…And the Greatest of These…

  1 Corinthians 13 A Sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

As I was listening to the Epistle passage from Corinthians I half expected to look out at the congregation and see a bride and groom, gathered families and friends, and a phalanx of groomsmen and bridesmaids. I’m taking a poll: How many of you had this passage read at your wedding? How many have heard it at another person’s wedding?

This is The Wedding Passage. Which would have been quite a surprise to Paul—I can imagine him snorting in Pauline derision. He wasn’t writing with the attitude of a kind old guy offering avuncular advice to a happy dewy-eyed young couple. It was more like, “Don’t make me come down there.”

The Paul’s “first” letter to the Corinthians was his lengthy reply to a litany of questions that the Church had sent to him in response to an earlier letter that he’d written, now apparently lost.

According to New Testament scholar Douglas A. Campbell, the Church at Corinth was, to use a technical term, a mess. It was located in a socially, economically and culturally diverse city in south central Greece, and it was that diversity combined with the success of Paul’s mission that was the core of the problem.  The conflicts that the Corinthians presented to Paul were a toxic combination of rivalry and infighting among factions, conflicts between haves and have-nots, backstabbing and gossip; sexual immorality, real and perceived; and of course there was holier-than-thou in spades. A mess, indeed.

If you’ve seen Rembrandt’s painting, Saint Paul, it depicts the Apostle perfectly for this moment: seated at a writing desk with his pen drooping unheeded at his side, and his head cradled rather sadly in his hand. It’s easy to imagine him trying to figure out what to write next; how to untie the knots of discord that threaten to strangle his young church.

His letter, especially chapters 12 and 13, which we’ve been hearing for the past couple of weeks, is a call to his flock to come into right relationship with one another and to focus on God. In chapter 12 he urges them to embrace the diversity of their spiritual gifts and not to prize one gift above another. He offers them the image of the human body, with its many members, all of value to the One Body, as they are each of value to the Body of Christ. And today, in what is arguably the high point of the letter, he describes the foundation of the Christian faith: and that is Love. Not just any love, but THE Love. The kind of love that is vulnerable, humble, sacrificial, and that was completely countercultural to the Corinthian milieu.

I can’t overemphasize how serious Paul was about this. It really is time to rehear this passage without the preconceptions of over-repetition and weddings dulling its original meaning for the community at the time.

Listen: “If I give away all of my possessions…if I hand over my body…but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Without love, nothing matters.  Nothing. Love never ends. Prophecies, tongues, all of knowledge, for heaven’s sake, will end before Love does.

There is only one thing that is eternal beyond everything. God. The Love that is grounded in God is the foundation for all of Creation, because Love is what God is.

This isn’t sentimental; this is powerful. And Paul knew that his flock couldn’t wrap their heads around it—he writes, “we see in a mirror dimly”—think of how a reflection is distorted in polished silver or brass. Paul asks his church to trust that they would ultimately be able to understand—when they knew God face to face—when they knew Love face to face—they would ultimately understand that to truly love is to participate in God’s very Self.

News Flash: The church today isn’t so different from the Corinthians. I know, it’s hard to believe, but we do have some experience with infighting, gossip, sexual immorality (and conflicts over how to define it), factionalism, elitism, and, yes, holier-than-thou-ism. Shocking, I know, but there it is.

Paul’s urgent message to the church then and now is a call to follow the One who showed the Way of compassion, healing and justice; the One who gave himself—handed over his body—out of love for a broken world. That’s a lot of love– the Love that springs forth from the Source of all that is.

It’s not that we are devoid of Love. It’s not that we have never experienced it in our lives or seen it glimmer in the face of another. But as a society and as a church we have yet to fully realize the power and magnetism of what it is to follow Jesus’ Way of Love. If we were to do this we would become a community that others would look to and say, “What is it about them that draws people in?” and “Can I be a part of that too?” And not because it is a fashionable group to join but because it’s a community that is changing the world.

As I meditated on that painting of Paul at his writing desk (you’ll find it on our website), I imagined that his list of qualities of Love was incomplete—that as verbose as Paul could be, even he could have said more. Think about it. Yes, love is patient and kind and humble and faithful. In what other ways might you describe Love for a community changing the world?

Love is courageous. Love is energetic. Love is creative. Love is trusting and trustworthy. Love leads with compassion and wisdom. Love is just. Love goes to the edges, builds bridges, and loves those whom the world finds unlovable.

Love transforms the Lover and the Beloved.

As I wrote in my epistle in the E-News this week, and as you’ll see in today’s bulletin insert, the Presiding Bishop has launched an initiative that seeks to make the Way of Love into a way of living; incorporating a series of seven spiritual disciplines into a rule of life—a spiritual framework that guides and supports us as individuals and in community. I won’t repeat what is already in front of you, and what is very well articulated on the website  (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love ), but I do encourage and invite you to participate in the Diocesan-wide kickoff of The Way of Love on February 16 at St. Mary’s Portsmouth. We’ll begin to explore what it means to Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest as part of our lives, and how we can encourage others to join the journey.

If some of these terms seem somewhat nebulous as spiritual practices, (“Go” as a spiritual practice?)that’s okay—it’s meant to pique your curiosity.This session on the 16th is intended as an opportunity for creativity, worship, fellowship, and inspiration to help us begin to build the framework of these practices in community.

This is for everyone—clergy, lay, ministry leaders and so-called church mice who cannot imagine that the Spirit could ever call them to lead or initiate anything. Who knows? Never say never; let the Spirit surprise you.

I hope you’ll join us on the 16th.

“…And now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three… “ God is calling us to abide—in the Way of Love.

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