By the Rev. Kristen Yates
About two years ago, my work with a small Anglican church plant in Salem, MA ended. And even though my church planting work ceased, I still held a part-time job at Gordon College and was not quite sure what my next steps would be, so I found myself in a holding pattern and without a church.
I knew, however, that I needed to have a place to worship for the time being, so when a friend of mine invited me to her church, I decided to go. I knew nothing about it, but I thought that if it was as awesome as my friend, who is a rocker preacher woman from Australia, this church was going to be good.
And it was good, including the fact that two of its leaders were from Australia (which is a total bonus in my book), but the real reason the church was good was not because of joys of hearing Aussie accents (which were awesome) or for the reasons we often use for judging churches. Now, in terms of the criteria we often use to judge churches, it did have fairly good preaching lineup, drawing from Gordon-Conwell students and grads, and it did have nice music for the most part, which was great.
It, however, didn’t have lots of cool programs because it was a small community. In fact, it itself was a church plant, only having been planted a few years prior. And without full-time staff or a large congregation, this church couldn’t put up the show that other churches sometimes do. Almost every week, it seemed that something went wrong in the service, whether it was a technological glitch in the PowerPoint, something a little off with the music, or something else.
Also, speaking as an Anglican, I personally found that the liturgy of this church, which was an Evangelical Presbyterian Church, to be less defined that I am used to, and tragedy among tragedies, we only had communion once a month. J
Nevertheless, despite these lacks, I loved this church and I still love this church, and I try to get there every time I go back to New England.
You see, in a difficult transition period for me, the people in this church who I just met were there for me, to listen, to advise, and to pray.
And beyond that, they were clearly also there for each other – for example, it was obvious that Sunday morning services were a shared, collaborative effort.
They were also there for the world – their prayers for their town of Danvers, MA, as well as for the work of missionaries in Afghanistan, and for the needs of others throughout the world were rich and beautiful. And they matched their prayers with tangible efforts in their region to care for its people. In fact, it was through church where Bonnie Gatchell was able to get her start with Route One Ministries, the ministry I mentioned weeks ago that ministers to strip club workers.
It was clear that the Spirit of God was moving through this church and even though it was small and sometimes the services were unpolished, it was a wonderful community of humble, prayerful, and kind, Christians whose worship together was rich. This was a community marked by love, and I was truly blessed to be part of it even if it was just for a short eight months.
Now, let’s contrast this community that I belonged in MA to the one in Corinth that Paul wrote to in our Epistle reading we heard today.
While the Corinthian church had many blessings including living in one of the most affluent cities of the time and being evidently blessed in the spiritual gifts department and enriched in speech and knowledge (which Paul acknowledged early on in his letter), the Corinthian church was unfortunately lacking in love.
The church was marked by divisions in the church, lawsuits against fellow believers, sexual immorality, and unkind practices in the partaking of the Lord’s Supper (where for example, people were left out), and to top this all off, the Corinthian church was exemplified by an immense pride over their spiritual gifts, their knowledge, and their associations with various leaders. Honestly, speaking from a pastor’s standpoint, this church sounds like bit of a nightmare to me.
Well, it is into this context that Paul had to provide instruction and correction and to call the Corinthian church to something better, to become the people that God wanted them to be, and this included an invitation to truly love one another, something the Corinthians had apparently missed in all their lawsuits, divisions, pride about their own gifts, and self-centered activities.
The result was that Paul wrote this beautiful short treatise about love that we heard today, a passage that has now become a favorite among Christians. It is one of the most popular Scripture readings at weddings and it is also one of the most popular inspirational Scriptures for people to memorize and to hang on their walls. It is truly beautiful and has much to say to us.
In our great familiarity with it though, we must be careful not to miss its point, and we can do that by keeping its full context in mind.
For example, if we read on its own, without considering the entire letter at hand, its easy to see how we could read into it that faith and spiritual gifts are not that important. As long as we have love, that is all we need so things like right belief, seeking after spiritual gifts, being “religious” and following a set of rules, these things are not so important. Love is. And all those people out their who take their faith too seriously are like clanging gongs, wasting their breaths. “Come on people, just love one another, get over the other stuff.” This is of course the sentiment held by many people in our culture. It is kind of a sentimental, mushy kind of love that is detached from faith and practice.
