Sunday, December 08, 2013

Love (First Corinthians 12:31)

Because 1 Corinthians 13 has such an amazing impact and a long history by itself, it's sometimes overlooked in its context, part of Paul teaching the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts.

The Corinthians seem to have developed some kind of heirarchy of gifts -- the spiritual gifts that draw more attention are seen as "higher" gifts that are signs of a holier person or someone that's a better Jesus follower than someone else. In fact, Paul writes to the church members as if they now have an entire congregation trying to reach "up" to speaking in tongues, which for some reason has become the signal of true faith or of deeper devotion than others. No, Paul says. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are given as needed for the ministry of the body of Christ. A congregation truly seeking God's direction would recognize that each person's spiritual gifts are essential in following it, and that if the Spirit needed everyone to have all the gifts then everyone would.

He pivots just where ancient Christians divided chapter 12 from chapter 13 -- having told the Corinthians about the need for all of the spiritual gifts, he then offers his understanding on one quality that could make each gift even greater than it is -- the "more excellent way" of 12:31 is to use whatever gifts we have under the guidance and direction of Christian love. Love not only clarifies the spiritual gifts so sought after by the Corinthians, it actually amplifies them.

The most tongue-tied and ineloquent speakers can make a world of difference if they speak their words in love, and compared to them the language of angels is meaningless by itself. But should someone have such a gift and not only use it, but use it in love, then imagine what kind of impact he or she could have?

A child's simple words, spoken in love, can show many something important about the truth of faith that the most educated and wisest among us could never fully explain on their own. So imagine what kind of impact that great wisdom might have when it is given guided by love? Surely that expression of wisdom would be a "more excellent way."

Methodist founder John Wesley, in a sermon on this passage, suggested that the idea of the "more excellent way" could apply to every aspect of a Christian's life. Supposed someone who followed Jesus decided to abstain from unseemly entertainments, for example. For Wesley, those kind of entertainments included live theater, so we can tell he lived in a different time -- but the idea stays the same. He said a Christian who, persuaded by their conscience that such entertainment was not spiritually healthy, decided to stop patronizing them in his or her leisure time was doing a good thing.

But a Christian who then chose to spend that leisure time in some kind of help for people in need or personal study of Scripture or by meeting with others to study and discuss matters of faith was pursuing the "more excellent way." Helping others or offering aid to the needy was an expression of love for our neighbor, and prayer or study and learning was an expression of love for God.

Or doing those kinds of good works because the Scriptures direct it was obedience to God, which was a good thing. But moving forward and doing good works for others because we love God and our neighbor? A more excellent way!

During Advent, we may think we have done our Christian duty because we didn't speculate on the parentage of the person who took the last parking space or the specific item we braved the store to buy. And not acting bad -- now or at any other time -- is most definitely a good thing and a good habit for us Christians to develop. But love can inspire us to do more -- to not just omit wrong, but to seek after and include right. And if a time of making ready for the coming of the King is not a good time to seek a more excellent way, I don't know what would be.

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