Reflections on 1 Corinthians chapter 13 – a homily by Michael Creal

Homily Jan 31,2016 — Michael Creal

Michael Creal

Today’s readings provide rich fare for reflection and commentary but following the principle that sometimes less is more, I’m not going to deal with either the Isaiah passage or the gospel passage, important as they are. Instead, I’m going to focus on Paul, and that chapter from first Corinthians. [Ch. 13]

Just to contrast some features of the contemporary world with what Paul sets out in that famous chapter, let me draw to your attention the movie, The Big Short. If you have seen it, you will probably agree that it is pretty chilling stuff. It’s about four stock traders (and, of course, there were many like them) in the period of the 2008 crash who saw they could make a killing by selling to unsuspecting buyers bundles of mortgages that they knew would eventually be worthless).

Barely a hint of moral scruples. Even someone like Ted Turner of CNN who famously said that Christianity was a religion for losers and who, like others of his general persuasion – Kevin O Leary, perhaps – tend to see greed as a cardinal virtue, the driving force of capitalism (not Adam Smith’s view, by the way), even people like Turner may have had second thoughts when they saw the devastation caused when the housing bubble burst and all those subprime mortgages dissolved into thin air. Millions of lives wrecked.

I don’t have to labour the pointthat what Paul says in I Corinthians 13 is in absolute contrast. But just keep that contrast in the back of your mind as I continue.

Karen Armstrong refers to Paul as the person whom many Christians love to hate. There are things in Paul’s writing that may trouble us, though some of that trouble may come from misinterpreting Paul. Anyway, I don’t place myself in Karen Armstrong’s category. On the contrary, I have just been reading a very interesting recent book by an Oxford historian named Larry Siedentop entitled “Inventing the Individual.” Siedentop claims that Paul’s interpretation of Christianity turned the thinking of the ancient world on its head and opened the way toward a new understanding of the individual person and individual freedom, a view Siedendop suggests that has threaded its way, albeit with moments of distortion and threat at different points, through the centuries up to our own time, our own world.

Now this book is several hundred pages in length covering many
centuries, and I don’t want to put you to sleep by trying to recount the whole argument, but I would like to note just some of the things he says about Paul and Siedentop is writing a not as a Christian apologist but basically as a secular historian. And I’m sure you will appreciate that I am greatly abbreviating his argument.

First, he says that at the core of the thinking of the ancient world at
the time of Christ, there was the assumption of natural inequality, a
hierarchical world in which everything had its place. History was seen as cyclical and ruled by fate. Of course this was not true of the Jewish scriptures – which nourished Paul – but Siedentop is talking about the *prevailing* view in western antiquity and I don’t think he is making a controversial point. There were, of course, many religious movements and cults in that period, and among them, in the first century, was the Jesus movement. Jesus followers believed – and Paul articulates this – and remember Paul’s writings come well before any of the Gospels –Jesus’ followers believed that the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ changed everything. The world was no longer to be seen as bound by fate. A new creation had happened. In Paul’s eyes, in the light of Christ,  there was no longer a distinction between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free person. All were equal. This was revolutionary: a fundamental challenge to the prevailing view. This new creation creates a new freedom – and here Siedentop employs a current term – this freedom gives agency to individual humans so the fates no longer rule.

But the individual freedom implied in this agency is not the utilitarian freedom lauded by devotees of an unqualified free market ideology or, something different, what is sometimes called in our culture, expressive individualism that seems to detach itself from history and stand against any constraints of community. As Siedentop describes it, Paul sees a *new* basis for human community, individual humans guided by faith into a community
where love is the touch of divinity within each person. And at this
point in his argument he quotes the passage we heard this morning.

It’s important to note that the Greek word for love in Paul’s letter is
agape, the word commonly used in the new testament. It’s different from other Greek words for love like eros which may understood as desire or passion, and philia which is brotherly love. God so loved the world. The Greek word is agape. Love one another as I have loved you. The Greek word is agape. Not eros, not philia. Something different – closer to what we might call unconditional love.

OK. We heard ICorinthians 13 read this morning. It is addressed to
individual persons, like ourselves, in a Christian community in this
particular place and time.

