Many years past, I participated in a Bible study group led by an elderly priest. At that time of my life my knowledge of the Bible was limited to “Bible Stories” like Noah and Flood, David and Goliath, and maybe the story of Ruth, but not much more. Being eager to learn, I wanted to hear the priest talk about the Bible. We were reading from Acts of the Apostles and during one of the discussions the conversation centered on chapter 13 of First Corinthians. The elderly priest, who had served most of his ministry in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico and who I thought of as wise and compassionate (a model of ordained ministry for me) suggested that we must read Chapter 12 first. If we read Chapter 12 first, we will have a better understanding of why Paul wrote the words that are now universally loved and often used in weddings. Keeping Scripture in context was something I had not thought of before. The words of Paul were on a plaque in my mother’s house, and, while I thought of the words as poetic, they did not mean much to me more than a description of the nature of love. Like so many, I had taken Chapter 13 out of context.
What I learned from the elderly priest was that Paul was not giving us a singular definition of love found only in Chapter 13, but that this was a major theme of his letters to the churches. The notable example is Romans chapters 12 and 13.
“But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
The Apostle Paul had a reason for going into this poetic description of love in this first letter to the church in Corinth; a reason often overlooked. In chapter 12, he speaks of all the gifts of the Spirit—prophecy, healing, teaching, apostolic ministries, speaking or praying in tongues. In the Corinthian church, there must have been much divisiveness over who had the superior expressions of faith. Those who could utter prophetic words, that is, speak for God, or pray in tongues, or teach, or heal all must have been claiming some level of deeper or superior faith. In verse 31 or Chapter 12 he writes, “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” What are the greater gifts and what is the more “excellent way”?
The arguments over who has more faith, or is more faithful, or indeed saved, or baptized by the Holy Spirit have not diminished over the centuries. These arguments among Christians are the way Christians continue to crucify Jesus, keep him on the cross, and fail to understand the completeness of his life, his sacrifice, and his victory over sin and death. By continuing to live like Pharisees instead of liberated children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven, Christians keep Jesus’ ministry from reaching its full potential in the life of the world. When they argue over who can be ordained, who can be married, who is faithful to the tradition and who is not true to tradition, Christians fail to seek the greater gifts and the more excellent way.
Ever since Constantine made the Church the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians wishing to employ power instead of living by faith have been exercising a loveless judgment of the world.
I can speak only of the Episcopal Church with any certainty (and even that is doubtful), but I do see in the Christian movement overall a wish for moral assuredness that leads many to loveless irrational behavior. Of course, this is not new. Ever since Constantine made the Church the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians wishing to employ power instead of living by faith have been exercising a loveless judgment of the world. The irony of Christian history is that Jesus, the least powerful and the most humble of historical characters of the ancient world becomes the basis for the exercise of power. He becomes the justification for war, the divine right of kings, the excuse for colonial expansion, the justification for slavery, and the reason for the amassing of wealth. Sometimes it’s hard to find Jesus in the words and actions of those who claim to be speaking for him.
All that is in the Christian past, but as Jesus teaches, “Let the dead bury the dead,” there is hope for a better future. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the Church’s failure to seek the greater gifts and live by the more excellent way. We can begin today to find those greater gifts and live more excellently.
If there is no love in the process, it is not of God. If there is no love in what you think about others, Jesus is not in your thoughts.
How do we do that? The answer is so simple it seems to be foolish. Here is what I think it is and I will encourage you to challenge me or to think of the answer differently. To me, the answer is, “Let love be your guide.” If there is no love in the process, it is not of God. If there is no love in what you think about others, Jesus is not in your thoughts. It is as simple as that. We all know that this probably, as simple as it sounds, is harder than anything else we do or think.
Without thinking, we spew words of contempt onto other people and feel entirely justified. Most of the time our words of hatred are ad hominid; that is merely unfounded opinion based on emotion, not fact. Too often couples argue this way. Politicians make allegations rather than seeking facts or considering the other’s emotional makeup. Sometimes when made by fellow workers or school mates these attacks damage others more incalculably than the words politicians sling at one another.
Love as wanting for others the same security and wellbeing you want for myself.
I define love as wanting for others the same security and wellbeing you want for myself. So, if I want people to treat me with respect and to honor my right to hold opinions or to live in safety, I have to reciprocate with the same respect and honor. Most of all I must hold as a matter of faith that no one is beyond redemption and all are children of God. If I hold fast to that belief, that faith, then there is the unwillingness on my part to exercise unfounded prejudice, judgment, or contempt. Granted, this is difficult. Hate, contempt, judgment is easier to exercise than love, but love is the greater gift, the more excellent way.
If we have not sought the greater gift and more excellent way of love, all we say about our faith is a clanging gong.
Finally, let us reconsider chapter 13 of First Corinthians. Chapter 13 of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is more than a definition of love. This significant contribution to the Western World’s literature is the blueprint of life itself; that is, this beautiful and poetic Scripture is a guide to healthy living, a guide to healthy human relationships, and ultimately a guide to living as a Christian.
We may say we believe in Jesus and call him Lord, but if we have not sought the greater gift and more excellent way of love, all we say about our faith is a clanging gong, an empty symbol, and a denial of Christ.