While many people think of 1 Corinthians 13 as a wedding scripture, a wedding is probably not the most appropriate place for the passage to appear. At first glance it is a definition of Love, and while that is true, it is not a love that is achievable among humanity. This love is a special love that is between God and us! We know this for many reasons, but the two main reasons can be seen in the words that are used: “Agape,” a term reserved for a Godly Love, and not “Philo,” the temporal love which I have written on recently. The other is contextual.
Being bold, I would argue that to take Chapter 13 in isolation of 12 is to remove the bulk of the meaning of the passage because you remove the relationships which make the love described in 13 so powerful. Looking back on Chapter 12 quickly, we see how God gave us each individual gifts, but with those gifts came responsibility. That responsibility was to use that gift in the best way possible and, more importantly, to use that gift to lift up the community. Going into 13, what we see is the introduction of the concept of Agape love. If you really read this closely you begin to recognize that what is giving the “power” to all of the gifts is God’s love, without which everything is temporal, thus will come to an end.
After graduating from high school, my church sent me on a summer mission to Sissiton, South Dakota. My partner in this mission was the honorably retired Dakota Pastor Sid Byrd. Sid and I had many interesting discussions. Sid was a proud Dakota man who was raised and served in a Lakota community. One of the most fascinating stories was about the “Indian schools” which I had never known about before. Many books have now been published on this travesty. For Sid, what I remember most is how frustrated and sad he got when when he talked about this time. He still could not understand how what went on in the schools was supposed to be civilizing Lakota children was actually designed to strip identity from the individual.
He told me how he tried to come to understand how a Christian people could do such a thing until he realized that it was not a Christian people doing it. Rather, it was fearful, power-hungry people hiding behind their faith. While they used language of love and creating a better world, their actions were not of love because they did not honor how God had created the Lakota people to be. Sid pointed to many problems on the reservations that are a direct result of what that time did for the culture and community.
Without Love at the core, whatever we do will become at best futile and at worst destructive, destroying lives and devastating generations. This is because when we do not let God live in the midst of our choices and works, ultimately we are pursuing our own selfish wants and desires and not God’s.
One of the great problems that face faithful people is those who use faith to manipulate or control others. As you can imagine, this was a BIG problem for the early church as many would argue that it still is today. Paul is the great evangelist, and core to his teachings to his new faith communities is the importance of the community AND the individuals in it.
I emphasize the “AND” because often in the church of today and the past, that “AND” could be substituted by “or”, “with”, or possibly “in spite of” and so on. The truth is that a vital Christian community equally respects the community and the individuals. It recognizes that everyone adds their unique gifts and that there is a need for those gifts. Moreover, it celebrates the fact that no one person can do it all.
Through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we witness that there is a problem with this new community. Leaders are claiming powers that are not theirs to claim, and there is an over-reliance on some individuals over the others. Culturally, this is understandable, especially when coming from a gentile culture that is rooted in the polytheistic Roman religion.
The Roman tradition was very individualistic. If you wanted something and had the resources, you could achieve a lot. One of the practices that we see alluded to in the section we are working through is the practice often would be that you could find the god that supported the gift you wanted, give an offering and be blessed with that gift. Each gift was individual to that god and it was yours to do with what you wanted. This poses a great problems for the early church because the Christian community was built on an understanding that all creation had a singular start and that life itself was a gift from God.
This raises a great question: if we are all from the same origin and under the same God, why are we then so different? The answer is easy; spiritual gifts, different, yet equal, among all believers. And this is where things get really important, because not any one person is gifted with the skills to do everything! I often laugh (to myself) when I meet someone who is an expert in everything. Pretty quickly you recognize that their “expertise” is not all it is cracked up to be and often is far more about their insecurities than it is their knowledge or skills. Though when you talk to folks like that you recognize that the world would really suck if everyone possessed all knowledge and skills! So each of us is blessed with our own special gifts, and we have a responsibility to nurture, use, and develop our individual gifts for the greater community.
