Words, Words, Words
1 Corinthians 13 February 16, 2020
Everywhere I turned last week seemed to be pictures, needle-points, t-shirts, and coffee cups with excerpts from today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 13.
Love is patient, love is kind.
This is a wonderful sentiment, but when separated from the larger context in which the Apostle Paul wrote. it can make Christian ideas of love sound sentimental, and remote from the grittiness of our human relationships.
Actually, this famous passage is part of a tough-minded intervention with people whose fingers were clutched around each other’s throats.
Paul was confronting his famously-cantankerous church at Corinth about their personal conduct and character.
He spends the first pages of his letter addressing a range of misconduct and correcting some misunderstandings about Jesus.
Corinth had been a Greek city that later declined and was recently revived by Rome.
And, it was an important port so there were Romans and Greeks and Jews and others from all over the known world living there.
It had a long history of sexual freedom.
In fact, the Greek verb “Corinthianize” came to mean “to live a promiscuous life”.
There was a great disparity in economic status, from wealthy traders to slaves.
The educated church members prized Greek orators and were embarrassed by teachers of lowly status.
And various members puffed themselves up by parading their particular spiritual gifts.
But Paul demonstrates that such pride actually damages the body.
We can have great doctrine but terrible theology because the theology of Jesus is love – the very thing missing in the Corinthian church.
Church members were deeply divided – hurt feelings, resentments and barely speaking to one another.
Paul concludes chapter 12 by saying (12:31) … now let me show you a more excellent way and then bursts into the inspired words of 1 Corinthians 13.
Paul’s lessons about agape love demonstrate what it looks like to be compassionate and forgiving to fellow believers in ways that spill-over into all our relationships – with our spouse, with our boss, with our children.
The Greek used the word eros for romantic love, and philia for friendship, including agape for sacrificial love for all people.
Paul had specifically corrected the Corinthian’s practice of dining together.
They mistook the agape Jesus showed at the last supper with philia, an evening of fellowship and conversation.
Agape love doesn’t mean you like someone, only that you sacrifice and care for them, and that starts with the words we speak.
There is a story told among the Hasidic Jews that disciples of a wise rabbi went to him and asked, “Rabbi, you teach us when we pray to say, ‘O God, you spoke and the world came to be.’
“Rabbi,” they asked, “why should we not just say, ‘O God, you created the world.’? That would be simpler.”
The rabbi answered them, “We pray, ‘O God, you spoke and the world came to be,’ so that you may never underestimate the power of words to call whole worlds into being.”
The words you choose will call worlds into being.
They leave your lips and become either bullets or seeds.
You choose what those worlds will be by the words you choose and the manner in which you speak them.
You can create worlds that will nurture and encourage those around you or worlds that can be mean and crushing.
If you are a parent then I am sure you’ve had the experience of hearing your words played back to you through the voice of your child as they either scolded their dolls, ragged on teammates, or gave encouragement and pep talks to their friends.
Their words reveal the emotional world inside them, a world you and I were part of molding.
And those words seem to have no statute of limitations!
Your words live on as they are passed on through the generations giving birth to new worlds that are hospitable or inhospitable, filled with love or seething with bitterness.
Sometimes it is not the words, however, but the lack of them.
I heard how a man was shocked to hear that a couple he’d known and liked for years had suddenly divorced.
“What happened?” he asked a mutual friend.
His friend explained, “It’s so silly. They had an angry fight one night, and they had no vocabulary for forgiveness.”
The Corinthian church was an unfortunate example of a people who had never mastered the language of forgiveness.
Those who’d acted haughty had driven some to believe there was no place in the church for them.
Some held grudges for how they’d been treated.
Paul had counseled humility by recognizing that a healthy church – like a healthy human body – is made of many different, mutually dependent parts.
God gave each of those gifts for the purpose of building a community of love.
If our God-given gifts are not used for love, then they mean nothing … you might even say that they are being abused.
1 Corinthians 13:3-4 (Message) If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
For both those who feel impatient in their self-righteousness and for those who have been hurt by people’s unkind words, Paul says,
1 Corinthians 13:5 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. (Love) is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
At last Thursday’s Resurrection Shaped Life group, we discussed our natural inclination to blame.
