If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 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; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
One of my favorite cities to visit is Boston. I used to go there quite often, I would stay at a downtown hostel, go to Fenway Park to see a Red Sox game, spend some time at the Kennedy museum and of course wander around Faneuil Hall. One weekend in June, after classes at AST had come to an end, I treated myself with a visit to Boston and thus made plans to worship at a local congregation. Fellow students who had been to Boston told me about a cutting edge congregation I ought to visit.
When I arrived that Sunday it was obvious why the church was held in such high esteem. Due to generous donations at the turn of the century and wise investments the church was able to spend funds on various kinds of ministry most churches would never be able to afford. The choir were all paid soloists from a local music academy, the organist had so many letters after his name they needed a whole other line in the bulletin to fit them in, and the preacher was no slouch either, she had taught homiletics are a number of seminaries before being called to this church. And in addition these two ministries (Word and Music) there was a counselling ministry, an ordained minister with a doctorate in counselling. So for those complicated pastoral issues that would be beyond the training of a typical Minister like me there was this gifted minister of care. What a staff team!
However, in 1990 a recession was just taking root and the investments were not producing the dividends the church had some to expect. And the church was dipping into the principle as revenue from the congregational givings was sliding, thus they had reached a place where the church was going to require some soul searching, what were its priorities, how would it pay its bills. After the formal service at coffee hour I could see the “factions” embodied in the room. In one corner were the music people, all expressing the belief that their ministry was indispensable to the church. In other corner was the preacher, surrounded by her “flock”, all telling her the church could not survive without her unique gifts. And in another corner were supporters of the counselling minister, telling me that without this ministry the church would be letting down its congregation, the surrounding community. How would this church navigate these challenges?
You’ve likely heard our Corinthians text before. 1 Corinthians 13 is deservedly one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament. Our theological imaginations take us to a wedding service, celebrating the physical, emotional, and spiritual bond of love. As a result, the love named in this passage is all too often reinterpreted primarily as a private, intimate affection unifying two individuals for a lifelong journey of fidelity. The original context for 1 Corinthians 13 is not Christian marriage but rather the embodied unity of the Church as the Body of Christ (see 12:12-31). Agapē love becomes more than a feeling; it is the God-given reality that both grounds and energizes the life of our faith communities, churches.
In the opening verses of the letter, Paul directly confronts factionalism in churches in general and bitter disputes which had wounded the Corinthian church in particular. Paul asks, “is Christ divided?”. The implied answer is clearly ‘no’. Christ is the foundation stone of the building which is the church (3:11-12), and the unifying head of the spiritual body (1 Corinthians 12:27). Christ does not “play favorites” with the different gifts of the Spirit, nor does he lift some and degrade others. And yet the Corinthians themselves are behaving as if the answer is ‘yes’.
Well-known theologian, author and retired Bishop N.T. Wright observes that “part of the point about the haunting and evocative suggestion of a deeper wisdom than the wisdom of the world is that, while all that depth is on offer, you Corinthians are staying at the shallow end, squabbling about different leaders when you should be aware of your own identity as—the Temple of God.” For Paul, being reconciled to God as a new creation involves nothing less than a transformation into the Body of Christ. Through the waters of baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit, believers participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus and are reconstituted as members of Christ’s Body (12:13). The Corinthians, however, routinely fail to discern the multiple bodies of Christ of which they are a part (11:29) and, as a consequence, have lost sight of the eternal connections which make their special gifts operative.
As gifts of the Holy Spirit, tongues, prophecy, wisdom and knowledge ought to equip the people of God to embody Christ’s resurrection life in the present. However, the Corinthians have been wielding these ‘gifts’ against one another, setting up a competitive and hierarchical ethos for the church. Paul maintains that the Body of Christ cannot function as a whole when racial tensions (Jew or Greek) or economic hierarchies (slave or free) or social mechanisms of honour and shame are pulling the Body apart. Paul doesn’t mince his words: “You [Corinthians] are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (12:27). In other words, all of the part of the Body are necessary and all are fashioned together for one purpose, to do the will of Christ.
And what is that will of Christ, that bonding purpose? If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:1-3) Paul would say we die to our own interest, our own agenda and rise again in resurrection to a new life as a member of the Body of Christ.
Love – divine agapē – is, for Paul, nothing less than the ultimate reality, the deepest meaning, the perfect and perfecting purpose in which human beings discover their true selves before God and with one another. Paul considers love as the leading characteristic of the ‘fruit of the spirit’ (Galatians 5:22). It ‘fulfils the law’ (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), knits together every ligament of the body (Ephesians 4:16) and binds all things together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:14). To live in love is to live in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. By the grace and mercy of God, it is through love that we become what we are (Augustine): children of God and members of one another in Christ.
Here at Bethany we have faced some of the same challenges that church in Boston faced in the early 90’s. You will recall there was a long and ongoing conversation about our building, the expense of the looming repairs and the various options that presented themselves. We were/are fortunate to have had wise leadership and many persons who volunteered to serve on special task force committees to study the issue. Along the way our Executive Board Chair David Rackham would remind us that our discerning spirit needed to be consideration, thinking not only of our own opinions but those of the rest of the church. We needed to listen to others, not just those in leadership. In short he was telling us that what knit together the Body of Christ, the various gifts of the Spirit, the people of Bethany, was love, agape love, that perfecting purpose in which human beings discover their true selves before God and with one another. There was an extensive and transparent process where all of the options were presented and explored so our people could make a wise and faith-filled decision.
In addition, when I came here there was an appetite to explore our mission as a church, which began with something called the 20/20 initiative and later evolved into the Revelations Committee. Again the process we used was transparent and participatory, a whole Saturday event at our Hall which eventually became an action plan. Over 100 people were there, each with their own spirit gifts, their own needs and their own opinions. But the process of coming together gave us access to other points of view and an appreciation of what the other brings, what the other needs. Loving our neighbor means more than affection or warm feelings, it is about understanding and appreciating what the other brings, what the other needs. And when the church prays, shares and acts together as the Bod of Christ we find our answers. The “factions” of control, when some decide for others, is not an organic spiritual body, it is a top-down hierarchy that does not trust the Spirit, nor respect the diversity that is church. Love is what binds us, love is what exposes our deeper gifts and love is what equips up to be whom God has called us to be. Thanks be to God for this apage love, a love that never ends. Amen.