Following is the sermon I delivered (more or less) to the Waterford COB on 2006-02-26.


Good morning. My title this AM,  as you may have noticed already, is simply “Love” and the text I have chosen is 1 Corinthians chapter 13, the well known “Love” chapter. You might be pardoned for wincing just a little at this combination: usually when I hear that someone is going to preach on 1 Corinthians 13, I think of sentimental messages that might well be delivered at a wedding ceremony. If you have a similar reaction, you may relax. I recently had the pleasure of reading a commentary on 1 Corinthians by Richard Hays  that really helped the letter feel alive to me. In particular that author's treatment of Chapter 13 restored it to its context of a letter to a divided Christian community. I'm hoping to give that perspective on I Corinthians 13 as well; to see it not as poem to love that could just as well be in any other book of the Bible, but as part of an overall argument Paul is making. To do this I'll need to start by briefly surveying 1 Corinthians to share some this context with you. After that we'll look at Chapter 13 and examine how it fits into Paul's message in Corinthians overall. I'd like to finish by looking at the ways in which 1 Corinthians in general (and Chapter 13 specifically) speak to us as Christians and to our common heritage as Brethren people.

I said I'd start with a brief overview of I Corinthians. I Corinthians is the second of a series of four letters Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.  Two of these letters were preserved and are in our Bibles as the books I and II Corinthians. Corinth was a church Paul established in dramatic fashion on the mission trip recorded in Acts 18: the Lord told Paul in a dream that he should preach in Corinth despite opposition. Paul did have opposition, but he converted the leader of the Jewish Synagogue in Corinth and stayed about two years, establishing a thriving and successful Church.  This letter is written at least several years later while Paul is staying with the Church at Ephesus. Paul has now heard news about the Corinthian Church that alarmed him and after a brief salutation in the first chapter Paul quickly establishes why he is writing to the church at Corinth.

10 Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you.

The Church at Corinth was divided. It was experiencing disunity, division, contention. Paul says he has heard reports of division from “Chloe's household” so perhaps he has had visitors from Corinth. At any rate he has also received a message from the Church at Corinth asking for advice on a variety of topics and on the basis of these two pieces of information Paul is alarmed. As a letter, Corinthians is basically Paul attempting to help the Church end the divisions that exist: Paul spends the first 6 chapters or so dealing with issues that he was told about and in the rest of the letter he replies to the questions they asked him in their message. Paul advises the Corinthians on a variety of topics but as we will see, his aim in all of his advice is to cause them to be united in love as a body of believers. Paul knows, however, that the situation is serious enough that it requires his personal attention, so at the end of the letter he promises to change his travel plans so that he can spend some extended time with the troubled Corinthian Church.

What were the issues that faced the Corinthian Church? Paul deals with so many things that we can't even really review them all so I'll just briefly survey the major themes. I'm going to throw out a bunch of references within I Corinthians, but basically I'm just moving through the book up to chapter 13 and trying to hit the major themes Paul spends time on.

In Chapter 1 Paul notes that part of the division is the Corinthians adoption of one leader or another.

12 each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or "I am of Christ." 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Paul challenges the mindset that allows the Corinthians to identify with individual leaders and create factions. Paul emphasizes instead that our focus, our glory should be on God, not on human wisdom and knowledge. The Corinthians, it seems have had a strong focus on knowledge and wisdom: the Greek words Paul uses for knowledge and wisdom are gnosis and sophia. These two  words are used more in 1 Corinthians than in any other book in the NT and it is primarily, it seems, because Paul had to correct a misplaced emphasis of the Corinthian Church. In Chapter 2 and part of 3 Paul gives a mini-sermon that contrasts real wisdom from God with the sort of emphasis on earthly wisdom and hidden knowledge that the Corinthians have favored.

Paul concludes that sermon by telling the Corinthians that they may consider themselves mature, but he considers them immature in the faith. The proof of this, he says, is that they are not united. “3:3b For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” He goes on to the relative unimportance of human leaders and the inappropriateness of identifying with them in opposition to other believers. Such factionalism is in fact defiling the Body, which Paul calls the Temple of God.

