January 28, 2019
The Epiphany 4C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 4:21-30 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 1:4-10 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 71:1-6 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 112 (Lord’s Day 43)
Author: Scott Hoezee
I don’t quite understand this passage. Or at least I don’t understand how it turns out. It’s not so much what is contained in this Lectionary snippet of verses 21-30 as how this call follow on what we saw last week in the first part of this story. After all, Luke 4:15 assures us that everyone was praising Jesus. Then, following his Scripture reading from Isaiah and even his words that this was being fulfilled right then and there, everyone spoke well of him and was amazed by his gracious words.
Luke uses pretty big terms here to describe how people—all the people—were reacting to Jesus and it’s all really positive. So how can those same people ALL turn on him (and that is the term Luke uses in verse 28: ALL the people were furious)? And what leads Jesus to say in verse 24 that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown”? Hello? Pay attention, Jesus. You just were being accepted. Everybody liked you. Everybody was speaking well of you. Everybody was amazed at your gracious words. You had them in the palm of your hand! You were doing so well.
It reminds me of some student sermons I have heard. Sometimes student sermons start off prett shaky and it only goes from there. Sooner or later you become eager for this particular sermonic plane to land. But other times a student’s sermon starts out really strong. Hope rises in the professor’s heart! This is interesting. All of the other students are listening with rapt attention. Important questions have been raised. The text is being engaged thoughtfully and beyond a mere surface reading.
But then, sometimes, something goes terribly wrong in the second half of the sermon: the good questions that were raised receive pat answers after all. Or what had been good about the sermon gets eclipsed when the student suddenly utters a few lines that you just know would be deeply wounding to any number of people in a congregation were this sermon actually delivered some Sunday. In any event, it sometimes happens that the student ends up saying something offensive or the student drops the homiletical ball in some other way and then the sermon that started out so strong and with such great promise falls flat after all.
Jesus was doing so well. The sermon started out so strong. People were lapping it up. And then . . . well, then he just had to go and get up in their faces and as much as tell them that they were as sinful as Israel of old back in the days when Elijah and Elisha (and Yahweh for that matter) saved their best stuff for people outside of Israel. It was as though Jesus was saying, “You can keep your amazement and you can keep your nice opinions of me because I see the truth: it’s all shallow, it’s all empty as a hollow rain barrel, it’s all a façade as you wonder what you yourself might get out of it all. I see the truth and so I am flat out going to refuse delivery on your good opinion.”
And the people reacted with fury. But you have the sense that their anger stemmed from more than just having been accused of something. Maybe they also sensed that Jesus’ words had a certain bite to them—a bite of truth. After all, accuse me of something patently false and you may well make me very upset. But flag something negative about me that also happens to be perfectly correct and I will be more than upset: I will be hopping angry (all-the-more-so if it’s a truth about me I have labored hard to keep hidden for ever so long now).
That’s maybe why the old adage about prophets and hometowns is right: both parties know each other too well. The townsfolk write off the would-be prophet because they knew him when. It’s difficult for some people to go from having tousled a little kid’s hair when he was young to accepting that same kid as an authority figure later in life. We probably all know people—relatives or people from the place where we grew up—who never stop using the diminutive version of our names even long after we have become adults. “Hey there, Scott-a-Roo! How’s it going, Janey-Pooh?” And for at least some of these people, what lies behind that kind of greeting is the message, “Don’t think you can tell me what to do, Scott. Don’t think I am going to take you seriously, Jane. I’ve been around longer than you, know more, have experienced more. Don’t think your Ivy League education or the experiences you gained when you lived in Asia for two years mean diddly-squat to me.”
