I Corinthians 13
I Corinthians 13:1-13: Paul has been telling the Corinthian Christians that they need each other, that they need the variety of gifts of God’s Spirit if they are to be a whole community. But God’s Spirit does more than enhance gifts, it forms lives, it shapes character, and the foremost expression of the shaping/forming work of the Spirit in people’s lives is love. Here Paul offers a beautiful meditation on love as the work of God’s Spirit in human lives. To live in love is the most excellent way. Love is not a “gift of the Spirit” but a fruit of the Spirit that guides how all the Spirit’s gifts are to be used.
This famous passage is not an independent poem idealizing love. It is not a poem at all, but lyrical prose. And it does not understand love as a general ideal, but as the concrete expression of the Christian life in the midst of the conflicts of a first-century church that was fascinated with “spirituality” and “spiritual gifts.” (People's New Testament Commentary) Though read at weddings, and appropriately so, this passage is not a wedding meditation, but describes how Christians are to live together in community.
The passage begins by arguing that without love all the kinds of manifestations of the Spirit and of the Christian life that have so enthralled the Corinthian Christians are all a lot of hot air, handfuls of nothing. Paul is not saying that the Corinthians should not pray “in tongues,” or speak God’s word, or seek spiritual knowledge, or grow their faith, or give generously. He is saying that unless these come from love and increase love, they contribute little to one’s life and to the Christian community.
Paul goes on to describe the kind of love he refers to, using fifteen adjectives – seven positive and eight negative. All fifteen verbs are “action” verbs and could be translated somewhat differently, like this: “love acts with patience and love does deeds of kindness.” One of my favorite translations of verse 7b is “Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful and trusting” (Contemporary English Version). This love lasts, it is of eternal significance and worth. “Love never dies” (The Message).
Paul asserts that all the spectacular spiritual gifts with which the Corinthians superspiritual Christians are enamored will eventually pass away, but love will remain, along with faith and hope. But among these enduring values, the greatest is love.
In the Buddhist Scriptures there is a relatively brief, and beautifully written, meditation on lovingkindness (metta in Sanskrit). The Metta Sutta proclaims a hope: “May all beings be happy. May they live in safety and joy.” It also invites a commitment. “As a mother watches over he child, willing to risk her own life to protect her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, suffusing the whole world with unobstructed loving-kindness.” Those in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, both monks and non-monks, recite the Metta Sutta regularly. Other Buddhists do as well. Perhaps like the Buddhists, we would do well to read and recite this passage from our Scriptures (I Corinthians 13), seeking to cultivate a deeper love in our hearts and in our actions. Paul’s deepest hope was that Christian community would be a community of love.
I Corinthians 14
I Corinthians 14:1-25: Paul now returns explicitly to a discussion of spiritual gifts. His short discourse on love was not meant to denigrate the spiritual gifts. “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts.” Paul is particularly concerned that the gift of prophecy be cultivated, as it benefits the entire community. Some translations render prophecy “preaching” or “proclaiming truth.” I don’t think we should limit our understanding of what this word means by our contemporary notion of “preaching” – which has become an activity reserved primarily for clergy. I would think Paul’s understanding of prophecy would include sharing one’s insights into faith and life in a variety of ways. Such speech, as opposed to “tongues,” which is a kind of ecstatic religious speech used in worship and prayer, prophecy upbuilds, encourages, and consoles. Paul’s consistent concern throughout this letter has been to encourage the Corinthian Christians to engage in practices and behaviors, and to cultivate attitudes that build up the community. Ecstatic speech in prayer is great, but it builds up only one’s own faith. It is like playing unknown notes on an instrument. Paul prefers that notes be played so that others might understand them. There are all kinds of sounds in the world, but we should seek to make sounds that others can understand. Again, while the specific issue here may not be one contemporary Christians relate to, the overall principle remains vitally important – do things that contribute to building up the community of faith. Excel in spiritual gifts “for building up the church.”
Paul is quick to note that he speaks in tongues “more than all of you.” It is not that he lacks this spiritual gift. Rather his primary concern is building up the church community. To focus too much on one’s own spirituality, without concern for the spiritual growth of the community is to be children in thinking, not adults. One must be adult and have a thoughtful faith, and a thoughtful faith thinks about the community and not just about one’s own spiritual growth and development. Again, Paul wishes for all to develop spiritually, but it is precisely when we think beyond ourselves that we are growing in our faith. One group of people about whom the community is to be concerned are those outside of it. They are helped by hearing intelligent speech, and may, when hearing such speech, come to believe that “God is really among you.”
In our day and time, does our insider church talk become something like speaking in tongues so that it is difficult for those on the outside to ever come to the conclusion that “God is really among you.” What can we do to bring people to that place where they might say God is among us?
I Corinthians 14:26-40: When the Corinthians gather together for worship, Paul asks that “all things be done for building up.” He goes on to cite some specific examples of what he thinks will help build up. God is not a God of disorder, but of peace. In context this makes sense, but it can be used inappropriately. God is sometimes the God of creative chaos, too.
Many scholars consider verses 34-36 a later addition to the text. A significant number of manuscripts put these verses at the end of the chapter suggesting that they are a later addition. One problem is that these verses conflict with verses in chapter 11 where women clearly have a role in worship leadership. They seem inconsistent with other writings of Paul. Nevertheless, they are a part of the Scripture and need to be considered in the context of the letter and of the Scriptures as a whole. When put into the context of the letter, we can again say that we simply don’t know the particular issues being addressed, and should not let these two verses dictate the pattern of the church in all places and times, especially when they are contradicted by other passages which give women stronger roles in leadership. The church cannot be unmindful of the wider culture, yet it always walks a fine line between presenting itself in culturally relevant ways while not giving in to parts of the surrounding culture that mitigate its message. In our day and time there seems no good reason for limiting the role of women in Christian leadership, including ordained leadership.
Paul goes on to claim that his writings should be seen as having an authority to them. The chapter ends with yet another admonition. “But all things should be done decently and in good order.” For Paul, part of that good order is following the patterns he provides as an apostle. The Message renders the last line like this: “Be courteous and considerate in everything.” Another good word for us, even if the original context seems light years removed from our lives.