By Pastor Marty Troyer
Day 27 of our Learning Christ 40 day reading plan for Lent brings us to one of the most recognizable wedding texts of modern times, 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter.” “Love is patient, love is kind… love never ends.” Ah, I can smell the sweet aroma of flowers and romance even now, wafting through my office. These Pauline words are romantically right there with “Romeo, O Romeo, where art thou my Romeo?” and “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”
Funny thing though about this text, Paul had absolutely zero (zilch, nada, none) intention of it being about marriage! This passage is a classic example of what is commonly called a “proof text,” taking a text completely out of context and making it mean something the author did not intend for it to mean. The church is often guilty of this way of reading scripture, though here there seems to be value in applying the text also to marriage.
If not marriage, then what is it about? How can we read scripture to find its true meaning? Today allow me to share several “tools” that allow scripture to function as it was intended: to teach us how to live in community with God and each other. These 3 tools apply to any and all scripture passages, I’m using 1 Corinthians as an example.
First, treat the book as a whole and ask yourself why the author bothered to write it. What was the authors’ original intent, his goal in writing? This is why there is so much value in reading entire books, not just short “devotions.” None of the books in the Bible (not even Romans) were written to you and I, or to a “universal” audience. They are all specific creations written by particular authors to a specific audience with specific needs/issues with specific outcomes in mind. Paul had been to Corinth and ministered among them, and functioned in an “oversight” way. They had written him with some questions and concerns, and Paul was addressing those issues.
Specifically, Paul writes to a group with many divisions who are struggling to get along. There is tension over leadership, ethics, theology, worship practices, and newcomers. Paul is writing to Corinth to address these concerns. He addresses those concerns not by telling a story (like the Gospel authors did), singing a song (like the Psalmist), or making wise punchy statements (like in Proverbs). Instead, he chooses to write a letter, and follows the standard letter template of the day.
Second, Pay attention to the wider context of your passage; what’s happening before and after your text? The wider context of this Corinthian letter is clearly fellowship within the church. 1 Corinthians 13 is part of a sub-section of Paul’s letter stretching from chapters 11-14 (our reading for Day 27 is chapters 10-15). Every word in these 4 chapters highlights how Paul values relationships within the community. Let’s take a look.
Chapter 11:17-34 outlines Paul’s concern that the way they were celebrating communion was divisive and unjust. He invites us to “discern the body” in 11:29, meaning the church body, and to eat the meal as equals. IN Chapter 12 Paul addresses the gifts of the Spirit, which are given to every individual for the “common good.” Here he addresses them as a group, not as individuals, “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it (12:27).” The Corinthian church clearly was not treating everyone as equals, either socio-economically (ch.11) or in leadership (ch. 12). Thus it is here that Paul introduces the love chapter with the words, “I will show you a more excellent way.” Chapter 14 is all about how everyone should have a voice in worship (which our sharing and sermon reflection times intentionally allow for). Everyone’s gifts should function for the “building up” of the others present. So, how does the wider context of the love chapter effect how we read it? It takes his words out of the context of romance, and puts it squarely in the realm of congregational relationships.
Pay attention to Sunday’s sermon to see how important context is for our Gospel reading this week.
Finally, allow the text to read you by asking what does it mean for us today? As I’ve said in the previous two articles in this series, the Bible read properly critiques, challenges, inspires, teaches and paves the way for faithfulness as we enter the story. By relegating the love chapter to romance and weddings, we take a giant leap out of the story. We have to jump back in to be faithful. This is a text about us, our corporate life together, how we deal with differences and how we treat each other as a community of faith. In our Transformation Journey we have said “the Houston Mennonite Church faith community nurtures and challenges us.” Paul would be thrilled and say to us, “Great! You value community? Then I have just the text for you.” Though I said above this text was not written to you and I, it does a stunning job of addressing our issues.
This text, freed from wedded bliss, begins to function as it was intended to function, and as we need it to function: to form Houston Mennonite how to live in community with God and each other. And how are we being called to live? We live, confidently in the Spirit that we have everything we need to be a faithful, loving, open and welcoming, generous, growing congregation that shares Christ in both word and deed with our local community. We live, each with a sense of calling, ministry, and responsibility. “I am called to help our church grow. I am called to invite people and live publicly as Christian. I am called to care for people at HMC. I am responsible to help form the faith of young and old alike. The Spirit of God is empowering me just like everyone else! I have gifts my church needs” We live with love for one another. It is love that sets us apart; love that energizes us as a small congregation; love that binds us together over massive distance; love that beckons us back again each week.
In this final installment about how scripture functions at HMC, what should we say? Let us say boldly and for all to hear, that we are a community that is being transformed. Let’s open ourselves to the written word so that we more clearly will know the living Word! “Love believes all things, hopes all things.” May we, like Paul, come to believe and hope in ourselves as a gospel-formed community.