actually are but there will be a day when we will. Some time back a friend said of a highly opinionated person; “He tells it like it is.” I correct him. “No he doesn’t, he tells it like he sees it which may not be like it is at all!” There is ultimate “Big T” truth and God determines that, not you and me. No matter how sincerely you believe a lie, it still isn’t a truth. But one day truth will be revealed in Christ.
13 At the end of it all only faith, hope and love will remain…and the greatest of these is (drum roll please) love As Paul concludes his treatise on love, he boils it down to three things, faith, hope and love. Faith is that which we don’t yet see but continue to hope and hope is a persistent optimism. Love is deemed the greatest because love is the highest aim and most true expression of both faith and hope.
When love finds its proper place; everything else will too.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop is the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois