Second Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13

What Defines "Church"

Popular Translation

12:31 Always desire the best gifts from God. Better yet, I will show you the way.

13:1 If I speak well and talk the way angels do, yet I don't love others, I just like a loud gong or crashing cymbal. 2 If I speak prophecies, know everything God knows, and move mountains with my great faith, yet I don't love others, I'm completely worthless. 3 If I give everything I have to the poor and give my body over to my persecutors just so I can brag, yet I don't love others, I don't gain a thing.

4 Love is patient and kind. It's not jealous. Love doesn't brag or get full of itself. 5 It doesn't act in shameful ways. It's not selfish. It doesn't get others angry or stir up thoughts of past hurts. 6 It doesn't celebrate others' sins. But it does celebrate when others are faithful. 7 It puts up with everything, trusts God in everything, hopes in everything God does, and bears everything that comes its way.

8 Love will always be there. Our prophecies, our fancy words, and the things we know will fade away. 9 Our knowledge and prophecies are simply not complete. 10 But, when Jesus comes at the end of time, we will know everything. 11 When I was a baby, I spoke like a baby, understood the world like a baby does, and had the brains of a baby. But, when I grew up, I stopped doing all the things I did as a baby. 12 Now we look into a dark mirror. But, soon, we will see everything face to face. Now, I don't know everything. Soon, I will know everything, in the same way God knows me. 13 Faith in God, hope in his promises, and love for others will always be there. But, love is the most important of them all.

Literal Translation

12:31 Be jealous for the greater grace-filled gifts.

Still, I will show you a far superior way.

13:1 If I should speak in the tongues of men and angels, and I should not have love, I have become a resonating (piece of ) copper or a crashing cymbal. 2 If ever I should prophesy, and I should know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I should have complete faith to change (the location of) mountains, and I should not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I should pass out my possessions (to the poor) and if I should hand over my body so that I can brag, but I should not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; (it) is not jealous; [love] does not promote itself, is not puffed up, 5 is not shameful, does not seek for itself, does not provoke, does not reason evil, 6 does not rejoice with unrighteous (acts), but rejoices in the truth. 7 (It) bears all, trusts all, hopes all, endures all.

8 Love never fails. But with prophecies, they will be abolished. With tongues, they will cease. With knowledge, it will be abolished. 9 For we know only partially and we prophecy only partially. 10 When the end should come, the partial will be abolished. 11 When I was an infant, I was speaking as an infant, I was understanding as an infant, I was reasoning as an infant. When I have become a man, I have abolished the (things) of an infant. 12 For now we look into a mirror as a riddle, but then, face to face. Now I know partially, then I will know exactly, just as I am also known exactly. 13 Now faith, hope, and love remain. But the greatest of these is love.

13:1 "tongues of men and angels" "Tongues" in this sense referred both to the ability to speak foreign languages and eloquence. In a culture that communicated news by a town crier, that spread the faith through missionaries who stood on street corners to evangelize to gathered crowds, rhetorical skills were highly prized.

Our media culture also prizes these gifts. Newscasters, talk show hosts, and other public personalities work on delivery and public presence. The multi-lingual, multi-cultural personality can reach to audiences across borders. The gifts of eloquence and language are still very desirable. But, by themselves, they create two-dimensional personalities.

13:2 "If ever I should prophesy, and I should know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I should have complete faith to change (the location) of mountains" Compare these gifts to those listed in 12:8-10. Knowledge was listed second, faith was third on the list, prophecy was fifth. Notice that the first gift in 12:8 (wisdom) was missing from this verse. Paul inferred a lack of wisdom among the bickering Corinthians (the most highly prized value in Greek culture). And, he inferred that even the fullness of a particular gift was not, by itself, sufficient.

13:1-2 "love" is Greek is "agape." "Love" in this sense is charity. Charity was the glue that held the Christian community together. Charity was missing in the turf wars the community experienced.

13:7 "(It) bears all, trusts all, hopes all, endures all." This forms a quasi "A-B-A" structure with the language of endurance ("A") surrounding and highlighting faith and hope ("B").

13:8 "only partially" is literally "out of a portion." The word can also mean "imperfect," even "immature."

Chapter Thirteen of First Corinthians is a favorite for wedding ceremonies. Yet, I wonder if the couple would choose this "ode" to love if they really knew the underlining intent of Paul.

In the midst of Paul's diatribe against cliques that fought for turf in the Corinthian church, he presented the ideal virtue of the Christian community: charity. But he framed the ideal in a polemical way.

First, he looked at the spiritual gifts that were the bragging points of his opponents: tongues, claims of spiritual knowledge, and prophecy. To this list he added almsgiving and self-sacrifice. While these were all admirable, they did not, in themselves, evangelize or promote the growth of the community. In and of themselves, they were useless.

Second, Paul described the substance of charity in a quasi "A-B-A" structure. The positives ("A") highlighted the negative ("B") Charity was patient and kind. It endures the negative with faith and hope.

Charity was not the activity of his opponents that spread their agenda. They promoted themselves, acted with arrogance, even engaged in shameful activities (backdoor politics?). As they sought personal gain, they provoked others, instilled animosities, and celebrated when others "lost face." These were not the hallmarks of Christian community.

Third, against these attitudes and activities, Paul makes the most remarkable statement: charity never fails. This self-giving virtue would survive the last day and would define the Kingdom. When all other spiritual gifts faded away with the coming of the Lord, charity would remain. Prophecy and spiritual knowledge were, by nature, incomplete (imperfect and, so, lacking maturity). Their misuse could (and was) tearing apart the community. Charity, by nature, could never do this. Implicitly, charity could cause prophecy and spiritual insight to grow. The reverse was not always true.

Paul concluded with his famous hierarchy of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. The greatest was charity. It defined the ideal of the Church. It defined life in the Kingdom.

Like the Corinthians, we share the human frailties of turf possession, social climbing, gossip, obsession with control... Sometimes, I think parish life is defined by these sins. But, as many times as I see the negative, I see three times the positive. Charity does live in the community. As bad as we can be, we are challenged by those who act from the heart. They make the community truly Church.

What has discouraged you at your local church? What has encouraged you? Who has inspired you to remain? Why do they inspire you?