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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 02/03/2013

“Love is patient; love is kind.”  When you hear those words and the ones that follow you probably can’t help but think “wedding,” maybe your own.  I know I haven’t done too many weddings where these verses from First Corinthians haven’t been one of the readings and there are good reasons for that.  It’s a beautiful passage describing what love ought to be and the fact that Paul didn’t appear to have marriage in mind here doesn’t really matter; they’re still beautiful words.  It’s true that sometimes familiarity breeds contempt but not so in this case.  As familiar as this text is, it still works; it does work as a wedding text, the evidence is pretty clear on that, but having it show up today, in a non-wedding context also gives us a chance to look at it from a different angle and to get at what Paul was actually writing about. 

That’s one of the challenges with Paul’s letters, trying to figure out what he’s writing about when all you get is his side of the conversation. Sometimes his side is enough, a passage more or less stands on its own, but usually it helps to have some idea of what he was responding to, some idea of what the other side of the conversation was.  In the case of First Corinthians, lack of unity on any number of issues seems to be at the center of things.  There apparently were disagreements about things ranging from dietary laws to who can marry who, sexual immorality, the role of women and the list could go on. 

It appears though, that having founded the church in Corinth Paul then moved on but as soon as he was gone competing claims began to emerge about the aforementioned things as well as others, competing claims that in many cases came down to who’s in control and who has authority.  In particular, the authority of Paul was being challenged.  But when you hear things like sexual immorality and the role of women on the list though, you realize that while the specifics may be different, we’re still working on some of the same competing claims and issues almost 2000 years later.  The more things change the more they stay the same and because of that, what Paul has to say to the people of Corinth is worth listening to; he may still be able to provide us with some guidance.

With all that in mind, with church divisions and disputes in the background you can see that these verses today are more than the romantic ode to love that we think they are.  As nice as these words sound, this might not be nice Paul; this might be irritable Paul taking a shot at these people and their behavior because…everything he says love is, they are not.  It’s not out of line with the context of First Corinthians to see these words as provocative. 

The congregation these words were addressed to wasn’t a congregation that heard this as they happily gazed in hope at a bride and groom beginning their life together, imagining this ideal of love.  Instead, these are people being called to take an honest look at themselves, to see the ways they were not being who they were called to be as followers of Christ.  This could be a repentance text, one that would fit very well in Lent, even if that’s not how we usually picture it.  It may be that when they heard it, the people would have wished Paul was there with them in person so they could get their hands on him, so they could run him out of town like the people of Nazareth wanted to do with Jesus.  That’s one possibility.

Or…maybe this is nice Paul.  The context is what it is; Paul is addressing dissention and division, competing claims to authority; that’s pretty clear.  But maybe, instead of beating them over the head with their failures, maybe Paul is inviting them to imagine the possibilities, to imagine the possibilities of what their life as a Christian community could be like.  Paul could go either way in his letters; there are times he is clearly harsh and provocative, other times that he is clearly gentle and understanding.  But then there are times like this when it’s a little harder to tell.

There are different ways to get at a divisive issue though.  Sometimes direct confrontation is called for, but there are other times, maybe more times when a non-anxious approach is more effective and I do think it’s more likely that that is what Paul was up to here because these are such beautiful and poetic words.  Like I said, there are good reasons that this is such a common wedding text.  When you read these verses, especially out loud, they’re very moving.  Besides the words themselves there is a rhythm and cadence to them that kind of draws you in and adds to the overall impression they leave.

I do think that this is nice Paul, non-anxious Paul creating an image for the Corinthian church.  He’s inviting them to imagine what kind of community they could be with this kind of love at the center.  He offers them an alternative to the divisions and dissention that threaten their community.  It’s a more indirect approach, a more positive and hopeful approach and yet it still has the effect of making them see the ways that they are not meeting this ideal which I do think is part of Paul’s intent.  It’s an approach that doesn’t come at them with accusations, it’s more subtle than that, but it still causes them to see themselves more clearly and honestly pointing them in the direction of repentance.

Note too that to address these issues Paul doesn’t offer them a program, he doesn’t give them a project to complete, he really doesn’t give them any concrete advice at all even though sometimes he’s not at all shy about doing that.  Instead he creates this vision and leaves it to them to fill in the blanks; but before they could do it, they had to imagine it.  This kind of approach puts Paul very much in line with Jesus and many of the Old Testament prophets in how they often approached things 

So did Paul’s approach work?  With Paul’s letters we usually don’t know for sure what happened next but you get the idea that his approach here would have had the desired effect, that there would have been some repentance in the community regarding envy, arrogance, rudeness and so forth; people would have looked at themselves and somehow they would have begun to work toward the vision that Paul created.

But would it have lasted?  Would dissention and division in the Corinthian church completely disappear?  If church history is any indication, the answer pretty clearly is no.  Divisions and dissention and competing claims to authority have been a pretty steady feature in church history.  Some of the issues are old, dating back to Corinth; some are new but there are always issues that create controversy; which is why we return to Paul’s words, because the kind of vision he creates is still the answer.

Love is the focus of these verses but another part of the back-story of this text is Christ himself; Paul’s focus is never too far from Christ.  When he addresses the divisions in the church in the earlier parts of this letter one of the things he hammers away at is that while there are divisions, their unity lies in Christ Jesus and that is far more important than the divisions.  Within any group of people, church or otherwise, there are going to be differences but Paul’s point is to focus on what they have in common and what the people of Corinth had in common was faith in Jesus and from that Paul gets to this description of the kind of love that was proclaimed and lived by Jesus.  So for Paul, faith in Jesus is reflected in this kind of love; “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.”

My guess is that for all of us, just those couple of verses convicts us, but that’s why we keep coming back to the image.  It sets up an impossibly high ideal but it reminds us of who we are called to be and it also reminds of how we are loved.  For Jesus this isn’t an impossible ideal; he does it and we love in response to his love for us. 

As human beings, there will always be issues that divide us.  That’s no different today than it was in Paul’s time.  This image of love though, brings us back to Christ Jesus our Lord.  Despite whatever disagreements we may have, we are held in his love, unified by his love, and that’s where we all want to be.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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