Rather than being ashamed of their conduct, however, some of the Corinthians have been egotistical about their own status before God. Paul mockingly compares their wealth, comfort, knowledge and position to his own and the other apostles' position in Chapter 4; the Apostles are ragged and weak, poor and considered a fool by men and yet God has chosen them. Is it possible, Paul is asking the Corinthians, that they haven't understood what to pursue in Christ? Rather than being puffed up they ought to be humble.

The Corinthians are also tolerating, perhaps even encouraging sexual sin in their midst. Paul straightforwardly tells them in chapter 5 that they ought to be ashamed rather than proud of what they have chosen to allow.  Open sin should be met with corporate discipline. The Church, Paul tells them ought to maintain holiness on the part of its members. Equally shamefully, Paul has heard that members of the Church are using the Law to settle disputes. Likely, as commentators note, this means more wealthy members were using the courts to compel poorer members to do as they wished. Paul chides them in Chapter 6 for their failure to realise that they are the Church. Paul asks them sarcastically:

Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? 6 But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! 7 Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? 8 No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren!

Paul is wrestling with the Corinthians' general misconception about how the Christian life is to be lived. He begins to quote back to them their own sayings, little slogans that likely were in the letter they sent him. “All things are lawful for me” the Corinthians boast. “12 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful” Paul replies. Rather than focus on individual autonomy and personal freedom Paul wants the Corinthians to be willing to give up their own rights for the benefit of the other members of the community.

In Chapter 7 Paul begins to answer questions the Corinthians have asked. They have questions about marriage and divorce, and questions about eating meat sacrificed to idols. In all his questions Paul emphasizes the need for considering the needs of others above our own. Even when we're right and know we're right, Paul suggests, it can sometimes be better to lay down our own prerogatives and rights for the benefit of our fellow believers.

Paul defends his own standing as an apostle in chapter 9 by noting that this pattern of self denial is one he himself has practiced. Although he deserved financial support from the Corinthians, he has given up his rights in order to more effectively bring them the Gospel. The Christian life, Paul suggests, is one that requires discipline and training, like athletics does.

Unfortunately the Corinthians have been indulging themselves in their Christian life. Paul gives them instructions about public worship and the love feast in chapter 11: apparently their services have been disrupted, partly because of their factionalism. Even the love feast, which ought to be a force for unity in the life of the Church has become divisive as the richer members have provided feasts for themselves and nothing for the poorer members. Paul says that God has been judging the Corinthians for bringing such divisions to the Lord's table.

Finally, in Chapter 12 Paul deals at length with spiritual gifts. Apparently the Corinthians have been treating the Church like a talent show: approving of those members who have flashy spiritual manifestations like speaking with ecstatic tongues in worship and ignoring those with more mundane gifts. Everyone should have care for all the members of the Body, Paul suggests. “earnestly desire the best gifts”,  Paul says, “And yet I show you a more excellent way.”

Chapter 13.

1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Chapter 13 is a prose poem, a figure of speech known as an epideictic interlude. In ancient rhetoric this is a common figure: one where the speaker breaks the flow of their argument to insert a demonstrative speech praising a person or a quality.  It isn't really meant, however, to be read as a separate piece from the letter that contains it.  Chapter 13 is a beautiful meditation on the value of Agape. It is also pointed critique of the Corinthians conduct and it points the way to healing for their divisions.

Chapter 13 clearly is divided into three parts. The first section (verses 1-3) notes the futility of our religious acts, even the best of them, if they are not motivated by love. The second section (verses 4-7) notes the qualities of love, frequently by stating what “love is not” and it is here that we will draw the strongest links to the rest of the letter. Finally Paul ends by contrasting love to spiritual gifts with an eschatological eye.

Verse 1 says “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” The language to modern ears is opaque. I don't normally relate to speaking with the tongues of angels, nor do I know what a sounding brass or clanging cymbal are (although Paul's language is vivid enough that I still understand his point). To the Corinthians, however, Paul's language is pointed and powerful. As we have seen, the Corinthians were very impressed by displays of Charisma or spiritual gifting. They were especially impressed with the gift of tongues – ecstatic utterances whose meaning might not be known to the person who said them. Paul is not at all impressed by displays of spirituality divorced from Agape and he compares such speech to a sounding brass or clanging symbol. Commentaries I read suggest that Paul is referring to bronze vases used by Actors to amplify their voice. The town of Corinth was noted for its production of Bronze vessels, so perhaps this was an object with which the hearers would be well acquainted. The “clanging cymbals”  likely refers to the noise that accompanied rites in the Greek mystery cults. The worship of Cybele particularly was accompanied by frenzied noise on drums and cymbals. Hays suggests Paul's 1st century audience might understand him to be saying something like “Even if you can speak with the Heavenly language of angels, but have no love, your high toned speech has become like the empty echo of an actor's speech or the noise of frenzied pagan worship.” Paul is directly attacking one of the Corinthians' points of pride; tongues are worthless without Agape love.