Who knows if that was just what was happening to Jesus that day in Nazareth. But if that is how the townsfolk regarded him, Jesus brought his own backlog of Nazareth experience to bear, too. He’d heard Mary and Joseph talking about some of these people over the years when he was a youth growing up. He remembers how old Eli had once said such a cutting thing to Mary that she cried for a week. He recalls how Matthias swindled Joseph out of the pay he had rightly earned on that carpentry job Joseph once did for Matthias. It’s not that we have to think Jesus was bearing grudges all over the place (that would not be a very good thing to think of our Savior!) but if his backlog of knowledge told him that these people had problems—and if that helped him to see through the thin veneer of their initial acceptance of him in the synagogue that day—that would hardly be surprising.
Who knows just what we are to make of all this. But perhaps in this Season of Epiphany one thing we can take away from this aspect of Luke 4 is this: Jesus really was born truly human and he was born into—and then lived in—our very real world.
This is such a human story. The drama here is so familiar to us all. We know how this feels. We sense the community dynamics here. God’s Son was present there in the flesh—and actually had been for many years by this time when Jesus finally launched his public ministry—but his divine presence was so earthy, so mundane, so common that Jesus blended in to the community woodwork and was caught up in the same web of rumors, gossip, back-biting, and all the rest as any other human being in Nazareth at that time.
Let’s admit that the way this synagogue story turns out is not very nice. But let’s remember also that Jesus came down here to this planet precisely to enter into all that silliness and pettiness and tawdriness so as to save us from all that. Thanks be to God for his gritty salvation!
There is nothing particularly striking about the Greek (or English) text of this story. As noted above, in verse 30 the Greek literally says that after the people of the town try to throw Jesus off a cliff, he simply “passed through their middle and went on.” That simple statement likely hides a miracle. The fact that the Greek text also does not miss a beat to go right into verse 31 which says “And he went on to Capernaum” may also tell us something. Yes indeed, he disappeared clean out of Nazareth and immediately popped back up in Capernaum where some real work could be done in a way not possible in Nazareth due to the people’s disbelief. Also, commentators point out that a typical reaction to perceived heresy would be to stone someone. However, casting a person down ONTO the stones below was considered to be the same punishment, albeit in different guise.
From Dr. David Davis, Pastor, Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey:
I know this doesn’t sound so holy, but sometimes we want to take Jesus and shake him. At least that means you are listening, paying attention to where the Gospel rubs your life raw. Luke reports that “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Some readers have a way of becoming fascinated with the escape. Such a display of power, a crafty move to avoid the mob. Was it a miracle? Luke seems rather unconcerned. Luke is just as content with the understanding that it wasn’t time, yet. Luke seems to prefer that image of the lingering crowd up there on the hill. And so we’re told “he went on his way.” He kept on his way. He moved along the way. He kept right on going. He proceeded in that direction. He went on the way. He went on his way of bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captives, giving sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free. He went on his way. He went on his way healing the sick and embracing the outcast and eating with the sinner. The hometown crowd is never satisfied and the understandings of “Us” and “Them” are forever etched in stone. But he still went on his way. Which means, of course, that he went on his way to Jerusalem, before another crowd, up another hill. He went on his way, the way of the cross.
When God’s light shines on the way of the cross, you and I are invited to see both the stretch of God’s grace and the truth of our own disobedience. Here so early in Luke’s Gospel, the Lord’s encounter with humanity’s self-righteousness and preoccupation with the hometown attitude, it is already driving him to the cross. Before the healings and the teaching and the miraculous catch of fish, before Mary and Martha, and the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and Zacchaeus, before the rich man who was told to sell everything and give it to the poor and the poor widow who put in everything she had, before all of that, Jesus was on his way to the cross. Before Luke makes it abundantly clear that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would reach into “all the living that you have”, Jesus was well on his way.
It’s that reach that causes us to squirm, or to keep a safe distance, or to run away. The Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall remembers that Paul Scherer, a great preacher of the past, used to point out that in the New Testament the kingdom of heaven and the life of discipleship is so often described as a great feast, a bounteous banquet. But then that preacher reminds the hearers of the irony that everyone was trying stay away from that feast. Or as Hall himself then wonders, how is it that the theology of “megachurchianity” in our culture assumes that everyone has this strong compulsion to “get as close to Jesus as possible?” To draw near to this Jesus is to encounter the Gospel that confronts and convicts and threatens. And you and I find our place somewhere in Luke’s crowd, because if we’re honest, the Gospel of Jesus Christ hits too close to home, to the hometown crowd. “They got up, drove him out of town and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff….but Jesus went on his way.”