This of course is not what Paul is arguing, and if we put our general culture milieu aside and read the whole letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians (and I encourage us to do so), there is no way we can come to this conclusion. Paul, after all, shows great concern for right belief and right moral behavior, and he encourages people to pursue spiritual gifts. In fact, in the verse directly after where we stopped off today in our lectionary reading, Paul says, “ Pursue love and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” Actually, all the verses that come directly before and after the “love passage” are about spiritual gifts.
So Paul was not encouraging a kind of love that was disconnected from the pursuit of spiritual gifts and serious faith, both in belief and practice. No, the reality is that on this side of heaven, in our lifetimes, these things are very important to believers.
Paul was, however, recognizing a problem that was occurring among the Corinthians Christians, and quite frankly a problem that that has occurred in numerous Christian communities over the centuries – and that is they were making means into ends.
In other words, knowledge in itself, right belief, and spiritual gifts are not the end goals, they are a means to the goal, and that goal is loving God and loving neighbor with one’s whole heart. It is also being formed more and more into the likeness of God, who in His very Triune nature is Love, as love is shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and then overflows onto God’s creatures. Thus, Paul is arguing that to use these gifts as a source of inflating one’s pride or without a foundation of love to undergird them, as it seemed that many in Corinth were doing, was to miss the point. Treating these good gifts as ends rather than the means to loving God and neighbor was a failure to live out God’s call.
And yes, I can say that Christians living in this manner can indeed feel like clanging gongs, and quite frankly, all you want them to do is to stop.
So right after college, I had a pretty obvious experience of this sort of thing happening in a church that I attended. It was a church that had recently become awakened to various charismatic gifts (which was not a problem in itself), but the problem that emerged over time is that I noticed that the sermons changed, among other things. The actual message of the Gospel was preached less and less and the focus became more and more on us seeing the spiritual manifestations of these gifts. With that, the church seemed to get more legalistic too, in a very unhelpful way. It has taken me quite a few years to process this experience and I still think about it from time to time, but one thing I can say with clarity is that, the means of spiritual gifts had sadly become the ends for this church, and that was problem.
Now, in writing to the Corinthians (and to all Christians thereafter), Paul made it clear that all spiritual gifts were means to an end and would eventually pass away. For example, there will be no need to prophesy or speak in tongues in the new heavens and new earth. As for the knowledge we have now, that is great, but is only partial to what we will know then when “we see face to face.” These good gifts are necessary for us now in this lifetime and in this world, but just as children put away their childish ways when they grow up, we will put away these present gifts. What we will not put away is love.
As N.T. Wright says, love is our bridge into to God’s future. It “ . . . is the way of life in the new world, which, by grace, we are bound.” It is the language we will speak in the new world.” It is the pinnacle of what it means to be human.
Thus, NT Wright continues, you can think of love as being “ . . . God’s river, flowing [from our current lives] on into the future, across the border into the country where there is no pride, no jostling for position, no contention among God’s people. We are [thus] invited to step into that river here and now, and let it take us where it’s going.”
This, friends, is why Paul upholds love at great lengths, why he talks about it lasting while spiritual gifts will fade away, and why, he says that love is even greater than faith and hope; these two will also abide, but they are not as ultimate as love. Love Himself will be at the very center of our existence in the new heavens and new earth. Therefore, we ought to do all we can now to try to live this out, to point to the time when we will live it out fully.
So, since we have to wrap this up for this morning, I would just like to say that the simple lesson for us here, I believe, is that we should seek out knowledge of God together; try to live godly, moral lives; seek out spiritual gifts to build up our community and to bless our city, and even strive to create the beautiful worship that we Anglicans love so much and find so meaningful. But in doing all those things, let us not forget that these are means to an end – a means to loving God and loving others with our whole hearts.
In the end, what people walking through our doors will most notice about us and will most be impacted by is whether we are a loving community or not. That is what will leave the greatest impression on them and on us too, whether we are personally being transformed more into the likeness of God, who is Love, or if we are mistaking the means for the ends.
So with this all in mind, let us close with prayer.
Lord, we ask you, would you help us to reflect your Love – to be patient, to be kind, to not be envious or boastful or arrogant. Lord, would you help us to not insist on our own ways or to be irritable or resentful or to rejoice in wrongdoing. Lord, would you help us so that we may rejoice in your truth, bear all things, believe all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. We ask these things in Jesus name. Amen.