Paul isn't just running down tongues however. The gift of prophecy, which Paul later says is more desirable than tongues is also worthless without love. The Corinthians pride in their Gnosis – hidden knowledge and understanding – is similarly worthless without love. Even faith (of which Jesus said a mustard grains worth could move mountains) is worthless apart from love. Paul forcefully says that all these things add up to precisely nothing without the presence of love.

Verse three also requires a little translation to convey its intended message to our ears. Apparently Greek texts disagree by one letter and so some versions say “though I give my body to be burned” while some say “so that I may boast”. One late 1st century commentary sees this verse as a reference to Christians willingness to sell themselves into slavery for the benefit of others – I Clement says “We know that many among ourselves have given themselves to bondage that they might ransom others.  Many have delivered themselves to slavery and provided food for others with the price they received for themselves.” Other possible meanings involve being willing to endure martyrdom, but I like the unified sense of the passage if we understand it to refer to giving alms. Giving away all your goods and even selling yourself into slavery for the benefit of the poor are certainly boast-worthy acts. Again, however, Paul insists that the profit gained from such an act apart from love is exactly zero. It is possible that Paul is again pointing to the failings of the Corinthians as they have not exactly impressed him with their handling of the differences of class and wealth among them.

It is certain, however, that Paul intends for his next words to sting. He lists eight things love “is not” and each of these eight can be linked to the behavior of the Corinthians he has had to deal with. Love, Paul says, suffers long and is kind. It does not envious. The word for envy is the same word Paul identified in chapter 3 as an sign and source of the carnality of the Corinthians. 'For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal'. His next item 'love does not parade itself' (or as some versions have it “love does not boast”) similarly echoes his condemnations of the Corinthians' behavior: 3:21 uses a related word to instruct the Corinthians not to boast in men, and 1:29, 4:7, and 5:6 similarly deride the Corinthians' self glorification or boasting. Most straightforwardly in 5:6 Paul says “Your glorying is not good!”

The Corinthian readers of Paul's letter would probably be getting the point by now. But Paul doesn't let up. Love, he says, is not puffed up. The Greek word used here is a virtual theme of Paul's throughout the letter as he chastises the Corinthians' arrogance at length in chapter 4 and again in chapter 5. Paul in fact coins a slogan in chapter 8 as a way of deflating the Corinthians pride in their knowledge: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up!” As Hays notes, even the dullest Corinthian would have figured out what Paul is up to by now. Love is precisely what the Corinthians have not been.

The next verse says that love does not behave rudely. Actually “love does not behave shamefully” is probably a better translation: Paul uses a related greek word in Romans to reference homosexual behavior and most versions opt for “shameful” there. Paul uses it here in Corinthians in a sexual context in chapter 7 but likely also has in mind the sexual sin the Corinthians' have permitted in chapter 5. Paul also calls shameful the humiliation of the poor at the Lord's supper in chapter 11. The Corinthians have behaved in a variety of ways Paul finds shameful. Paul highlights that behavior by simply saying here: love doesn't do that sort of thing.

“Love does not seek its own”. The fifth item on Paul's list is also a reference to a theme of his in Corinthians. Paul's gives a variety of ethical advice to the Corinthians in the controversy over eating meat sacrificed to idols, but his principle for doing so in chapter 10 is finally “24 Let no one seek his own, but each one the other's well-being.” Paul presents himself as an example of this pattern of behavior at the end of chapter 10 and in other letters presents this as the basic example of Christ. The Corinthians, by contrast, have a strong sense of self regard and self serving as evidenced by their behavior at Love feast as well as their willingness to take one another to court. Paul finds such behavior outside of the bounds of Love.

