I Corinthians 13:13 – Part 3
For most Christians faith is an adoption of or a reaction against two powerful forces:
Your Personal Story,
The Apostle Paul.
Let’s begin with Paul. He is the starting point for practically any theological question that has to do with the Christian faith. All of the gospels were written in response to Paul. Matthew, Mark and Luke were heavily influenced by Paul’s insistence on the humanity of Jesus. The Gospel of John celebrates the divinity of Jesus as a reaction to Paul’s beliefs. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin all used the Book of Romans as their starting point for understanding God and Christ. You can love Paul or you can hate Paul but in order to approach Christian theology seriously, you have to start with Paul.
Paul didn’t ask the question, “What do you believe?” Paul just told us what we were expected to believe. Paul was extremely confident in the answers he delivered. One can successfully argue the early writings of Paul are in conflict with the later writings of Paul. That is probably a fair assessment of everyone’s theological development. But what Paul believed anywhere along his theological journey, he believed fervently.
Paul was at his systematic best, or worst, when locked away from the world. Under confinement Paul perceived everything clearly. His thoughts weren’t complicated by the messiness of life. The prime example of this would be his letter to the Romans. Scholars believe it was written late in his life while confined to house arrest. It is a powerful work professing Paul’s belief in both the sovereignty and the righteousness of God. It is in Romans that Paul fully develops his understanding of God’s plan for salvation. It goes like this. There is only one God and this God is the God of all creation and all human history. Second, salvation comes through the cross and resurrection. Christ is God’s gift for all people. Finally, the way humanity acknowledges this claim is through faith in Jesus Christ.
Locked in his room away from the questions and complexities of ordinary folks, Paul had the answer and the answer began with faith. But Paul was not always in his ivory tower. Sometimes he found himself standing between two combatants whom he loved dearly, trying to make heads or tails of some theological conundrum. Neither side was willing to compromise. Paul realized a solution had to come from beyond what each combatant claimed to believe was the answer. How ironic is that? The iron hand of theological truth looked beyond faith for a solution.
Of all Paul’s writings my favorite is the book of Philippians. Paul knew this church well and spoke often of his love for this congregation. When Paul became aware that some petty disagreements had developed between some of the members, he did not write, “Believe in Jesus and everything will take care of itself. He wrote, Make my joy complete by humbling yourself just like Jesus. Don’t place being right as your primary priority. Concentrate on being honorable and gentle and pure and pleasing. How was Paul able to jump from absolute truth to begging for a moment of decency? I think Paul remembered everyone comes to the table with a different story.
While we, the congregation of Rockfish Presbyterian, have a great deal of commonality, we are not the same. Let’s start with the obvious. Some of us come from Mars and others from Venus. Since the discovery of fire men allegedly have spoken for everyone. That is definitely not the case anymore. If you are still holding on to that false assumption your spouse will set you straight after the service.
We weren’t all born in Virginia or even in the United States. We come from different places, different cultures, and different experiences. We aren’t all Presbyterian. Some of you have never heard of John Knox. We aren’t all Republicans. Some of you still proudly display your Bernie bumper stickers. When classical music is mentioned, some think of Mozart, some think of the Rolling Stones and a few of us hum a Hank Williams tune. Some of us still embrace our humble beginnings. Others of us are trying to change who people claim we are suppose to be. Regardless, we all have a story and that story goes a long way in how we not only respond to others, but how we think theologically.
Paul certainly encountered this when he came to Corinth. Paul had a plan. He wanted to build a church and Corinth seemed the perfect spot. It was a city compiled of Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews. Paul figured it was the right place to begin something new. Everyone would give up their allegiance to their old life and become one in Christ. Just for the record Calvin tried the same experiment in Geneva. They kicked him out after about seven years. While Paul had great hopes, his recipe Corinth was a disaster. The congregation loved Paul. They probably made him Pastor Emeritus when he left, but the next day it became obvious each congregant had an individual mind, an individual story, and an individual approach to understanding God. Once Paul left, the church exploded into chaos. Paul’s response was to send a series of letters he hoped would calm the waters. First Corinthians 13 is one of those letters.
If I speak in the tongue of mortals or angels, but do not have love I am a clanging gong. If I have faith to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
WOW!!! This hardly sounds like the Paul who wrote from captivity. If I read the poem correctly, Paul is saying faith is worthless if it doesn’t lovingly assist the way we interact with others.
Could it be the number one question on the theological hit parade isn’t WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE but rather HOW DO YOU LOVE? What would happen if we entered any discussion about faith, or politics, or who is going to win the World Series kindly, patiently, without arrogance, or resentment? Those suggestions didn’t come from a Beetles tune but rather from Paul, the King of Dogma.
I have a theory that sometimes what I claim to believe is based more on my story than God’s. This allows me to easily discount every other story as heretical. So what happens when loving is more important than believing? Could it open my ears to the stories and faith experiences of others? Could it help me admit that God’s universe and God’s imagination might be larger than mine? It is hard to publicly proclaim that my story limits my understanding of God because then I would be admitting that what I believe is limited by what I have experienced. In a weak, or perhaps a strong moment, Paul knew this. The great dogmatic voice of Christian theology, when faced with the practical dilemma of two people arguing about what is truth, was reduced to this response. Faith, Hope, Love; the greatest is Love.
Imagine if we suspicious folk, who value independence and self-proclaimed truth above everything else, could just for a moment imagine that God is OK with us listening to another’s story. How dangerous is that? Then again, how liberating might that be? This is hard stuff. Yet what good is it to believe in a God who proclaims to personify love and defend that God by squabbling with our neighbor and fighting with our enemies in the name of that same God?
Am I suggesting that we just toss everything we believe overboard? Well maybe I am because if your faith separates you from your neighbor, or the stranger, or even an enemy, what good is it?
Listen to what the author of First John wrote. Perhaps it is a response to the dogmatic tendencies of Paul. God is love. Those who abide in love, abide in God. There is no fear in love. Fear embraces punishment and anger. If you don’t love your brother or your sister how can you claim to love God? We are to love each other because God first loved us.
So which is more important, what we believe or what we do? Read Romans, but follow I Corinthians 13:13. Amen