So what does all this mean for us? Recognizing and emphasising Paul’s point that all of us know only “in part” I offer these reflections and raise a couple of questions.

First, taking seriously that we all have agency and that all human lives are of equal value, we are compelled to act on that basis as we consider the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Thanks to the great leadership shown by members of this parish (Jennifer), a lot of this is now on our agenda. Also, as we confront the refugee catastrophe in our world, we can’t be passive: we have to act. Again, we have had wonderful leadership in this community from the refugee committee, and even though our best efforts will inevitably be modest against the scale of that catastrophe, we have to do what we are called to do. And we’ve been doing it long before the issue hit the media.

And, if every human life is of equal value, the same implications are
there with respect to poverty and the homeless and with respect to
members of the LGBT community In all these cases we are blessed with members of our community who have really given a lead.

And what of people with so-called disabilities? Gabe’s presence spoke to that. And Marilyn’s initiatives have been unstoppable. We have a lot to celebrate in this community.

But now, I want to ponder the relevance of Paul’s words in two other – out of many possible -contexts.

Shakespeare begins one of his famous sonnets with these words: “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” I’m not a Shakespeare scholar but I think a case can be made – and has been made recently by the important writer and scholar Marilynne Robinson – that in some of Shakespeare’s plays and perhaps in this sonnet, love is understood in a uniquely exalted form, reflecting something of Paul’s understanding. Anyway, here’s a very practical and difficult question. A person I know whose partner is suffering from a severe measure of dementia wonders if this is the same person she married. In terms of that person’s cognitive capacity, the answer is no, but there is more to a person than cognitive capacity. That person – anyone suffering from dementia – has feelings, needs love, respect, response. How is love offered in this circumstance? She is struggling with this. It’s a huge question that some of us have faced and all of us will face. How do Paul’s words (or Shakespeare’s) apply?

And secondly, also close to home, how do Paul’s words speak to
relationships within our community here at HT? In many areas we share deep common concerns of the kind I’ve already mentioned. In other areas – including our worship – there are differences, even conflicts. There is certainly nothing wrong with difference and conflict provided there is genuine mutual respect, a minimum expression of love. At HT we often speak of the importance of people being “comfortable” with what is being said or done or just doing things we are comfortable with. But what happens when people are feeling discomfort? We can’t escape this question so how do we address it? Maybe we’re in the process of addressing it now, within our own limits. I hope so because worship is where we find our centre as a community and as individuals. It’s not a casual matter.

Well, if it’s any consolation, there never has been a time in Christian
history when a Christian community has perfectly exemplified what is written in I Corinthians 13. It’s a vision of what we aspire to, of what we are called to be. It’s what Augustine called the City of God. It stands over against us, over against our world as it is, as a summons, an invitation, a challenge.

So turning to Paul’s words again. They are written in the context of
discussing different gifts of the Spirit – that was last week’s epistle
– that are given to different members of the community and chapter 13 is the culmination of that discussion. And the word gift, in this context, carries a lot of weight. It’s related to Paul’s understanding of Grace. Grace is not something we earn. It’s a gift given freely, often unexpectedly, often in quite ordinary circumstances. I thought when Malcolm said he was giving his Diocesan award to the children at HT that was a beautiful moment of grace. At Gabe West’s memorial service a number of people spoke of moments with Gabe that I think could be called moments of Grace. I’m sure you can think of others. Paul says “Love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude. It is not self serving. It’s all embracing, all-trusting, all-hoping, all-enduring.” This is certainly beyond the ordinary. The passage itself is an incredible gift.

In our liturgy we hear the words “God’s Spirit is free among us.” As I
have already said, as individual persons and as a community we need to take responsibility and have agency. We are given individuality and freedom and these are gifts. And we have to be sensitive in handling these gifts in our relationships with one another. But we are also given the vision of a new creation. So in all our actions, in everything we do, we need to be open to glimpses of the city of God, open to moments of Grace, moments that can make all the difference in our lives and in our community.

I’ve gone on long enough. I’ll leave it there.

Have a look at the scripture here