I have no strong link for the next two items on his list. Some versions translate them “Love is not easily angered and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged.” Likely this relates more generically to the willingness of the Corinthians to behave contentiously. Perhaps it also is a reference to their willingness to use the Law against each other in order to get their way – the last item on his list seems to lean in that direction as well. Love “does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” might be better translated “does not rejoice in injustice” and the same word was featured in the discussion in chapter 6 about going to law. Paul is perhaps being a little more general, but his point is still the same: the behavior of the Corinthians has been wrong precisely because it cannot have been done from or motivated by love.

This perspective on Paul's list: that he means to contrast the Corinthians' divisive actions with those motivated by love is confirmed by writings from the time. I Clement again, written in the first century, comments on the passage that “Love admits no schism, love makes no sedition, love does all things in concord”. These are somewhat archaic words, but they all focus around the question of unity versus division.  Clement, at least, understood Paul to be aimed at challenging the Corinthians to Christian unity based in mutual self sacrificing love.

Paul finishes the middle section by affirming the transcendent nature of Love: it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  I like the New English Bible's rendering of this passage: “There is no limit to its faith, hope, and endurance.” This better captures the sense that divine love is inexhaustible; a well from which we can dip without fear of running out.

The final section in chapter 13 shifts gears, but it continues to put pressure on the Corinthian hearers. The question implicitly addressed is one that has great application to us: what is your central identification in Christ? The Corinthians, as we have briefly addressed, saw demonstrations of spirituality as the ultimate sign of the Christian life. To have hidden, advanced knowledge, to speak ecstatically, to have (as we might say) a “religious experience” – these were markers of advancement in the mystery cults around them and naturally the Corinthians have thought about the Christian life in these terms. Paul, however, will have none of it. He doesn't discredit charisma like tongues and prophecy, he doesn't ignore the need for knowledge. But for Paul these things are not our ultimate markers in Christianity in the same way that love is.

Let me read that last section of Chapter 13 again.

8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Paul's argument is complex and I won't really do it justice. Essentially, however, it is rooted in his eschatological outlook. Eschatology is a large word which basically means an orientation towards the end, the ultimate destiny of the world. Paul continuously has in mind that this world is temporary, the things around us which have such a sense of substance are really transient – what is real is the Kingdom and the person of Jesus. His argument then, at least in part is that Love is the most essential thing precisely because it is not transient. Even prophecy, knowledge, and tongues will fade away: they won't be needed when the Kingdom is established and we have perfect access to all knowledge, all communication with God. Paul deliberately provokes his Corinthian readers: prophecy and knowledge and tongues are like the understanding of a child because they are inherently limited as we are limited right now by our imperfect nature. He closes by noting that for now we have faith hope and love. In the future, however, John Lennon will finally be right and “all we'll need is love.” Because of its enduring nature then, Love must be considered the pinnacle of Christianity. The Corinthians have misunderstood by placing ultimate value on esoteric knowledge and advanced spiritual experiences – and this is the reason for the disunity that they experience.

Hopefully you've followed me as we've blazed through the first 13 chapters of I Corinthians in short amount of time. Even if you have, however, you might be thinking to yourself: so what. How does understanding that Paul's poem in chapter 13 is linked to rest of the book change my Christian understanding in any way?  What's the application to my life and my Church?

I'd like to answer that question in personal way. I hope you won't find this too presumptuous. I'd like to talk about our shared heritage as Brethren for just a moment. Look around the room. This is your Church and your local congregation is part of the Denomination known as the Church of the Brethren. You've invited me to share your pulpit this morning, however, and the Church I regularly fellowship at is called Brethren Community Fellowship. It isn't part of any denomination, but many of its founding members were part of the Old Order German Baptist Brethren Church. That's a mouthful, but it is an late 19th century split off the Church of the Brethren. Over there are my Mom and Dad who came out today from Dunkard Brethren. The Dunkard Brethren were another split off the Church of the Brethren in the 1920s. We have three different experiences of Brethren influenced Churches in this room right now.

