1 Corinthians 13
I have a really low tolerance for sensory overload. I’ve also discovered that I generally prefer things quiet (although you’d think otherwise if you were ever in the car with me and there was music on). One of my pet peeves nowadays is how it seems like there must be a television blaring out everywhere you go. Even waiting rooms at a lot of doctors’ offices have televisions going all the time.
The worst is if there’s more than one source of noise going at once. Awhile back Mike and I were at a Mexican restaurant (not El Charro, which thankfully isn’t like this), and they had polka music playing over the speaker system, which was fine—call me what you will, but I rather like polka music, whether it’s German or Irish or Mexican—plus two televisions tuned to two different channels, both with the sound on. And, if I remember correctly, the guys in the kitchen had a radio playing something else entirely.
It was all I could do not to tell Mike to get my meal to go, and go sit in the car.
Natural sounds, like babies and toddlers babbling or even crying, or the abundance of birds that sing early in the morning, don’t bother me at all, oddly enough. But if we’re watching television and one of our devices autoplays a video or an ad with sound, it’s hard for me to take ,even just for fifteen or thirty seconds. Those cable “news” shows where everybody is yelling at once can drive me right out of a room. And the longest I’ve been able to stay in a casino—with all the people talking, music on the overhead speakers, plus every single slot machine beeping and playing little bits of music—is 45 minutes. (I’m not really a fan of casinos to begin with; I would rather spend my money on books or records, or shoes, than drop it into a slot machine on the off chance I might walk out with more than I came in with.)
Sometimes, like at a baseball game, I can deal with the jumble of noise, if I’ve got some single thing I can focus on and tune the rest of it out. But if I can’t do that, my blood pressure goes up and my head pounds, until I can get away from the situation. Noise is just not something I deal with well. So I find it interesting that Paul compares the use of spiritual gifts without love to a cacophony of unpleasant noises. (Cacophony is a word straight out of Greek, a compound of kakis, which means “unpleasant,” and phonos, which means “sound.”)
First Corinthians 13 is one of the most familiar and cherished passages from the Bible. It’s a favorite for weddings because it’s essentially a hymn of praise to love. But the romantic love we celebrate at weddings was probably nowhere near Paul’s mind as he was writing. He was writing to a church about their life together as a congregation. There is stuff about marriage and family in 1 Corinthians, but chapter 13 isn’t part of that. Chapter 13 is actually right in the middle of a discussion of the spiritual gifts and their proper use.
As we learned last week, the church in Corinth seemed to have an endless supply of ways to divide themselves up. They argued over which traveling preacher did the best baptisms. They were still divided over economic and social classes, just like the culture around them—but Paul didn’t think this kind of thing had any place in the church. And they set up a hierarchy of spiritual gifts, and proclaimed that some of them—like tongues, knowledge, or prophecy—were more important, and thus those who had those gifts were more important within the church.
This is what chapters 12 through 14 of First Corinthians were written to address. First, in chapter 12, which we will hear in two weeks, on Pentecost, Paul talks about the various gifts, and how they are all to be considered essential parts of the Body of Christ, the church. He says it’s not appropriate for any gift to be denigrated to the point that people who have that gift and not some of the ones the church considered superior feel like they don’t belong in the Body. He says that parts of the body that seem the least honorable are to be treated the most honorably—not at all out of keeping with the “Great Reversal” articulated so many times by Jesus himself: “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” He urges the Corinthians to see themselves as one body with one Lord.
And then he transitions into chapter 13 with this sentence: “And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
Paul is talking to a divided, petty, contentious church when he writes 1 Corinthians 13. He is rightly concerned about what they are saying about who Jesus is by the way they are acting. And so he reminds them—and us—that correct beliefs, correct interpretation of Scripture, a lovely singing voice, even speaking in tongues, are nothing but an unholy racket if not undergirded by love. They are, as Shakespeare said, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 5).
In Corinth there were lots of church dinners (and in those days, the Lord’s Supper was part of these church dinners) being held, in which the wealthy ate too much and the poor got the leftovers, if there were any.
In Corinth there were people thumping their chests and declaring themselves to be better than everyone else because of who baptized them, because of some superior knowledge they possessed, or because of the spiritual gifts they had been given. Paul has had to remind them—we heard this last week—that they were baptized into Christ, not into Paul or into Apollos or into Peter.
And he has had to remind them that all the spiritual gifts are given by the same Holy Spirit, and thus we can’t set ourselves up as better because of what unsolicited, unearned gift we just happen to have been given.
In Corinth there were some strange beliefs about sexuality that were either leading to extreme celibacy or extreme immorality, and Paul has had to address those beliefs.
One wonders if chapter 13 is where Paul finally figures out, “This is what’s wrong with this group of people.” They do not love one another as Christ loved us. They are not patient with one another, and they are not kind to one another. They are envious of one another’s wealth, one another’s gifts, one another’s baptism, one another’s spouses. They boast and are arrogant about what they have that makes them better than everyone else. They are rude to one another—and this doesn’t refer to bad manners, but to immoral behavior, objectifying and mistreating one another. Each of them insists on their own way, regardless how it might affect others.
This might have been part of the trouble behind the question of whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols, back in chapter 8: some of them wanted to, and didn’t think it would hurt them, while others worried about their eternal salvation if they did eat it; and the ones who wanted to eat it didn’t think they had any responsibility toward the ones who had scruples. They believed they had the freedom to do what they wanted, but no recognition that freedom is limited if its exercise harms someone else. (That might sound familiar; I don’t know…)
They have been irritable and resentful in their dealings with one another. They have no particular interest in justice—the word the New Revised Standard Version translates as wrongdoing is better translated injustice—and thus continue to mistreat and oppress one another, especially those brothers and sisters who are poor. Their impatience with one another indicates they have no commitment to bear with one another, believe in one another, hope the best for one another, or endure the difficulties of life together in a Christian community.
I think Paul was trying to tell them that the foundation of their community had to be love—pretty much the same thing as when Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God and love our neighbor. And he was trying to tell them that this love wasn’t about warm feelings, but about hanging together even amid divisions, about wanting the best for even those we feel are doing wrong.
It’s a tough and a stubborn kind of love. Sometimes we love folks we don’t especially like, at least at that moment. Oftentimes this kind of love calls us to hang in there, to stay in relationship with people who have very different opinions or worldviews, instead of staking out our position and going to war against anybody who doesn’t think or act as we think is right.
(One caveat: This kind of love does not, however, require us to stay in relationship with someone who is abusing us. Remember Jesus said we are to love one another, but also to love ourselves; and sometimes that means we must love ourselves enough to leave a toxic relationship.)
But this is the kind of love God has had for us—even when we’ve run away from God’s outstretched hand, even when we have deliberately defied God’s will for us, even when we are disappointed or even shake our fist at God because we don’t like the way things are going. And this is the kind of love that, if we were truly to practice it as a Christian community, could utterly transform this noisy, cacophonous, fearful, sin-sick world.