If something isn’t right in the world or in me, then someone must be to blame.
We may project that blame onto others, or we internalize it onto ourselves.
To blame is to be lame.
That distances us from the suffering of others – after all, if someone caused their own poverty or diabetes or cancer, well that’s their problem.
But it also turns us into chronically angry, judgmental people because after all, the whole world is a mess.
And blame is not just projected onto others, it is internalized – if someone is to blame, then that is just as likely to be us.
And it doesn’t stop there.
As we habitually seek to assign blame for every wrong, then we begin to see God in these terms, too.
People naturally tend to create God in their own image.
God must also be in the blame business, separating the righteous who win His love from the sinners who are doomed.
And then we set up the dynamic that the whole reason God came to us through Jesus is so that he could carry the punishment we all deserve.
That teaching limits Jesus to being born of a virgin, living a sinless life, and then dying to pay for our sins because someone had to be punished so we can go to heaven.
Jesus did take the punishment for our sins, but the Bible teaches that Jesus was with the Creator at the beginning … he is not an afterthought after God realized that humans had messed up.
Jesus is not God’s contingency plan after God realized that humankind was messing up and needed rescue.
Jesus also gave a lifetime of lessons for us and leaves his spirit with us so we can know God and strive to be like God.
Jesus is God’s love gift to us because only through Jesus can we grasp the nature of the holy, infinite God.
Through Jesus, we see how to love, how to forgive … how to live a God-shaped life.
In order to move forward, Paul said that those who felt slighted in the Corinthian church would have to let go of their resentment.
Prejudice, resentment, and anger are basic tools of Satan.
2 Corinthians 2:10-11 (Message) Don’t think I’m carrying around a list of personal grudges. The fact is that I’m joining in with your forgiveness, as Christ is with us, guiding us. After all, we don’t want to unwittingly give Satan an opening for yet more mischief—we’re not oblivious to his sly ways!
Forgiveness can be tough.
If it were easy then our scriptures would not have to go to such lengths to hammer the message home.
I have a friend who was wronged many years ago, so wronged that she just can’t get beyond it.
No one has fessed up to what a family member did to her.
No one has recognized how hurt she’s been.
No one has reached-out to make things right.
It’s true: she was wronged, but she can’t get over it … or rather, she won’t let herself get over it … so the violation she experienced continues to replay in her over and over and over.
Decades later, she compulsively talks about this old hurt as if it just happened yesterday.
Friends don’t call her much because they’ve gotten tired of hearing the same old rehash of the past.
It even shows on her face, which is growing pinched and angry.
Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
We have to develop the grammar of grace and the vocabulary of forgiveness for the sake of our family, our community and our personal health.
The fact of life is that as people of faith we either commit to living and working together in forgiveness or we have to find another Bible.
A gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s help in learning the grammar of Grace.
Don’t deny your pain or pretend the wrong didn’t happen.
You may want to talk to the person who hurt you, you may seek counsel from a wise friend or a professional.
But at some point, as a Christian, you get to reach out to Christ and say that you are giving-up all hope for a perfect yesterday, and that you want to be free from replaying the pain inflicted on you.
Freedom begins with forgiving.
The conflicts in Corinth were fueled by people feeling so right in their position that they justified all manner of bad behavior.
They didn’t have to be gracious because they’re right … and so it’s up to you to get on board.
1 Corinthians 13:5 (Message) (Love) doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others.
We are creating worlds with the words we speak.
The opening slide every Sunday morning reads “Welcome home.”
That phrase comes from what so many of us experienced as a “coming home” feeling the first time we walked through those sanctuary doors.
The Greek word translated “build up” includes in it the Greek word for “home.”
So, we are called to speak as people commissioned with the task of building each other up, of building a home where we live together with vulnerability, authenticity and love.
Following Paul’s guidance, we choose words and a manner of speech that creates a safe, encouraging home – here at the church, in our families, in our work environments a home where people can grow and learn to love one another.