This sermon was delivered by Larry Greenfield, executive minister of American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, at Federated Church of Wauconda, Ill., on January 31, 2010.
I Corinthians 13
Good morning, Federated Church. Grace to you and peace from God our Sacred Parent and from the Sovereign of our life, Jesus the Christ.
I’ve been introduced to you this morning as Larry Greenfield, the Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, but that was just a cover so I didn’t draw too much attention to myself. As you can see, I’ve even worn the clothes that Rev. Greenfield usually wears and had a mask made that looks a lot like him – including that shiny bald head of his. Pretty good likeness, huh?
But actually I’m your old – maybe “ancient” would be a better word – your ancient brother in Christ, Paul…Paul from Tarsus…you know, the one who, before that trip to Damascus, was called Saul and who. at that time, persecuted you Christians, but who got knocked off my donkey and onto my keister so I could come to know Jesus and become his apostle to most of your kind – that is, to you Gentiles.
Don’t worry about Greenfield. He’s all right. Taking a little time off by himself before presiding at your congregation’s Annual Meeting. He’s ok with this little shtick of my subbing for him this morning; after all, he recognizes that I’ve got seniority over him, even if he is getting up there in years himself.
So, you ask, why did I want to be together with you this morning and preach this really brief sermon?
Well, it’s because I saw that your scripture for the morning – the Epistle lesson from the Lectionary for this Sunday in Epiphany – is one of my own writings and one that’s become a favorite – what I think you folks these days call a “standard” – in the church all over the world. You know, I’m pleased that so many people like it; but the truth of the matter is that I’m frustrated a lot of the time when it is read and when it is preached on, because it is so often misinterpreted. So I decided that, finally, I’d take a stab at trying to make clear what I really meant back then – I think it was in the year 53 when I wrote that letter to the Corinthians – although I suspect it won’t do much good, and that people and preachers will continue to interpret this passage differently than what I intended. I can’t help that.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that everybody reads this passage from I Corinthians out of context – that either they do that because they don’t pay any attention at all to the context, and see it as just some nice piece of writing about a touching subject (love) that doesn’t have anything to do with what I wrote before and after that so called “love passage,” or that they pay a whole lot of attention to the context (the before and after) and still think that the “love passage” is misplaced or irrelevant to the context.
Another way of saying this is that some very distinguished scholars say that I Corinthians 13 is “self-contained” – which is just a nice way of saying that it isn’t relevant to what comes before and after. And others, just plain ordinary folks, couldn’t care less about what I wrote before and after that chapter on love – they think it’s fine just as it is by itself. And, therefore, they think it’s a wonderful passage to be read at weddings and funerals and anniversaries and regularly for daily devotions. Even a lot of non-Christians like it and read it, because they think it conveys some universal truth and truths, independent of the Christian faith, about love – about how wonderful it is. It’s sort of like the song, “They say that falling in love is wonderful, is wonderful, so they say.” They particularly like those lines I wrote about love being patient and kind, not being envious or boastful or arrogant, not being irritable or resentful, but that love believes, and hopes, and endures all things. Not bad stuff, if I do say so myself.
But, understand, that’s not what I had in mind at all when I wrote the church in Corinth. And that’s the point: I wasn’t writing to the universe, but the church, to the church of Jesus Christ, and to a particular church at that: the one in Corinth.
It was a church in which there were increasing divisions and growing factions of all kinds, but the most contentious of which were those between the groups who thought they had spiritual gifts that were superior to the gifts of ordinary folks. I repeatedly got reports about these divisions, and finally I decided I had to write.
Just take a look at what is now numbered as the twelfth chapter if you want to see what I had to say to the Corinthians about these divisions and these groups who thought they had higher gifts of the spiritual life than others, and were, therefore, closer to God.
It’s page 231-232 in your pew Bibles. I think this is also a piece of writing of mine that you know fairly well, even if you don’t associate it to the thirteenth chapter.
In the twelfth chapter I liken the church of Jesus Christ to a body with many diverse parts, but I emphasize that each part is essential – so that no one part can say it is more important than another part. These diverse and essential parts – for example, wisdom and discernment, preaching and teaching, healing and prophecy, and the list goes on and on – they all come from God, so that even the parts of Christ’s body that are normally considered the lowest are actually equal with the parts that we normally consider the highest. Every part is needed for the body to work. Pretty decent analogy, don’t you think?
But notice that I end that chapter 12 with these words: “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” See that sentence there at the end of verse 31? That should tell you that what follows is directly related to what I’d just written, despite the fact that it almost never is. Well, that’s why I’m here subbing for Greenfield this morning: to make that point clearly and emphatically.
I confess I was probably a little too cute and imaginative by writing the whole of the thirteenth chapter in the first person singular pronoun “I” – “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, if I have prophetic powers, if I have faith, if I am generous, and have not love I am nothing.” I thought it would be obvious to any reader or hearer that, given what I had just written, here I was referring not to myself or any individual but rather to the church, and to the parts that make up the church. Just too creative, I guess.
The point was – then, and now – that the church operates not only on the principle of the equality of the parts (as important as that is), but even more importantly the church, to be the church of Jesus Christ, has to operate with the central and overriding reality of love, which is exactly what Jesus reveals about God and demonstrates in his own earthly life. Love is the first, the preeminent, the essential, the most important reality of this church that we call the Body of Christ – this caring for one another with patience and kindness, without envy and boasting and arrogance and irritation and resentment. That’s the “more excellent way” that defines the church. And that’s the way the church of Jesus Christ – his body in the world – is supposed to act in the world: with love in everything it does.
And that’s exactly the matter I take up at the beginning of the 14th chapter, continuing with the business of “spiritual gifts.”
So, you see, if that’s the case then, yes, the church needs to be a “faith body” – a “community of faith;” and, yes, the church needs to be a “hope body” – a “company of hope;” but most of all, not to the exclusion of faith and hope, but most essential of all the church has to be a “community of love,” a “beloved community,” a “love body.”
That’s what you’ve got to be here at the Federated Church of Wauconda, a “love body” in here among yourselves and a “love body” out there in God’s world.
I hope that clears things up.
Nice to be with you this morning.
All my love.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.