Edited text from Pastor’s Message on March 2, 2014
Emphásis on the Wrong Sylláble 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Accent marks don’t seem like much, but in many languages an accent mark can change the meaning of the word entirely. I am attempting to increase my Spanish language skills through an application called Duolingo. Sometimes, I forget to include an appropriate accent mark when I’m completing a writing assignment and the program will inform me I’ve used the wrong word and deduct points. ‘El’ means ‘the’; ‘Él’ means ‘he’. ‘Si’ means ‘yes’; ‘Sí’ means ‘if’. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I get confused. The point is that an accent mark is all it takes to distort communication. When I put the emphásis on the wrong sylláble, I fail to express myself clearly and I might end up writing something that would be confusing or worse.
The Church at Corinth not only had communication problems (i.e. ‘speaking in tongues’ without interpretation), they were putting the entire congregation at risk by putting excessive emphasis on possessing spiritual gifts. They loved the gifts–especially the most sensational gifts like “tongues”. They held certain gifts and their recipients in high regard while minimizing other gifts and reducing their recipients to second class Christians. They used the gifts to bolster their spiritual status. The most excellent gifts were their highest priority. The results of the wrong empháses were harm to relationships and the mission of the church.
It is in this competitive and destructive context that Paul writes, “I will now show you the most excellent way.” It is not the way of showmanship or boasting or the way of destruction of the body. It is the way that will result in the common good and the edification of the church. It is the way of love. Love must be the priority.
First Corinthians 13 is one of the most well-known passages of Scripture. We usually associate it with wedding ceremonies. In fact, it is so common at marriages that Owen Wilson bet Vince Vaughn in “The Wedding Crashers” that the first reading would be 1 Corinthians 13. It was. Vince Vaughn lost. However, by lifting 1 Corinthians 13 out as if its context within the dysfunctional relationships within the church at Corinth, we miss how important this passage really is. Paul did not write this beautiful ‘love’ chapter to instruct brides and grooms. He wrote it to shift the direction of the church at Corinth away from self-centeredness to “body” awareness and mutual edification.
LOVE IS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT. It is not that skills and gifts and abilities aren’t important to the functioning of the church. They are necessary for the accomplishment of the mission. But if gifts are used without consideration for the common good, they are only so much noise and worthless. Gifts and talents and abilities are not given to you for you. They are given to you for the sake of others. Love is always about the other. It is a question of benefit. Who benefits? When the gifts are used in love, everyone benefits. When only the one using the gifts benefits, it is not just unhelpful, it is harmful.
I work with young children every day. Children are not born with an awareness of others. They are completely self-centered and absorbed with their own wants and needs. Part of our job in early childhood education is to help children to “de-center”. In this process, children become aware of other children’s feelings, sharing, helping each other and not hurting each other. It is not a quick and easy process and there are many tantrums and time-outs along the way. Children want their own way; want their needs met first; want everyone else to pay attention to them. They have not grown up. Part of becoming a mature adult is to become unselfish–to live a de-centered life. Such an adult can appreciate and meet the needs of others; can feel empathy in the face of suffering. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is implying that the church has been stuck in early childhood. It is time to grow up and become adults. It is time to de-center and make love the highest priority.
In the church, it is love that sets us apart. Jesus told his disciples, “By this, all people will know you are my disciples.” By love. Not by gifts. Not by spectacular healings. Not by speaking unknown languages. Not by supernatural strength. Not by intellect. But by love. The church God wants us to become, emphasizes the common good, shifting the emphasis from self-interest to the interests of all. The church built on the foundation of love will seek the welfare of the weakest among them knowing that the health of the weakest will ensure the health of all. The early church understood this and acted from the beginning to take care of each other’s needs–providing assistance to the poor, eating together, practicing Jubilee. They acted like a community that sought the common good–not individual glory.
How different from our culture that emphasis self-actualization, personal fulfillment, individual goals, and selfish pursuits, climbing the ladder of success. Unfortunately, what we experience daily and what is idealized in our culture tends to walk through the church doors. The result is a church that acts out of similar priorities with a veneer of spirituality. Such a church quickly degrades into the church at Corinth.
But there is a more excellent way. There is Jesus’ way of love. The results will be a church where everyone is valued, everyone is accepted, everyone is edified and where everyone uses their talents, abilities and spiritual gifts to accomplish the mission to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. And such a church will live out God’s alternative vision for the world–a world where the emphásis is put on the right sylláble–the sylláble of LOVE.