1 Corinthians 13
February 3, 2019
So. Did those verses sound familiar? Love is patient, love is kind . . . People love these verses. Especially for weddings. But–since neither Matt and Katie nor Joe and Susan picked this verse for their weddings–I feel like it’s safe to let you in on a little pastor secret: We internally roll our eyes when couples choose this scripture passage. Not because it’s bad. But because using it in a wedding is taking it way out of context. It’s not a passage about romantic love between two people. Not at all.
But, to be fair, any scripture we read today is automatically out of context—by at least 2000 years. Next week, Andrea is going to talk more about the general concept of reading scripture in context. And for two weeks after that we will wrestle with other passages from 1 Corinthians—it’s a mini series, I guess. For this week, I want to establish some context for the book of 1 Corinthians in general and for this passage—chapter 13—in particular.
First, it is important to understand that 1 Corinthians is a letter—probably the second letter written by Paul to the church in Corinth. While we can certainly find ways to apply these words to our own lives today, we should never lose sight of the fact that they were written for a specific group of people in a particular situation.
Sometimes I think, “What if Christians 2,000 years from now found the emails I sent and treated them like a word from God?” Context is especially important for letters.
And an important part of the context for this letter is, obviously, the letter recipients—the church in Corinth. This church was founded by Paul and, like most new Christian communities, contained a wide range of people: Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women—people who did not generally relate to each other as equals in the broader social context. But, in the church, they came together and met in homes for worship, for prayer, for meals.
All was not sunshine and roses, though, in the Corinthian church. We know from other parts of this letter that there were some contentious divisions in the community. People disagreed about leadership—some said they followed Appollos and some Paul and some Cephas, and some particularly self-righteous church-goers were like, “Well I follow Jesus.” There was discord when they shared the Lord’s Supper. Apparently the rich people came with good food and wine and ate and drank while the poorer people sat there hungry. And, in the chapters immediately before and after the one we read this morning, we learn that the Corinthian Christians were arguing about which spiritual gifts were the most important.
So, the diversity of the community, the disagreements within the church—these are important parts of the context for us to understand as we read 1 Corinthians.
The final bit of context I want to look at is the broader geographical and social context—the city of Corinth itself. As I showed the kids on the map, Corinth is on a small strip of land between two seas, so it was a busy, important trading hub—one of the most populous cities in ancient Greece. It was an agricultural and manufacturing center with a reputation for luxury and pleasure—we could call it the Las Vegas of the ancient world. And in the midst of all of this activity and debauchery, there were many temples to many gods.
One of the most prominent temples in Corinth sat up on a hill above the city. It was a temple to the goddess Aphrodite—she was the protector of the city and her image was on the Corinthian coins. Does anyone remember what Aphrodite is the goddess of? . . .
So as the people of the church hear Paul’s letter read, they may be fiddling with coins in their pocket that bear Aphrodite’s image. They may be gazing out the window, looking up at the temple that looms on the hill. Some of those listeners may have worshipped themselves at one of the three temples to Aphrodite in the city before they learned about Jesus. These people are feeling, seeing, remembering the goddess of love as they hear:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Without going into all the details of the debauchery that was Aphrodite worship in Corinth, I will just say that the worship of the goddess of love didn’t look much like the kind of love Paul describes here. I imagine the contrast would have been stark for anyone gazing at the temple of Aphrodite as they heard these words.
And as I considered this passage in the context of Corinth this week, I realized something: I have always read this passage as an admonition of how to love. I have always read this passage as Paul/God telling me that in order to be loving I had to be more patient and kind and humble.
Now, in general, I would still support looking at the qualities listed here as things to aspire to. Of course we want to be loving—and work towards the qualities of love laid out here.
But it is also true that this reading of the passage—as an admonition of how we love—has been weaponized in the church and used by people in power to oppress the marginalized. Tortured slaves were told they should be kind to their masters. Abused women are told they should be patient with their abusive husbands. I have friends who work as advocates for victims of sexual assault, and I cannot tell you how common it is for churches to diminish the pain of sexual abuse victims and rush to the defense of abusers under the guise of love—because it “keeps no record of wrongs.”
Imagining myself in Corinth in the first Century, though, I realize there is another way to read the passage. What if Paul’s words are applied not to myself as an admonishment, but to that scene out the window, that temple on the hill, as a comparison.
What if Paul isn’t telling the Corinthian Christians what love is just so they can do love better, but what if he is telling them what love is also—or even mostly—so that they will recognize genuine love in the world?
What if, instead of telling an abused person that if they have love they will be patient and kind with their abuser, we asked them: “Is your partner patient with you? Kind to you? If not, this thing you’ve got going isn’t really love.”
What if, instead of telling a gay man in a condemning church that if he loves the church he will not insist on his own way, we asked him: “Are the people in your church humble? Do they rejoice in your truth? If not, this church isn’t loving you well.”
I’m not saying that this is an either/or thing. That we have to understand Paul as either admonishing us to love better or encouraging us to recognize genuine love. Clearly, Paul wanted the Christians in Corinth to get past their divisions and function as a untied body; and this would require all of them to show more patience, to not insist on their own way, to be less rude.
Isn’t it possible, though, that Paul also wanted to show a contrast between the version of love expressed in the worship of Aphrodite and the way that true love is lived out in the church? That Paul wanted people to understand not just that they should be kind, but also that they deserve to be shown kindness; not just that they should not be resentful, but also that they should not feel resented.
Paul goes on to assure the Corinthian Christians that all of the gifts of the Spirit they think are so important—the speaking in tongues and prophecies and wisdom—they will all fall apart. It is the love that will last. It is love that is the measure of a church. Not the quality of the singing or the sermons, not the Sunday School programming or even the outreach ministries. But the love.
“Now we see in a mirror dimly,” writes Paul.
Here’s one more fun fact about Corinth. At the temple on the hill, there was a statue of Aphrodite holding her shield in front of her as a mirror.
“Now we see in a mirror dimly. Now I know in part,” writes Paul.
It’s hard to see what love really looks like based on a warped reflection we see dimly. The promise is that “then”—in the future God has for us—we will see clearly; we will know fully—AND we will be fully known.
In the meantime, Paul’s words to the Corinthians can guide us as we try to live out the love of Christ in the world. And these words can help us recognize and be part of those places where Christ’s love already shines bright.