THE EXCELLENT WAY: I
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 14, 2016; Non-lectionary sermon
Psalm 36; 1 Corinthians 12:27-31

“But strive for the greater gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
1 Corinthians 12:31

It was a very young church. A small and struggling congregation. Not like ours: it had no historic building, no long traditions, no multi-generational families, all with their stories to tell. Their organizing pastor had done remarkable work – he’d created a vibrant Christian community out of nothing — but then he up and left them! He went away on an extended trip — to start more churches in other places, he said — leaving them to find their own way.

He kept in touch, though. They had no high-tech communication back then, so he wrote letters, and received them. What he began to read in some of those letters concerned him greatly.

Conflict had reared its ugly head. Factions had arisen, each one headed by a charismatic leader who claimed to know the pastor’s vision for the church, and to speak on his behalf.

And so the pastor wrote them back a long letter, whose chief purpose was to offer them advice for getting along with one another until his return.

That letter — in case you haven’t guessed it by now — is part of our Bible today. It’s Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.

*****

At the heart of this letter is an extended passage — a whole chapter in length — that just may be the most beloved passage in all the New Testament. For sure, it’s the most popular choice among people getting married.

And no wonder. Just listen — once again — to its lyrical meditation on love:
“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.”

Don’t we all wish that to be true? “Love never ends.” The bride and groom waiting to exchange their vows want it to be true. The parents dropping their kids off at college dearly desire it to be true. The person who’s just buried a parent, a spouse, or — God forbid — a child deeply yearns for it to be true.

This love we know in life, and prize so deeply, appears to be so fragile, so transitory. As fragile as human life itself. When the beloved goes away — either to live in a distant place or to cross over that mysterious boundary into the next world — there is a fear that the flame of that love will be extinguished. Like a candle-flame blown out by a chill wind.

But no. Paul promises love never ends. Along with faith and hope, it is one of those things that abide. And of these three abiding realities, the greatest of these is love.

*****

Those who do number 1 Corinthians 13 among their all-time favorite Bible readings may do so because of the way these verses speak to their intimate relationships. But — and here’s a most remarkable thing — Paul didn’t write those words with marriage, or parenthood, or the deepest sort of friendships in mind. He wrote them in response to a food fight.

I’m not kidding. Now it wasn’t the sort of food fight started off by John Belushi in the movie Animal House. It was a disagreement among Christian people over the role food choices play in the religious life.

Remember, about half the members of the Corinthian church — like most of Pau’s churches — had until recently been observant Jews, or Gentiles who sympathized with the Jewish faith. Some of them still considered themselves to be Jews, understanding Christianity to be but another variety of Judaism. The other half had come out of pagan society — worshiping Greek or Roman gods — or from the trendy new “mystery religions” that were highly popular in Greek society.

The Jews, as you probably know, practiced dietary laws: abstaining from pork and certain types of seafood forbidden by the law of Moses. Most of the Gentiles were under no such compunction: although some of the Greek mystery-religion people practiced vegetarianism for religious reasons. It was a very complex and convoluted conflict, with many different factions involved.

There’s no way Paul could adjudicate this conflict from afar. But he knew it was tearing up his church, so he was determined to do something, to offer the Corinthians some sort of guidance.

*****

What he gives them is a remarkable letter: and at its very core is this beautiful chapter of poetic prose some call his “hymn to love.”

I’m planning to spend the next couple months or so — however long it takes — walking with you through this thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. I intend to do it one verse at a time — or even less than a verse, if it comes to that.

This chapter is so very important to the Christian life. It merits that sort of intense focus. But there’s another reason why spending such a long time on one chapter of the Bible is worth our while. The lovely, poetic words of 1 Corinthians 13 have become so very familiar that, without in-depth study, they’ve lost their ability to surprise or confront. They’re like a dusty old painting hanging on the wall that happens to be a masterpiece — but that we’ve come to regard, after years of looking at it every day, as just part of the decor. To a great many Christians, this chapter has become just another love ballad, a theological pop-song.

Its message? Three words: “Ain’t love grand?”

Well, love is grand, but 1 Corinthians 13 has a great deal more to teach us than that And this is what I propose we spend our time on, for the rest of this summer and the early part of the fall.

*****

To truly get into it, though, we do have to take a look at the background: which is why our scripture reading this morning is the last part of chapter 12.

I’ve told you already about the larger context of the Corinthian church, and the disagreement over what sort of food Christians ought to eat. Some said any food was acceptable. Others said you could eat anything that complied with Jewish dietary laws. Still others restricted themselves to fruits and vegetables. Complicating this complex, multi-party battle was the fact that the place to buy meat in first-century Corinth was the pagan temples, dedicated to the Greek and Roman gods. Burnt sacrifice was a big part of their worship ritual, and all that barbecued meat had to be eaten by someone, so the pagan priests would sell it off. Essentially, they held a monopoly on meat sales.