When your encounter with the Gospel causes knots to form in your stomach, when you realize again that how you broker your time, and the decisions you make with your kids, and how you to do your money, and the plans you put in place at work, and the absolute oppression you endure to a schedule, or when you struggle again with how it all reflects upon and relates to the life of faith…when your view of the world and your politics and your opinions are being poked not by your disagreement with a preacher, or your frustrations with the rhetoric of the public square, or your inability to safely and naively compartmentalize your life because after all religion and politics don’t mix, when your life out there is being prodded by your very understanding of God and the magnitude of the Gospel, when your experience of life and of death is so ripe, when your awareness of suffering and the burden you bear in caring for another weighs so heavily, when your angst about the world or your children’s future, when it all drives you to point a finger at the Almighty and have it out for a change, when you just want to put in a word for the hometown crowd….
Author: Stan Mast
As encouraging and upbeat as Nehemiah 8 was for preachers last week, Jeremiah 1 is more than a bit intimidating and negative. Nehemiah 8 depicted a preacher’s dream: a willing congregation that invited Ezra to open the Word of God, visibly demonstrated their ready hearts, listened intently to the Word and its interpretation, and responded with the kind of heartfelt sorrow and joy that the Gospel should always produce. Jeremiah’s call to ministry was a preacher’s nightmare. His divinely given message of gloom and doom would arouse hostility and opposition so great that he would need God’s special protection throughout his long ministry.
Who would want a preaching ministry like that? I have colleagues who have been called to serve dying churches. Their mission is to help the church die with dignity and grace. That is a difficult ministry to perform; my hat is off to those who can be gracious shepherds through the valley of the shadow of a congregation’s death.
Jeremiah’s ministry was even more difficult. He was instructed to proclaim the negative Word of the Lord. God sent him to the nations “to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow.” We’re not talking here about a poor preacher who inadvertently kills a congregation by his boorish ways and terrible sermons. We are talking about a ministry designed by God, blessed by God, and protected by God, precisely so that the Word given by God would do those negative things.
Why in the world would we preach on a text like this, and especially in this season of Epiphany, when we’re supposed to focus the church’s attention on the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The call of Jeremiah to his ministry of judgment is almost an anti-Epiphany, a dark event in a dark time. Why would the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary choose Jeremiah 1:4-10 for the Old Testament reading on this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany?
If we read the Gospel reading for today (Luke 4:21-30) and the reading from the Psalms (71:1-6), the choice of the RCL becomes pretty obvious. There are many parallels between Jeremiah 1 and Luke’s account of Jesus’ first sermon in his home town of Nazareth. Both Jeremiah and Jesus (and the writer of Psalm 71) had been chosen by God before their birth. Both Jeremiah and Jesus were specifically called by God for their ministry, appointed and anointed to speak God’s word to a nation in turmoil. Both were appointed not only as a prophet to their own nation, but also as a prophet to the nations. And when Jesus focused on the work of God among the nations (the widow of Zarephath and the Syrian General Naaman), the affirmation and awe of Jesus’ home church was instantly transformed into a murderous rage. When Jesus revealed himself as a prophet like Jeremiah, his townspeople wanted to kill him.
Now that we see the Epiphany connections, let’s think about how we can preach on Jeremiah’s call so that God’s people will be blessed. The context of Jeremiah’s call gives us an initial point of contact with our day. The opening three verses of Jeremiah 1 tell us that Jeremiah was called to preach during a very difficult time in Israel’s history. He ministered during the last tumultuous days of Judah’s slide into captivity—from the days of good King Josiah who tried to reform an apostate nation, through the short miserable reigns of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin, and to the end of the nation under Zedekiah, when “the people of Jerusalem went into exile.” For 40 years he spoke the Word of the Lord to the powers and the people who were headed to national and personal disaster, but didn’t know it. “Let those who have ears, hear the Word of the Lord.”
