Narrative Lectionary Reflection
May 17, 2020
Read: I Corinthians 13:1-13
You will usually hear 1 Corinthians 13 read at weddings. While it is a nice passage to read to the wedding couple, the apostle Paul meant for a wider audience that relates more to our political and cultural climate today than to the nuptials of two people.
To understand 1 Corinthians 13, you have to look at chapter 12. In chapter 12, Paul likens the church to the Body of Christ. Before we go to Paul’s understanding of the church as the body of Christ, a little more background.
The Corinthians were using their gifts as a status symbol. Some gifts were deemed more important than others. Paul tells the Corinthians that while people have different gifts, they all come from the same God for the common good.
This is where Paul starts to talk about a body and how different parts all work together with a common purpose. Listen to what Paul says starting with verse 12:
12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. 14 Certainly, the body isn’t one part but many. 15 If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 16 If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body?17 If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. 19 If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? 20 But as it is, there are many parts but one body. 21 So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”
-1 Corinthians 12: 12-21
Paul closes chapter 12 with verse 31 where he tells the Corinthians that there is a better way. Chapter 12 has Paul saying that the Corinthians should not compare gifts with each other. In chapter 13, he shows what we are to be doing as the body of Christ.
While 1 Corinthians 13 is used in the pacific scene of a wedding, Paul was writing it to a fractious church that needed to understand what grounds the church what holds it together.
As mentioned before, Corinth is a diverse church. While we celebrate diversity today, we need to be reminded that diversity can also be a challenge. The church was filled with Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free. All of this caused division and weakened the church. But while diversity could cause problems, Paul was adamant in keeping Corinth diverse. He believed this is what God wanted for this church even if it is difficult. Paul’s letter was a rallying cry: to not segregate, to love each other in spite of differences.
But again, this wasn’t the type of love displayed at a wedding ceremony. This was something that was far more challenging. As theologian Shivley Smith notes: “The love Paul is talking about here is not passive and fluffy. This kind of love is an up at dawn, feet on the ground, tools in hand, working kind of love. It builds communities. It nurtures positive social interactions, and not just social networks (which many of us have come to prefer). “
Paul is noting that loving others, even in the confines of a church is challenging. Love governs how to we talk to each other, how we break bread together, how we fellowship with each other. Love in chapter 13 is a verb, it is active and it isn’t easy. For Paul, the measure of a faith community is not what it does, but it is about knowing each other face to face in the way that God knows us.
Paul talking about love is not an ode to a community that has accomplished love, but to one that is far away realizing it. Which is why this can seem like an odd choice for a wedding ceremony.
Unless…one look at it not from the day of the wedding, but months and years later, when the allure has worn off and there is a disagreement over money or some other issue. If married couples and pastors looked at this not as celebrating the love present, but dealing with the relationship down the road when it will inevitably encounter challenges, then this passage can fit better in weddings.
Theologian Karoline Lewis wrote of a recent trip to the Middle East and how it can be hard to love the other:
“A couple of evenings ago on our trip, we had a presentation by the Parent’s Circle, a grassroots organization for Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones due to the conflict. The representatives who spoke to us were two fathers, a Palestinian and an Israeli, who had both lost daughters because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. We had a very honest discussion about the conflict and about life before and after the Separation Wall… They each went through their own moments of wondering how life could possibly carry on given the death of their children due to such senseless, mindless fighting. They could have chosen revenge to ease their pain but instead realized that the only way forward was to talk to each other.
In each other, they found the way to carry on because, in their words, “our blood is the same color, our tears are just as bitter.” They found a way to carry on that chose peace instead of revenge, conversation instead of fear, life instead of death because “it is not our destiny to kill each other in this Holy Land.” At stake for both fathers was peace. Simple as that. This is the gospel. This is love.”
In chapter 12, Paul was chastising the church for focusing on themselves. Chapter 13 is a vision for the church, a place where people love each other, not focusing on their needs, but on the needs of others.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.