We live in a world today where the development of the individual is of paramount importance. We value the individual over community. And this focus on the individual is seen all around us. From the day our children are born we are watching them to see what their individual gifts and talents might be. We encourage them to try out different activities so that they can develop themselves and find their individual path in life.
This has not always been so in the world. A few hundred years ago, you would have learned the trade of your father or mother. No discernment of your individual gifts, no attempt to see you as the unique individual that you are. And by and large this has been a very good development. It has led to an emphasis on protecting the freedoms of individuals. Even though we don’t achieve this all the time, we do usually hold up as a value an individual’s right to think what she wants, to believe what she wants and within the laws of our country to do what she wants, and we encourage each person to be the best that he or she can be. But the downside of all this individual focus and attention is an increasing amount of selfishness, and narcissism, and a loss of community.
Our goal should be to both honor the uniqueness of each individual and understand that we are communal creatures, and can only be fully human in relationship to other people. This is what Paul is trying to achieve in his writing to the church at Corinth.
The community in Corinth has fallen into the trap of overvaluing the individual. The members of the Corinthian community are fully aware of their individual uniqueness and giftedness, but they have lost sight of the source of these gifts and the purpose for being given them. Fortunately, Paul is here to remind them.
Any gifts that they individually possess they didn’t gain through their own effort or merit but were given to them as gifts from God. These gifts were not given to them by God for their own pleasure, enjoyment or good, but were given to them for the good of the community. In other words, so what if you are a good teacher, if you can’t use that gift for the betterment of the body of Christ what good is it? For Paul, God gives each of us gifts which when used together in community will make visible God’s love for all of creation.
Perhaps an analogy would help to illustrate this point. Many years ago, I was on a white water rafting trip with the youth group that I was leading at the time. We were rafting down the New River in West Virginia. We had thirty kids and five adults on this trip, so we were divided into six boats.
There were six teenagers, me and a guide in my boat, and there were three boats in front of us. The guide sat on the back of the boat, and the back of the boat sat up higher in the water than the rest of the boat. This gave the guide a little better view of what was coming up next than the rest of us in the boat had. Now, because the guide had been down this river many times before and because he had special training and experience, his job was to steer the boat and to tell us the best way to get through each set of rapids. The two people sitting next to him in the back, one of whom was I, also had to help him steer. The rest had to paddle like mad.
Without the guide we would never have made it down the river, but in that big boat, he wouldn’t have made it down the river without us either. We needed each other in all our diversity. It took the seven of us working together to make it down the river, especially when the boat in front of us flipped over and I watched everyone in it fly into the water. We couldn’t stop for them, or we would have flipped over too. We had to work together to get ourselves through the rapids and then we picked them up on the other side.
It struck me that this is not unlike the church. The church needs people with leadership ability, vision, training, and special skills who can see the big picture and point the church in the right direction, but the church also needs members with many, many other gifts if we are to make God’s love visible to the world. If three of us in the boat decided we wanted the boat to go to the left and three decided it should go to the right we would have spun ourselves in circles. All of us had to agree that downstream was where wanted to go in order to get to our final destination.
This is what chapters 12 and 14 of 1 Corinthians is about. It is about using our gifts for the building up of community not ourselves. And chapter 13, the chapter that we read today, is about how we use our gifts to do this. Most likely you have heard this chapter read at least once at a wedding. We associate it with romantic love. But Paul was not writing about romantic love. Paul was writing about communal love. Chapter 13 is the filling that holds the bread of chapters 12 and 14 together in one complete sandwich. Without love none of our gifts matter and none of our gifts can be used to build up community.
And this love that Paul describes is not a feeling. This love that Paul refers to in chapter 13 is action. The words translated into English as adjectives are actually verbs in the Greek. Rather than saying love is patient, it would be better to say love waits patiently. Rather than saying love is kind, it would be better to say love acts kindly. And this isn’t just semantics. Paul doesn’t care about feelings; he cares about actions.
Paul is writing to a deeply divided community and rather than take sides he reminds them all of the greater issue at stake—the health and survival of their community. He reminds them that what they are arguing about, the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, isn’t what is really important. What is important is their actions toward one another, for it is only in the messiness of human relationships and communities that this love can be lived out. Nothing we do matters if we don’t do it in love.
I was once a Diocesan Consultant to a community that had become deeply divided. You might think that I am going to tell you that they were divided over something bad that had happened to them, but that wasn’t the case at all. They were divided because a lifelong member had died and left them his estate valued at about $250,000.
This was a wonderful gift, and it was tearing the parish into pieces. Some wanted to use it to make long-needed and postponed repairs to the building. Some wanted to invest it so that it could fund their parish for many years to come. Some wanted to use it to help those in need in their community and around the world. Some wanted to use it for all three areas, seeking compromise.
The money was good. The ideas were good. Love was not present. And without love they were very unkind to one another. They blamed each other. They blamed the rector. They blamed the bishop. They blamed me. They blamed anyone they could blame. They dug into their established positions and were unable to see the consequences of their own lack of love and to see only the faults in others’ positions. And many left that congregation. What could have been used to build up that community instead tore it apart because they did not have love.
Love does not envy.
Love does not boast.
Love does not behave arrogantly, rudely, irritably, or resentfully.
Love does not insist on its own way.
Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing.
Love waits patiently.
Love acts kindly.
Love rejoices in the truth.
Love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.
Love never ends.
A community acting in love is not a community without conflict or differences. A community acting in love is a community that knows the reality of division and looks beyond that division to something bigger to unite it. May we be a community that seeks not our own fulfillment or advancement but instead seeks unity in the actions of love. May the action of love bind us together that God’s love may be made visible through us to the world. Amen.