When we talk about God, and about following Jesus, there are two extremes. Theology always operates around two poles.
One pole is the formal, or systematic expression of our faith. It is the carefully worked out theological system, that looks at everything we know about what Jesus said, and what the tradition has discerned about God. It is important to keep the tradition coherent.
The other pole is the situation ‘on the ground’ where we are. How much sense does the lofty theology from the theological school make when we are literally sitting in a creek around a cooking fire? The reality of the local situation must always be honoured, or else the theology is empty, and even abusive.
The local and the formal work in an ongoing spiral of dialogue, informing and correcting each other. When we speak theology we must always pay attention to both. To do otherwise will reduce us to empty, perhaps abusive, words at one extreme, or idiosyncratic nonsense, at the other.
Today’s link is a sermon from a colleague; Reverend Janet Weiblen. Janet shows us the two poled approach, keeping the tension which brings life and power to the sermon. Read and enjoy... and thanks to Janet. Her text is 1 Corinthians 13.
Do you know the lyrics to the Beatles song, “All you need is love?” For whatever reason, that song swirled around my mind as I contemplated these words from Paul. I knew the chorus, but I didn’t know the rest of the words—I was never much of a fan of the Beatles. So I Googled it, and when I found the words, I was disappointed. To me, they made little sense, and that made me wonder about Paul’s words: did they make sense to those to whom they were written, the people in the Corinthian church?
Christians have elevated these words of Paul to one of the best known passages in the Bible; these words are read at weddings, perhaps to remind the couple—if they don’t already know—what REAL, PERFECT love is all about.
But what was Paul’s original intent when he wrote these words? Paul was writing to a group of people who were a contentious, carping bunch among themselves (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (includes 1 Corinthians) p.780.)and he was hoping to restore them to unity. One manifestation of their disunity had to do with spiritual gifts; some thought PARTICULAR gifts were better than others and they bragged about it: I have A gift. Well, I think MY gift is better than yours; Who says? I think MY gift is better than yours. The people in the Corinthian church were practicing one-upsmanship and exclusion in various ways and Paul was trying to convince them that there were better ways to create community. He tried various ways to convince these folks to alter their behavior and may have finally decided to fall back on the one “can’t fail” method: tell them about LOVE.
Paul certainly waxed eloquent with these words but he created an unrealistic picture. To say that love should be present in our lives and actions is something we probably know. If I have love in my heart, I probably won’t try to convince you that MY gift is better than yours. Instead, I’ll simply accept the fact that we have different gifts and leave it at that—though deep down I still might feel that YOUR gift isn’t quite as shiny or noticeable as mine! ;-)
I don’t mean to trivialize what Paul was trying to say but there are times when any of us can become myopic. We’re so totally convinced of something that we can’t possibly imagine how anyone can see it any other way. Here’s what one commentator has to say about Paul’s chapter on Love: “For Paul, the Christian faith was lived in community. The individual was never simply and singly related to God. If “faith” was Paul’s code word for right relation to God, then “love” was Paul’s code word for right relations to others. Love, the proper caring for another, was the necessary expression of faith, the proper relating to God, because faith expresses itself in love. Caring for other believers, building them up, encouraging them, consoling and even warning them, are not options for believers; they are a requirement of faith. (Yet)…some of the believers (in Corinth) seemed to have focused their attention on themselves and on God and ignored, neglected, or disregarded others; and Paul simply could not abide it.” (Ibid. p 786 (paraphrased)) I think this commentator captured Paul’s intent very well. In using the terms “Necessary; proper; not options; requirement,” he conveys the understanding that Paul’s words weren’t mere “suggestions” but were ABSOLUTES. And I think he’s right; Paul’s thoughts on Love don’t allow any “wiggle room.”
The problem is that many of the Corinthians weren’t in the same place as Paul. Paul had been trained as a Pharisee; faith was in his blood. The love of God and neighbor weren’t options for Paul; they were essentials without which nothing else mattered.
Paul believed that with unquestionable conviction and wanted to convince others that it was the only way. But those to whom he preached weren’t primarily Jews but gentiles, pagans, people who had embraced a variety of gods. To say they were at a different place than Paul is to state the obvious: Paul lived and breathed faith; THEY were simply beginning. And most of us probably know that when we begin to embrace a new learning or a new religion or a new system of any kind, our initial steps are tenuous. We’re struggling, trying to make adjustments, standing with one foot firmly in an old way of doing things while trying to establish our footing in new territory. If you’ve been through that, you KNOW the difficulty. I surely do but I’m not sure Paul understood that. HE may have had a flash of insight—that epiphany on the road to Damascus—but others were still looking to find a consistent ray of light that THEY could follow.
It’s never easy to separate ourselves from the culture in which we live. No matter what, it has a tremendous impact on how we think and what we experience. The “norm” of Corinthian culture—and much of the culture of the Roman Empire—was hierarchical: people were above you and people were below you. Whether that vertical alignment is right or wrong relative to our own perspective is NOT the question: it simply is the way that Corinthian culture functioned. So when people within that culture made the decision to join Paul’s new faith community, shedding that culture wasn’t as easy as shedding clothes. It was embedded in their psyche. Whether they could ever shed it or transcend it remained an unknown.
