“If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.”(1 Cor 13:1)In the name …
I had seen on the local news this past Tuesday that Bill Cosby was on the air at a local Greenfield radio station helping them to raise money so that they could keep broadcasting.They said he would be on air again the next day.As I was driving down to Westfield in my car that next day, I took the chance and tuned-in hoping to hear him on the radio.Sure enough he had just finished with a doctor’s appointment in Greenfield and he showed-up at the station for a second day to help with their on-air fundraising.One man called up and asked Bill Cosby if he remembered his father who had done some masonry work for him at his home up in Shelburne.When he mentioned the man’s name, Bill Cosby immediately remembered the man.He then told a story about how he and his wife were out for a walk on their property, and as they walked by an old, colonial stone wall, they noticed that some animal had made a hole in it.Cosby got the mason over there.The man took one look at the hole in the wall.He picked up a rock that was lying nearby and just started to chip away at it with his tools.No measurements, no one try and second and a third.The man just eyed-up the hole in the wall, chipped away at the stone, and when he went to place it in the wall, Bill Cosby said, it fit perfectly.He went on to tell the man’s son that there’s no test for that kind of skill.There’s no certificate or accreditation.The man was an excellent mason and it showed in his work.
Today the church has asked us to read 1 Corinthians 13.It is the New Testament’s most famous passage about Christian love.The only problem with 1 Corinthians 13 is that it is such a neat and tidy package.It can be carved out of the rest of the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians and it can stand quite well all by itself.There’s even the possibility that this was a stand-alone piece of early Christian literature that Paul took and placed directly into his letter.This is also why this Chapter 13 passage about Christian love can be read all by itself at weddings, which ties in nicely with a clipping that Irene Bukowski sent to me this week.“Congratulations!” said the uncle to the groom.“I’m sure you’ll look back and remember today as the happiest day of your life.”“But Uncle, I’m not getting married until tomorrow,” said the groom.“I know,” replied the uncle.Chapter 13’s message is clear and precise without any other context that’s why it can be read so often at weddings.But like I said, this can also be a bit of a problem.The passage speaks with great inspiration about Christian love, but it’s so inspiring all by itself that we too often don’t bother to ask why Paul put it in his letter in the first place.And when we do this, when we read it in isolation, as beautiful as it is all alone, we don’t give it the full meaning and power that it was intended to convey to the Corinthians long ago or even to us right here in church today.
Paul had a lot of problems with the church in old Corinth.Far too many to go into now, but if you’re really interested, Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians will be the next book we look at in our Bible study group once we finish reading Matthew’s Gospel.There were a great many divisions in this early, apostolic church community, some so serious that they could easily have destroyed the church before it even had a chance to establish itself.Now many of these problems arose while Paul was away from Corinth, and so his only course of action was to take pen in hand and write a letter trying to quell the problems and to heal the divisions.One such letter is First Corinthians.
In this letter Paul speaks about the various gifts that Christians receive, but that they are all from the same grace of the Holy Spirit.He makes the famous analogy of the body, which is made-up of many parts, but which all function together for the good of the whole.Then Paul speaks about the offices of the church, her leadership roles, in other words.He mentions apostles, prophets, teachers and others, but then he writes:“But I shall show you a still more excellent way.” (12:31)He has spoken about all of the different gifts, roles and responsibilities that can be found in the church.He says that they all spring from the same Holy Spirit.But the “still more excellent way,” the grace that has to motivate and sustain all of these Christian actions for them to be successful, the grace that is absolutely essential for whatever the Christian or the church will do, the grace that can heal divisions and disputes, the grace that makes all other graces Christian … well, that’s where Paul decides to insert the Chapter 13 passage about Christian love. If I “do not have love, I am nothing” says Paul.If I “do not have love, I gain nothing.” (13:2,3)Love is the absolutely essential characteristic of what it means to be a Christian.There are all kinds of ways that people can serve God, the church and each other, but no matter what we do, love must be evident because it is the indispensible sign that Christ is present.
Just like Bill Cosby was talking about that man who worked on his old stone wall, it wasn’t any test or certificate that made him a stone mason, it was his work.What he did made it undeniably clear that he was a craftsman.Just like that, Christian love is the proof that we are believers and that we are church.Paul lists all kinds of accomplishments in Chapter 13, but he says without love all they testify to is vanity.We can trace our pedigree all the way back to the apostles of Christ if we want.We can talk about our baptisms, our reception of Holy Communion, our presence right here right now, but if the grace of Christian love is not evident, is not obvious, in the way we live, in what we do, in what we say, in what we care about, in what angers and disappoints us, then says St. Paul, “I am nothing … I gain nothing.”On this First Sunday after Epiphany, the church has us read this same Lesson every year, and I think it’s done so that at the beginning of each calendar year, we can take stock of who we are supposed to be as followers of Christ, and strive at this time of new beginnings to make sure that our lives speak clearly and obviously, for all to see and for us to know, that we are Christian because of faith, hope and love, we know that “the greatest of these is love.”For this grace to always be a part of our lives, for this we pray in Jesus’ name.Amen.(+)