A ministry like that must be deeply rooted in God’s word. We can’t take on the powers that be and an apostate nation unless we are sure that we are speaking God’s own word, rather than our own personal opinion. Jeremiah (and Jesus) were sure. Jeremiah was not making a career choice when he undertook this ministry of hard words. No, he says, “the Word of the Lord came to me.” Throughout his ministry, Jeremiah was opposed by false prophets who spoke their own words of comfort and cheer to a nation that needed a hard Word from God.
Not only did Jeremiah know that God had called him to this ministry; he also knew that God had given him the specific words to speak. When he protested that he wasn’t up to being God’s mouthpiece (“I do not know how to speak; I am only a child”), God not only promised him protection and rescue, but also gave him the very words to speak. “Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth, and said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’” Unless we are sure that we are similarly called by God and are speaking the very Word of God, we will not be able to preach the message of Jeremiah or Jesus. We will choose the smooth and easy words of false prophets with their bright smiles, their immaculately coiffed hair and their unfailingly positive messages.
To go against the grain as Jeremiah and Jesus did, we will need a deep conviction that our ministry is of God. Note how God drove that message home throughout our text. Did you notice all the “I’s” spoken by God. “I formed you, I set you apart, I appointed you, I send you, I command you, I am with you and will rescue you, I have put my words, I appoint you over nations.” From beginning to catastrophic end, the ministry of Jeremiah and Jesus was from God. That’s an important word when our best and faithful work seems to bear no fruit. Success in worldly terms is not necessarily what God calls us to.
In fact, God specifically called Jeremiah to a ministry of failure, at least in the short term. “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” That is a message of doom and judgment; there’s no question about it. To preach about the coming judgment is part of faithful ministry, because there are times when that is the precisely the word God’s people need. Without that hard word, people will not be ready to hear the gospel word. Jeremiah had to be God’s voice to a people who had been hardened in sin and soothed by false prophets. Before the genuine Good News could be heard, God’s Bad News had to be spoken. So it is today.
But God’s ultimate purpose was to build and plant. Yes, sinful Israel had to be uprooted and torn down, destroyed and overthrown, but that was only because Israel would not listen to God at all. Once he got their attention through the Babylonian Exile, they might be ready for God to build what he had torn down and plant what had been uprooted. God doesn’t take any pleasure in the death of the wicked and in the destruction of all they had built. He wants us to turn and live. Jeremiah’s mission was to hammer home that message, so that when the disaster happened, they would know why, and repent.
That Israel did not turn and repent even when God began to build and plant is a testimony to the depth of human depravity. And that, of course, is why God finally sent his only Son to preach Good News to the nations. He came to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
That must, finally, be our message to a tumultuous and apostate nation and to a slumbering and sinful church. Yes, speak the hard word; that is the Word of the Lord. But never leave people with that negative message. Here’s where my ancestral ministers went wrong. They dwelt on sin and judgment so hard and so long that people never caught the joy of the Gospel. As important as judgment is, it must never be the only or last Word from God.
It’s all so complicated, isn’t it? Who would dare to preach like Jeremiah? Only those who know they are called by God and are convinced that God has given them his own Word. Living in an age that is becoming increasingly furious about the message of the Gospel, we need to hear God’s word to Jeremiah. “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.”
So, how can we preach on all this? Here’s one suggestion. In our current climate of post-modern relativism, the claims of religion are seen as nothing more than a particular culture’s story. “We all tell stories to create reality by the language we use.” Thus, all the claims of the Christian faith are seen as no more than “just your opinion.”
