The More Excellent Way – A Sermon for Epiphany 4C (1 Corinthians 13)

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

As we continue our journey through the season of Epiphany, we’re looking for manifestations of God’s presence in the world. We began with the Magi following a star to Bethlehem, and then we heard the voice of God calling out to Jesus at his baptism. We have heard from Paul that “to each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7) and that the church is the body of Christ. While we, as the church, may be an imperfect manifestation of God’s presence in the world, we are a manifestation nonetheless. 

 When we gathered at the Table last Sunday, we sang “One Bread, one body, one Lord of all, one cup of blessing which we bless. And we, though many throughout the earth, we are one body in this one Lord” [Chalice Hymnal 393].  This hymn reflects Paul’s message to the Corinthian church.  We are many and yet we, as the body of Christ, are one in the Lord. And, as gifted members of this body, we are equipped to do our part in building it up. The problem then and the problem now is we tend to rank things, including people and spiritual gifts. This can lead to fighting and division within the community. Paul has an answer to the problem, let us strive for the greater gifts, which build up the body of Christ, so Paul can show us the “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).  

What is this “more excellent way?” We must turn from chapter 12 to chapter 13 to discover the answer. 

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the best-known passages of Scripture. It is to weddings what Psalm 23 is to funerals. Over the years, I’ve probably used it in more than two-thirds of the weddings at which I’ve officiated.  I will admit that it works quite well in a wedding meditation. However, I don’t think Paul had this use in mind when he wrote these words. 

Paul places this chapter in a most interesting spot. He’s right in the middle of a difficult conversation about using spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ. He starts this conversation in chapter 12 and finishes it in chapter 14. You could easily jump from chapter 12 to chapter 14 without missing a beat, and yet he places chapter 13 right in the middle of this lengthy discussion of spiritual gifts. So, when we read this chapter on love, we need to keep in mind its context, so we can hear how love provides the foundation for life in the Christian community.

If love is the “more excellent way,” how should we understand what love is in this context?  After all, there are many varieties of love, and not all of them fit here. So, what kind of love will unite the body of Christ so it doesn’t matter whether we are “Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man?” When we consider this question in twenty-first century North America, where questions of assimilation and identity underlie many of our cultural conflicts, we will need to be careful in how we handle this question. It’s not a matter of eliminating our cultural, gender, or ethnic identities, it is a recognition that these identities don’t define our place in the community. Paul envisions a diverse community united by a common confession that Jesus is Lord. We are many members in the one body of Christ, united by the love that is God. The goal here can be described as the common good or the flourishing life.

In chapter 13 Paul talks about the coming of the “complete” or the “perfect.” Down through the ages, theologians and interpreters of Scripture have contemplated what this means. Some suggested that this is the coming of Christ into the world. Others suggested it is the New Testament—that was a favorite of Alexander Campbell and many of his theological descendants. But the Greek word is telling. That word is telios, which speaks of completeness and maturity. The word teliospoints us to the new creation Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 5. This is what we’re moving toward. While we may experience some of its benefits in the “here and now,” we haven’t arrived there yet.  It’s as Paul puts it:  “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”  

As we hear this word concerning the manifestations of the Spirit for the common good that enable us to participate in building up the body of Christ, Paul wants us to understand that the perfect, the end to which we are moving, is love. Paul closes the chapter by telling us that faith and hope abide, but only love crosses the boundary into the completeness that is the realm of God fully revealed. John Wesley put it this way: “Faith, hope, and love are the sum of perfection on earth; love alone is the sum of perfection in heaven.” 

As we move toward the perfect, we do so by living a life marked by faith, hope, and love.  Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun describe this movement toward the new creation as living a life that is flourishing, because this is the promise of God. They define three components of the flourishing life in terms of  a “life led well,” a “life going well,” and a “life feeling as it should.” Standing at the heart of the “life led well” is obedience to the law of love. Obedience to this law of love is the prerequisite for a life filled with peace and joy. Volf and Croasmun write that “love is what is held in common between this age and the age to come” [For the Life of the World, pp. 166-167]. This is why love is the more excellent way. 

When I use 1 Corinthians 13 in a wedding ceremony, I generally focus on verses 4-7. This is where Paul defines the kind of love that binds parties together. We know this kind of love by its Greek name—agape. This form of love is patient and kind, it’s not envious and doesn’t boast. It’s not arrogant or rude. It doesn’t insist on its own way. It’s not irritable or resentful.  “It does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth.” Finally, it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” As you can see there isn’t much in this definition that’s romantic in nature, but it is what makes for a lasting and maturing relationship. It’s also the foundation for life in the diverse body of Christ.

Tongues, prophecy, understanding of mysteries and knowledge, as well as faith and giving away all our possessions aren’t bad things, but they lack value unless they’re accompanied by the kind of love Paul describes here.   Love is not, as Lewis Galloway reminds us, “another spiritual gift, but the way in which God intends us to practice all our gifts” [Feasting on the Word, p. 302]. This is why Paul places this chapter in this particular spot. He wants us to know that love is the foundation for putting into practice the “manifestations of the Spirit for the common good.” 
While St. Augustine wasn’t talking about spiritual gifts when he wrote his book On Christian Doctrine, he said something that I think fits with what Paul is saying here:   

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. [On Christian Doctrine, Kindle Edition, loc. 808].

If our reading of Scripture, like our use of our spiritual gifts, doesn’t reflect the love of God and neighbor, then we’ve missed the point. 
When Paul introduced the Corinthians to this  “more excellent way,” which is love, he wanted to help move them along the pathway to maturity. He wanted them to move from spiritual infancy toward the perfect, even though we can see it only dimly as through a mirror. From the beginning of this letter Paul is dealing with a divided and dysfunctional congregation. He wants to give them solid spiritual food, but since they remain spiritual infants, he has to continue giving them milk. This message returns in chapter 13.

Paul tells them that “when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” However, “when I became an adult, I put away childish things.”  

I expect we’ve all been told, at some point in our lives, to “act your age.” Or maybe it was “grow up!” If we’re parents, we’ve probably uttered those words as well. Of course, we know adults can act “worse” than children. I’ve read that most problems at youth sports events are caused by parents, not the children. Then again, isn’t that Paul’s point? We find it difficult to let go of childish things. But, Paul wants us to move from spiritual immaturity to spiritual maturity. This involves letting love take hold of our lives. To put this vision into words that have long been shared in Disciples circles: “In essentials unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  This is the pathway to the perfect, to a life that flourishes! May we join Paul in taking this pathway.

Preached by Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, February 3, 2018