Did you hear the word “split” there a lot? Now I know you're thinking: hey don't blame us we didn't go anywhere, right? The fact is, what it means to be Brethren has been a source of contention for a lot of Brethren history. Primarily this is, I believe, because the Brethren have always placed a great deal of emphasis on the Church. The Anabaptist/Pietist attitude towards the Church rejects the Reformation consensus that the Church is the place where believers come to hear the creeds preached and the have the sacraments administered. No,  Brethren have always used words like discipleship and community when they talk about the Church.  Rather than being peripheral to our theology, the idea of the Church as the gathered body has been very central to Brethren theology and thought. That very seriousness though, has meant that conflicts over the nature and purpose of the Church have often been acrimonious among the Brethren. I have always been interested in Brethren History so I have a lot of history of the Church of the Brethren. That history is often the history of conflict about the the role of tradition in our life, the nature of Church Discipline, governance, and polity, the tensions between the desire to be particular and the desire to be like everybody else.

In our present time watching Brethren people and Churches wrestle with the legacy we have inherited is often instructive – frequently they're wrestling with the same issues if in different ways. Now I cannot speak to your experience here as a Church body because, frankly, I don't know you that well. I don't what your personal history has been or what you think about the issues I'm raising. I would like instead to share two ways in which the Churches I have been a part of have tried to come to grips with their Brethren background.  To tie this back to 1st Corinthians I want to think just a little bit about how we might apply Paul's thoughts to our actions.

One reaction that I have seen has been to embrace the tradition of the Church as a primary means of identification. From this perspective faithfulness is primarily a matter of uniformity in adhering to polity and tradition.  Unity, from this perspective, is attained when everyone agrees to do exactly the same thing.  You might even cite Paul's plea from chapter 1 that “that [everyone] speak the same thing” in support of this approach. I feel very clearly that in its bolder forms, at least, this is divisiveness that Paul might straightforwardly condemn. The Brethren have never located their identity in charismata like speaking in tongues and we have always had a certain amount of suspicion towards claims to special knowledge. But we have at times located our identity in dress and custom. To both claims to be central, I suspect, Paul would redirect us towards the Agape love he describes in I Cor. 13.

Perhaps you have no experience with this sort of reaction. How about the other extreme? Some people's reaction to their Brethren heritage is to ignore and hope it will go away. Some people even actively flee it. Ever heard somebody suggest the Church name shouldn't have the word Brethren in it because that's too ... Different? This reaction certainly extends to many topics of more depth than the name on a sign: believer's baptism, church discipline, non-resistance, communion and love feast. Creeds and the place of the New Testament as our sole rule of Faith and Practice.

I would suggest that it would be a terrible decision to react in just that way. You see, I do believe that some of our Brethren heritage is a deeper and richer appreciation for the New Testament perspective on the Church than many traditions experience. Look at the picture of Agape that Paul paints. This is not mere sentiment. Paul does not intend to suggest that we have good feelings, that is the most important thing. Agape Love is self sacrificial and challenges others to follow in sacrifice. Agape Love is a muscular sort of love, willing to forfeit its rights and privileges, even to be defrauded rather than place an obstacle before the Gospel of Jesus, but willing to enter into discipleship and discipline as part of the Body under the Headship of Christ. It is not content to say, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled” without doing anything for a brother in need. It does not tolerate unrepentant sin in the body as an expression of tolerance. It is not self sufficient and independent but instead seeks interdependence in the community of the gathered Body of Christ. This love indeed, can only be entered into by those who are in Christ – Christ has not only broken the chains of bondage which would keep us from entering into his Love, he has set an example for us of Agape personified and He calls us to follow Him in that way.

This is very “Brethren” language. The best that our common Brethren heritage has to offer is to call us to exactly this relationship of mutual discipleship with Jesus as our head. Consider the common Brethren symbolism on the many variations of the Alexander Mack seal. You've probably seen this: a cross with a heart at the center and a bunch of grapes with a pitcher and a towel off to the side. The Cross is at the center of our faith,  heart represents an willingness to serve God, the fruit recalls both Jesus' place as the vine and our own desire to be productive and bear fruit. The basin and towel as symbols of feetwashing remind us that sincere service to others is central to our understanding of the New Testament faith.

I don't know how you feel about your heritage as Brethren. As I explore my faith I am challenged to hold my traditions and beliefs, my culture and the ways of thinking that are most familiar to me up against the light of Scriptures. As I do so I am encouraged by the ways in which heritage we share emphasizes the picture of the Church, united in mutual Agape Love, in many ways that are consonant with Paul's vision for the Church. With that vision firmly in your eyes may you here in this place be encouraged to be the Church together.