If you have been to a wedding recently, more likely than not you heard 1 Corinthians 13 read. It is chosen by the couple in about three-quarters of weddings. And it is a wonderful hymn of praise of love. Couples see it as both inspirational and aspirational – what they want their love and their relationship to be.
But Paul isn’t talking about marriage, or about the love between husband and wife, or even about families. He wasn’t writing some abstract musings about love, because he had a good idea that he thought would be valuable to others. Paul is talking about the church, and addressing a specific situation.
The congregation at Corinth could be described as the very first dysfunctional church. And it was very dysfunctional. Paul got word of this, from letters from the leaders of the congregation, from gossip on the missionary grapevine, and wrote a long letter back to set them straight.
What were the problems? They were legion. There were some deep factions in the church. Some members proclaimed their allegiance to Paul, some to Apollos, some to Cephas. They all looked to the leader or spiritual father of their group, rather than to Christ, and argued about which group was right. They were spiritually immature: since their conversion to Christianity, they hadn’t changed their behaviour one bit, and disputes arose among them as to which foods were proper to eat, and about sexual mores (Nothing has changed in 2000 years). They were suing one another in court, rather than working out their differences like brothers. They were refusing to share. They came together for a common meal before worship. Each person brought his or her own food, and they didn’t share. So the rich would bring a full feast for themselves, and the poor would have their little bowl of rice. When someone suggested that wasn’t right, the rich began coming early, so that they had eaten everything before the poor arrived. They boasted about status: who was more important, and whose role in the church was foremost. They even jockeyed for positions in worship. Since they didn’t yet have the Book of Common Prayer, worship was a bit more free-form than we are used to, and people would jump up as the Spirit moved them to offer a prayer, a reading or commentary, or to speak in tongues. What resulted was probably similar to what Thomas Merton describes of his experience of Quaker worship when he was seeking a spiritual home: a woman felt moved by the Spirit to talk about her recent trip to Italy and to share the pictures with her captive audience.
So Paul writes to the Corinthians to try to get them back on track as a healthy Christian community. Last week, in chapter 12, he talked about the church as the body of Christ. Just as, in the human body, each member or part of the body has a specific function, and the body does not function as intended unless all the individual members are functioning well and together, the church, the body of Christ, does not function well unless all the individual members, with their different gifts and roles, use their abilities for the common good. Paul catalogues the various gifts of the Spirit: teaching, leadership, healing, prophesying, speaking in tongues, deeds of power, interpreting. But, Paul says, there is a gift greater than any of these, and everyone should strive toward it.
That gift is LOVE. Love is patient, kind, not boastful or arrogant or rude; it rejoices in the truth; it hopes and believes and endures.
The lack of love is the source of all the divisions, the boasting, the fighting, the uncharitableness. It’s not just a matter of recognizing the gifts that others have, because, without love, all those gifts are worthless.
The touchstone is not whether we preach well, whether we are skilled teachers, whether we have a very visible leadership role or toil quietly in the background, but whether we fulfill our roles with love toward one another. If we have love toward one another, if we are patient, if we are kind, if we are not boastful or arrogant or rude, if we forgive and hope, then the church will function as a healthy body.
Throughout history, there have been dysfunctional churches, because we have failed to heed Paul’s advice, or have relegated it to weddings.
May we seek the greatest gift of the Spirit – love – and be a body built on love, in all our doings as a community.