Uniform Lesson for October 25, 2020
Scripture passage and lesson focus: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
It’s one thing to read 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding, as the couple beams, the congregation sighs and the officiant waxes poetic. It’s quite another to read 1 Corinthians 13 after four weeks in the Joseph stories, one week in a battle for succession to the throne and two weeks with teachings and parables regarding loving our enemies. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” according to Paul. Might such love require us to forgive our tormentors (Joseph), ally ourselves over against our own fathers (Jonathan) or offer our second cheek after our enemy has struck us on our first (Jesus, in Luke 6)? Maybe we should swap out Pachelbel’s Canon and play “The Old Rugged Cross” instead!
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 — A battle for the throne
Truth be told, the context for 1 Corinthians 13 is not so different from the succession narratives of 1 Samuel. A battle for power is underway in the Corinthian congregation that has to do with competing leadership, a hierarchy of gifts and a clouded picture of God’s blessing continuing into the future. Paul inserts this “Hymn to Love” in the midst of a sustained argument regarding the necessity of reconciliation — across all lines of power, privilege or purity of belief. Paul needs a Joseph who might test the true motives of various factions in order to lead toward repentance and reunion in the end. Paul needs a Jonathan who might reach out to someone on the other side of the fight because that person values covenant loyalty more than life itself. Paul needs a Samaritan who refuses to pass by on the other side of this fight in order to bind up and heal the wounds within this congregation, even at great risk to one’s own personal safety and welfare. This is the kind of love 1 Corinthians 13 both celebrates and requires.
So, we must begin our conversations on this passage by shifting from a couple getting married to a community in conflict. We must shift our applications of this passage from a covenant of marriage to a covenant of loyalty within a congregation blessed, but broken, by a diversity of backgrounds and gifts. We must expand the transformation required in this passage from forgiveness and patience between a couple toward love that might heal the breaches caused by principalities and powers, including such systemic problems as racism, classism and the desire for denominational purity. I’m wondering how the phrases of this poem might shift (“love is patient, love is kind”), if we heard them more as a shout of protest and less as a prelude to the reception to follow.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 — A hierarchy of gifts
If readers of Paul pay attention, he argues for the priority of other gifts in the context of other congregations. For instance, when Paul addresses the congregation at Thessalonica, a congregation afflicted with persecution, he lists the gifts as faith, love and hope (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Might he here have added: And the greatest of these is hope? Maybe, maybe not. But the point is this: In a congregation battling over leaders, making their communal meal a source of division rather than unity and boasting over gifts of knowledge and prophecy at the expense of their covenant loyalty to one another, Paul doubles down on love. Without this particular gift in this particular context, prophecy and knowledge are not only “nothing,” they are worse than nothing. Why? Because they lead to division, rancor and dissolution of the covenant bonds Jesus died and rose to secure.
1 Corinthians 13:8-13 — Love as a gift
So, just as we’ve linked our other lessons on inclusive love with God’s action in Jesus Christ, we must do so here. However we flesh out some of the details of this lesson, we cannot do so in such a way that it tames or domesticates what God has done for the church and the world in Jesus Christ. “Love never ends” because this love has been secured by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose reign of love and justice and true peace shall never end. This is a reign we now see only “in a mirror, dimly,” but will one day welcome in its fullness. Here warring families will be reconciled (Joseph), slain “brothers” resurrected (Jonathan) and the wounds in the body of Christ bandaged, soothed in oil and wine, by this stranger who failed to pass us by (Luke 10:34). Not only can such love sustain a marriage, it might recreate the cosmos!
For discussion: How does reading 1 Corinthians 13 in sequence with our lessons change its tune?
RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.
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