Over the next couple of weeks, we will encounter one of my favorite set of passages, Paul’s exposition on spiritual Gifts. I will call them: “You’re Special;” “We’re Special;” and “God’s Special.” Now this is not like the old SNL Church Lady skit as she would look down her nose at the poor sap that was just not good enough for her. The specialness that these passages have come out of is one of the very first lessons we are taught in Sunday School and that is “God has uniquely created each of us and loves us for who we are.” Unfortunately, this teaching can easily traverse into narcissism, which the SNL skit exemplified. Thus, we must always remember that our uniqueness or special attributes are not about us; they are about God.
A few years ago I was teaching a class and asked people to tell their gifts. We went around the room; some people were boastful for their great and profound gifts, others were embarrassed because they did not see themselves having any. This is pretty common and we began to discuss what gifts are.
With Christmas so recently celebrated, we have a great example of the problem that arises when Gifts are discussed. In that class, many began to talk about gifts of things: sometimes useful, sometimes silly, and sometimes gestures of love. The bad part about how we think of gifts in our culture is that most of the time it is fairly superficial. More importantly, we can see that these are far more often about the receiver and unfortunately forgotten soon after.
When the Bible talks about gifts, we need to change our definition of the word because the gifts that the Bible talks about are not things or even the individuals, but it is the relationship between us and God and the individual and the community that are at the heart. Moreover, gifts in the Bible are not one-time forget-about-it things. There is accountability with every gift found in the Bible. For modern people that does not seem fair; I can hear the child in my mind crying right now “It’s mine, IT’S MINE I CAN DO WHAT I WANT WITH IT!!!”
The problem is that it is not all yours. What makes the Biblical gifts so different is that each gift is given to us as if we were a caretaker of that gift. What makes Biblical gifts so special is that they come from the Holy Spirit and are actually never really fully ours because they are from God. This puts a special burden on us to care for and nurture those gifts so that they can be used for the purpose which God gave them.
Now this does not mean that they are not special; these gifts are very special. God has designed each gift specially for us individually. This is important since we also have to realize that no one person possesses all spiritual gifts, and that is where we will pick up next week!
There are many things that make the reformed tradition unique; at the change of the year I am always reminded of one of my favorite attributes of our tradition. This attribute is the theological understanding that “we are reformed and always being reformed.” This is something that is really neat since it reminds us that we need to both allow ourselves to be ever changing, but also not to hold strong to things that might get in the way of our faith.
Now some will say this is about change for change’s sake; that is not the case. If it were, we would be living into our own wants and comfort. It would be as bad as if we never changed our traditions or practices. As most people who have ever been in church leadership know, traditions and practices can often be the biggest block to active ministry, because often we have to satisfy our practices and traditions before we are able to explore how we are called to actively serve God.
Most sociologists and church strategists point to this as a key reason why so many churches struggle today. Because they are not able to let go of past practices and traditions, they are often no longer relevant because their concerns are not placed on meeting and adapting to their communities; rather, they are about maintaining and surviving as an institution.
One of my favorite theologians said to me as I was getting ready to be ordained, never forget that “the goal of any church is not to make people happy and definitely not to be around forever, it is to serve God and help people to connect; once the church tries to make people happy or to secure its future, the church no longer serves God because it is either a social club or an institution unto itself.”
This was said to me, now, 15 years ago, and since then there have been numerous books and studies that have proven that statement not only to be true but to be a big reason why so many churches are struggling, or the other phenomena of how they can grow so fast and then come crashing down just as fast.
As I have said before, this is why in the new year we are focusing on one of those many books that talk about this: A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation. This is a great thing for our church to look at since we are in the midst of discerning how we do ministry and relate to our community. It is also crucial as we celebrate 125 years of ministry in San Jose and begin to ask how we are going to be relevant and faithful as a congregation for the next 125 years.
While all of our elders and deacons will be part of the discussion, I do invite anyone else in the congregation to join us for the first half hour of the Session and Deacons meetings this year for the discussion, or you can just read along in the book which is available in the office.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen