1 Corinthians 13: The love chapter

Reading: 1 Corinthians 13

I Corinthian 13 is familiar to most of us. I believe it is read at just about every wedding; and, I expect that it will be read at my wedding. We all know from this passage that love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy, love does not boast and is not proud. Love is well behaved, and unselfish. Love is not easily angered, and it does not think evil. Love does not celebrate what is bad, but in what is good and true. Love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things.

It is easy to see why this passage is read at at weddings; people need reminded what love looks like. I know that I need to be reminded of these things. I am not always as patient as I could be. Sometimes I need reminded to be kind, because it is easier to look the other way. Envy is common, boasting happens. It is all too easy to guess a person’s motives, and make rather unkind guesses instead of giving a person the benefit of the doubt. There is a tee-shirt that, while unkind, advises that we should never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance or incompetence. While that might not be, on the surface, kind — it is great advice. Very often people have good intentions, but they either don’t know what they should be doing or they cannot.

I know that this is advice that I need as a member of a couple. I know that I can avoid many problems just by believing the best, and acting according to these beliefs — and by realizing that building a family is a team effort, it is not a competition. There is no place for envy, or negative competitive attitudes — no place for a sense of self-worth that is based on being all around better than somebody. This isn’t the easiest advice, but I’m sure that any major fights I have to look forward to will largely be because I forgot one of these points.

Of course, Paul did not write this passage as marital advice. Even though all of the words are perfect advice to people who are founding a family, this is advice directed to a church community; and not only to the community, but most specifically people who are responsible for making sure that the church runs and runs smoothly. Last week, we talked about the how God gives gifts to people in the church, and how these gifts make sure the church runs. In I Corinthians 12, Paul pointed out that there are a variety of gifts, and told the people to stop arguing about who’s gifts were more important. This is the kind of argument that only people who are in positions of leadership might have. I Corinthians 14 continues to talk about gifts, and gives some specific advice on how they should be used in the context of a worship service. I Corinthians 13 lives in that context.

We don’t know very much about the first century church, our first writings that really describe what went on were from the second century. Personally, I think there were several different models of church in the first century; and I think that because of little hints I find in scripture; the church in Jerusalem, prior to significant persecution, for example seems to follow the synagogue model with a fairly large number of people.

In the 2nd century, the dominant model seems to be the house-church model, and I believe that this was the model used by the Corinthian church. Remember, Paul specifically mentioned Cloe’s people in his letter; it seems likely that he was speaking of a specific group within the Corinthian church; a specific house-church, likely meeting in this lady’s home; if Corinth followed the house church model, there would be many gatherings of people throughout the city, each no larger a group than could comfortably sit together in a person’s house.

Eventually, the house church model was developed to the point that the entire network within an entire city would have an overseer who was responsible for the network — this position still remains in the form of bishop. While there is some evidence that a large city such as Rome had more than one network, it became custom, and eventually a matter of law that there would only be one person overseeing the network… though, by the time it became a rule the Church was an accepted part of Roman society, there were lots of big church buildings, and the house-church with its customs was largely forgotten.
So, there is a situation where there are many groups, with many leaders and, judging from this letter these groups see themselves ultimately subordinate to one of 3 different people. The fact that Paul spends such a large portion of the letter, a portion that includes I Corinthians 13 suggests that these leaders were sometimes jealous of each other, and argued over who was best or most necessary. If I were to describe the context of I Corinthians 13, and apply the lesson in as few words as possible I would say: I Corinthians 13 describes the way pastors should act towards each other.

As challenging this is as family advice, it is much more so as professional advice. I’m sure everybody knows how competitive colleagues can be. Sometimes it is challenging to think well of somebody; and if we are jealous the easiest thing in the world is to tell ourselves stories about something that might have happened and then act according to that story. When we do that in our own families, there are a number of opportunities for communication and clarification. Closeness challenges any false narrative we tell ourselves. It is much easier live out love, and to conquer common relationship destroying behaviors when the relationship around us is such a large part of our world; and even when it is, a false narrative can end a marriage.

If this advice is necessary even in situations where there is a natural corrective, such as in the immediate family — imagine how much more necessary it is in situations where there is not only no natural corrective, but even an incentive to tell ourselves stories. Remember, this passage makes it clear that leaders were fighting over who was most important in the city church-network, and in their fighting they tried to appeal to different authorities beyond their local structure.

These days, it is no less an issue. As you might guess, candidating at churches can be stressful. Everybody you are competing with are colleagues, some of which you might have known since college. Sometimes this can lead to envy and jealousy — especially when somebody gets a desirable position. Unfortunately, jealous people make up stories to make themselves feel better — and now there is enough distance that the story is never challenged.

So, the lesson is; no matter how brilliant I may be — no matter how well I can unpack a passage and share it’s meaning, if I do not love all this is nothing. Not only must I love, but I must love the very people who I’m set up to compete with and this means putting aside jealousy. I need to learn to stop making stories that make me feel better, and instead to think the best of people; giving the benefit of the doubt when necessary. I am glad for this advice going into a marriage — but, I think I need it while learning to accept that what seems to be competition is really teammates working for the same goal.

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