But to Paul, casting that off was an absolute: “status seeking” may have been the norm for the culture, but to Paul, it was counter-cultural to the gospel.
Paul says that when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end…(that) when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. The “complete” picture may have come to Paul, allowing him to operate out of that wholeness, but we’re not all like Paul—and neither were those in the Corinthian church. Like it or not, we’re all different people. We all have different personalities and different experiences that not only shape and mold us into the people we are, but have an enormous impact on how we define love and demonstrate love.
Last week, after church, I had the opportunity to tour the Weston Silk Museum. As I reflected on this text the next day, that experience was fresh in my mind and I realized that life is like a tapestry: the vertical threads are our innate qualities—call them our personality. The horizontal threads are our life experiences. And as we know, the interweaving of these various components can create a harmonious pattern or one of almost sheer chaos. Somewhere along the way, we might attempt to change some of the threads or even change the pattern or the colors, but whether the end result is more pleasing remains to be seen. There is only one indisputable fact: our personal threads, woven together, create very different tapestries.
Which makes me realize why these words of Paul about love are so troubling. I’m troubled by them because they’re too idealistic, too “one size fits all,” and too prone to create guilt. It’s doubtful I can love the way Paul tells me to love; I’m not even sure if I WANT to love his way because loving TOO WELL or TOO MUCH can create as many problems as not loving well enough. I’ve arrived at the stage in my life where I can admit that some people simply clash with me—or I with them. It’s not that I wish them harm or think they’re bad people, it’s just that the way in which they’re woven and the way in which I’m woven just don’t create harmonious tapestries. We don’t go together well, even though we might both be beautiful. Being in the same space or in close proximity to each other creates a disharmony that isn’t good for either one of us. If I interpret Paul correctly, that recognition would be a FAILURE on my part; I wouldn’t be loving enough.
Paul wanted desperately to convince the Corinthians that IF ONLY they centered on Love, their disagreements would disappear. His attempt to convince them was admirable, but I think it was naïve. Maybe I’m just a skeptic, but he didn’t convince ME—and if you’re familiar with his final letter to the Corinthian church, he apparently didn’t convince them either.
Maybe Paul simply overstated his case. He says: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I hear those words and want to shout: No, No, No, No. A love that bears and endures ALL things can accept abuse and label it love. A man beats his wife; a woman beats her child; do we really think that woman or child should bear and endure abuse for the sake of love? Absolutely not. Using the same example, if I’m one of the people experiencing the beatings, am I supposed to BELIEVE you love me, that somehow you even know what LOVE is? Am I supposed to HOPE beyond hope that things will get better?
Someone in my lectionary study group pointed out that the New International Version interprets those words differently. In that version the words read: Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t think that translation makes the statement any less problematic; we read every day about parents who don’t protect their children—even though they SAY they love them. And while I’d like to trust everyone I meet, I know better.
I don’t believe Paul meant to imply anything bad by these words—no matter HOW we interpret them. Yet whether intended or not, the possibility that love could ever be construed to mean that the afflicted and violated should bear all things is anything but loving.
Love needs to flow from within us, almost as naturally as our breath flows from within us. But how do we learn that love? How does it become as natural as our breath? We need to have it modelled, not for an hour, not for a day, but long enough so that we feel that love planted within our lives. Listen to these words from another song:
For all those times you stood by me
For all the truth that you made me see
For all the joy you brought to my life
For all the wrong that you made right
For every dream you made come true
For all the love I found in you …
You gave me wings and made me fly
You touched my hand I could touch the sky
I lost my faith, you gave it back to me
You said no star was out of reach
You stood by me and I stood tall
I had your love I had it all…
You were always there for me
The tender wind that carried me
A light in the dark shining your love into my life
You've been my inspiration
Through the lies you were the truth
My world is a better place because of you
(Excerpts from Celine Dion’s song: “Because you Loved me.”
Could anyone NOT respond to that kind of modelling? With that kind of tending, how could love not grow? But sadly, there are people for whom love has NEVER been modelled, who have never had the seed of love planted within them. In my almost 20 years of volunteering in prisons, I know that. And it’s very, very difficult to tend something when the seed may never have been planted.
I can TELL the men with whom I interact that Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I can tell them that. They might even think it sounds good, but if I impose those standards on them, I will doom them to failure.
Maybe Paul hoped that when he shared his words with the Corinthian church, they would rise to the occasion and reach those goals. But the words were too lofty; they didn’t foster encouragement so much as discouragement. Goals can simply be set too high. I can’t love like that; I’m too full of human frailty.
But there is one thing I know that helps me to love better and keeps me trying to do better: GOD loves just like Paul described. What grace! Amen.
© Janet Weiblen
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