That meant that, if Christians who were meat-eaters wanted to buy some meat, they had to give their money to the pagan priests or their agents. Their fellow Christians who didn’t eat meat would see them doing this, and would complain that they were hanging around the pagan temples and giving them financial offerings. The whole situation was a right fine mess!

It so happens that Paul — writing his letter from afar — is savvy enough not to give his blessing to one side or the other. It’s a no-win situation, because even if he endorses one party, that one will likely rise up and try to obliterate the others. His goal is to build the whole church up and encourage everyone to get along: so, he can’t have that happen.

So, Paul spends not much time at all addressing the legalistic issues. He focuses, instead, on the spiritual root of the conflict: which is not a shortage of standing rib roast, but a lack of love among the Corinthian believers.

One of the ways the Corinthians have been fighting with one another has been by forming factions, with a charismatic leader at the head of each one. Paul goes after those factions at the very beginning of the letter. He tells them in chapter 1:

“…it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:11-13)

There seem to be at least three factions, here — possibly four. One is led by people who claim to represent Paul himself. Another is led by a man named Apollos — that’s a Greek name, so it just may be the eat-anything-you-want-from-the-pagan-temples faction. Another gives allegiance to “Cephas” — which is the Greek name for “Peter.” So, maybe that’s the Jewish-minded faction that wants to keep the dietary laws. Still another doesn’t adopt the name of any other leader, but simply says, “We belong to Christ.”

Now, the only authority Paul established in the Corinthian church grew out of “gifts of the Spirit.” And you can see here, in that passage from the end of chapter 12 that was our reading for today, that there’s a certain hierarchy of these gifts. Paul lists them in order of priority:

“God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.”

Paul himself is an apostle — as is Cephas (or Peter) — so, their authority is unquestioned. After that comes prophets, then other teachers. There are those who can work miracles — deeds of power, gifts of healing. After them are those who assist others — maybe something like the office of deacon, we can’t be sure. Then there are other forms of leadership, and finally those who have the ecstatic and mystifying gift of speaking in tongues.

But Paul wants to make it clear that no one has every spiritual gift. They’re dispersed throughout the community. We all need each other, he’s saying. We all need each other’s gifts. A few verses earlier, Paul’s written at great length about the church as the body of Christ, how the eye can’t accomplish anything without the hand, and how the body can’t get anywhere worth going without the feet. So now, when he exclaims, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” and so on, he’s applying his earlier teaching about each part of the body needing the others.

And now, he comes to the verse that is the jumping-off point for chapter 13, the very reason for launching into that rhapsodic hymn to love: “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”

Yes, the gifts of the Spirit have a natural priority order, and everyone should strive for the higher gifts — but that, in the end, won’t get the Corinthians out of their swamp their pride and contentiousness have sunk them in. They need “a more excellent way.” And Paul proposes to lead them to it.

The Corinthians turned to Paul to arbitrate their dispute. It was a naked appeal to authority. Each faction was sure the apostle would come down on their side. But Paul refuses to get sucked into their power games. He refuses to take sides. He says something like this: “I could solve your problem for you. I could choose one faction over the other. But I will not. Instead, I will teach you how to discover, nurture and exercise the highest gift of all, the gift that trumps even my own apostolic authority! If you discover, cultivate and truly exercise that gift, you will instantly solve your dispute.”

The gift is love.

Who is it who speaks with the greatest authority in a healthy church? Not the pastor. Not the Session. Not anyone, except for the person who is most gifted at loving others. They call forth a natural respect. No one can undermine the authority of such a one — in a true and healthy church. The work of healing conflict can only be accomplished by tirelessly demonstrating and promulgating the gift of love.

It works in other human relationships as well. In healthy communities, in healthy institutions, in healthy marriages, love wins. Love always wins, if we give it the highest priority.

What is it that makes for healthy communities? The presence of Christ in their midst: because if Christ dwells there, and no impediment of human pride is raised up, the love of Christ is set free. And that’s a wonderful thing.

So, that’s where we’re headed in this sermon series. We’ll be looking at what it means to truly set love free: in our lives, in the church, in the world.

We’ll start out, in the next three sermons, by looking at what love is not. It’s not words. It’s not wisdom or knowledge or even faith. Nor is it even self-sacrifice (although there are times when that’s what love demands). All these are part of the picture, but — standing alone — they’re not what we’re looking for.

Looking at each of these, and ruling them out, are the first steps along the excellent way. Won’t you join me in this journey?

Let us pray:

Go with us, Lord God, as we embark together on this journey of discovery.
Truly, it is the love of your son, Jesus Christ, that has called us here.
It is the love of Christ we desire to take into ourselves
and make it our own,
so Christ’s love lives within us.
Show us, by the power of your Spirit,
this excellent way,
this difficult yet rewarding path
that leads straight into your heart.
In the name of Jesus we ask it. Amen.

 

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.