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February 3, 2016, 10:23 AM

I Will Show You a More Excellent Way


1 Corinthians 13:1-13, CEB
If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.
Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant,it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. We know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things. 12 Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. 13 Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.
 
I Will Show You a More Excellent Way
 
Churches and Christian communities should be required to gather together once every year and read through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, from chapter one through chapter sixteen. They should read it together as if they are the intended recipients of this letter, as if Paul were writing this letter to them. You see, this letter is Paul’s God-given vision of true, Spirit-filled, Jesus-following community—the essence of discipleship. The church in Corinth isn’t getting it. In fact, they have strayed so far back into the world’s way of seeing and doing things that they are fracturing their community, causing it to crumble under and around them. So Paul is on fire. He is pouring his passion for Jesus, his passion for the Christian community, his passion for the people of Corinth upon these pages.  And the chapters we have been spending time with last week and this week, chapters 12 and 13, are the pinnacle of Paul’s letter-sermon. If Paul were a fiery Baptist or Pentecostal preacher, this would be the crescendo of the sermon, where we are brought to the foot of the cross.
 
The chapters (remember, chapters are a translators’ addition to scripture, not original to the text) are part of Paul’s preaching on the all-important topic of worship, the heartbeat of the Christian community.  These Corinthian followers have twisted worship all out of shape. Paul begins to address these worship problems back in what we term chapter 11, speaking to the women preachers. It seems these women preachers have taken the idea of freedom in Christ too far. Since they are now free in Christ, they feel that means they can freely come to worship and preach dressed in ways that were scandalous to their culture and their community. They were free to let their hair hang free, literally. I’m sure Paul agreed that Jesus didn’t care so much about how the women wore their hair, but the community did. Paul reminds them that worship and preaching was for building up the community of Christ and giving glory to God. Their behavior, their long, flowing hair, was a stumbling block for the community, and was all about them, not about building up community and giving God the glory. “Put your hair back up!” Paul says, “And preach/prophesy God’s word.”
 
Then Paul moves on to the Lord’s Supper. “It is great,” he says, “that you celebrate the Lord’s Supper every time you gather, and that you celebrate it as a full meal.  It is great, even, that you do it potluck style, each person bring food to the table. But I have heard that the wealthier members can arrive early, bringing lots of rich food. They eat in excess, leaving no scraps. The poorer members arrive later, bringing meager items to share, and find nothing for them. This is not the Lord’s Supper.”
 
It is then that Paul moves to address spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit has poured wonderful gifts upon the people of God, gifts to be shared in worship. But the Corinthians have started comparing their gifts. They have determined that some gifts are ‘better’ than others and have started ranking the gifts, determining that some—speaking in tongues, the gift of knowledge—are better than others. Members with these preferred gifts were dominating worship, interrupting, taking over. Through the pages of this letter Paul declared, “ENOUGH!” Chapter 12 begins with Paul addressing those members who brag and extol their gifts of tongues and knowledge; “Now, sisters and brothers, about spiritual gifts, I don’t want you to be ignorant.” He goes on to proclaim that there are many different gifts and ministries and activities, but there is ONE Spirit, ONE Lord, ONE God who gifts them and activates them. There is ONE body of Christ. He paints that beautiful picture we spent time with last week of the Body as one entity but only functioning because of the diversity of the parts.
 
You are the body of Christ! And if you can truly get that, truly learn to value every part and to work in harmony as one body…I will show you a more excellent way (12:31). In the Greek it actually says, “and I will show you a way that is beyond comparison!” Love! Agape.
 
We have mentioned before that there were several words for love in the ancient Greek. Love was an important thing to that culture and people. There was ‘phileo,’ which we use today in the word ‘Philadelphia,’ depicting the love between siblings or close friends. There was ‘eros,’ passionate and physical love; and ‘storge,’ the love between parent and child. Finally, there was ‘agape;’ holy love, divine love, love that reflects the love of God. Chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to Corinth is all about agape.
 
Paul begins this portion of his sermon about love by putting those spiritual gifts in their proper place. The gift of tongues is wonderful. The gift of prophecy, Paul’s favorite, is awesome. The gift of knowledge is so needed. Having faith that could even move mountains is fantastic. But, if those gifts are not rooted in love, they are nothing. Acts of sacrifice are wondrous to behold; giving all you have to the poor, giving your very self for God. But if these acts are not grounded in love, they accomplish absolutely nothing.
 
And then Paul gets to the meat of it. Love is patient with all parts of the body. Love is kind.  It isn’t jealous—of other’s gifts. It doesn’t brag—about its own gifts. it isn’t arrogant or puffed up in its knowledge, it isn’t rude to others. Love doesn’t seek its own advantage in its freedom in Christ. It isn’t grumpy with others. And here Paul goes from preachin’ to meddlin’…Love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs. No grudges. Wow, Paul! Love isn’t pleased about any injustice, but rejoices in the truth. Love puts up with all parts of the body. Love trusts, always. Love hopes, always. Love endures even in hard times. Love never falls, fails, ends.
 
Paul closes this section by placing all of this in perspective. All these things that you are fighting about, all these things that are dividing you, they are finite. Spiritual gifts, preaching, the Lord’s Supper, are tools to connect us with God and with one another in the here and now, but one day we won’t need them anymore. One day we will be fully present with God and one another. Hallelujah!
 
Three characteristics of discipleship and Christian community stand tall—faith, hope and love. One day we won’t need faith for we shall see God face-to-face! One day we won’t need hope for God’s justice will flow down with a mighty river and all will be as God intended! But love—agape—which is of God, that will always be with us. We will go from love into Love.
 
This is Paul’s way beyond comparison. This is the most excellent Way! The body of Christ embodying agape together with God, with one another, and with the world…not always agreeing…not always ‘feeling the love’… but always practicing patience and kindness. Always seeking to let go of jealousy and bragging, arrogance and rudeness. Putting down our grudges.
 
For faith, hope and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love—agape. Amen.

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