The words of God to Jeremiah and the other biblical prophets counter that post-modern claim. The Word of God is precisely that—not the story told by the Jewish or Christian faith community, but the actual Word of the Lord. Of course, we cannot prove that, but we can boldly preach that the Bible makes that claim from beginning to end.
In a world that is deeply skeptical about truth claims, we must preach the Word of God. How do we know of God’s existence and God’s thoughts and God’s actions? Well, says Jeremiah 1:4-10 (and the rest of sacred Scripture), God has called and appointed and equipped prophets to speak his word. This all happened in space and time (as indicated in those first 3 verses of Jeremiah), not in the never land of timeless myth. This is why the story of Jesus is located by Luke in a particular time and place. Jeremiah and Jesus were as real as we are. And God placed his Word in their mouth, so that they could reveal the will and way of the true God.
Again, you will not be able to prove this to the cultured despisers, but you should certainly preach it to your flock of believers.
The mission given to Jeremiah seems harsh to modern ears. We want to hear positive words on Sunday morning. But we have all experienced the importance of tearing down and destroying. My last church was located in an area of urban blight, where nothing but homeless folks and tumbleweeds occupied the streets. While we faithfully preached the importance of caring for these needy people, we also knew that ultimately their welfare and the prosperity of our city depended on urban renewal. So nearly 30 years ago, the city and numerous construction companies began the long process of tearing down and destroying. That was necessary, in order to build a better city for all its residents. We could not build and plant until there was a good deal of uprooting and overthrowing. Now the city bustles with business, entertainment, hospitality and art. The tumbleweeds are gone, and the homeless have much better dwellings and care than they did before urban renewal began.
Author: Scott Hoezee
There is a part of the well-known story (and the popular Sunday School story) of “Jacob’s Ladder” that most people don’t know about or just ignore. The outlines of the story are familiar and are also accurate enough to the biblical text in Genesis: Jacob is on the lam, fleeing the fury of his brother Esau whom Jacob has just swindled out of his family blessing (with the conniving help of their mother). Having run as far as he could before collapsing in exhaustion, Jacob uses a stone for a pillow and promptly has a dream of a stairway to heaven on which angels of God are ascending and descending even as a divine figure at the top of the staircase (or ladder or whatever) promises to be Jacob’s God. Jacob wakes up, concludes he had somehow stumbled into one of those “thin places” where the boundary between heaven and earth is a bit porous, and so names the spot “Beth-El” or “the House of God.”
The next part is what we usually miss: Jacob then says to the God of his fathers, “OK, God, I will serve you and let you be my God and I will worship you IF (and I want to stress IF) you one day bring me back to my homeland unharmed.” Jacob, the heel-grasping liar, cheat, and swindler, is cutting a bargain with Almighty God. His dream of God’s assurances notwithstanding, Jacob will nevertheless hedge his bets and reward God with his own loyalty and worship only after God comes through for him.
In a poem like Psalm 71 we can easily miss a somewhat similar dynamic: yes, the psalmist claims God as his refuge and strength (as many psalms do) and says that he is quite intent on continuing to praise this God. However please note: for all that to happen and to continue, God has to do his part, too. Maybe this is not quite as conditional an arrangement as crafty old Jacob articulated but there is the firm sense here that the psalmist expects God to keep coming through for him, to issue the necessary orders to the powers that be in the universe to rescue him and to slap down his enemies. Just beyond the stopping point of this particular assigned lection after verse 6, the psalmist cajoles God to not forget about him when he gets older. “Don’t throw me away or toss me aside just because I get up there in years, O Lord. The rest of the world might not honor the elderly but YOU sure better keep on keeping on for me even then!”
Sentiments such as this are not at all unusual in the Psalms. You kind of find this all over the place in fact. Yet today in the church I would wager that most people would feel uncomfortable being this up front with a nearly tit-for-tat expectation that our ongoing praise of God could in any way, shape, or form be contingent on God’s coming through for us. Imagine the reaction of most people in a given congregation if during some open mic time of prayer a member of the church stepped forward to pray, “Dear God, I overall plan and hope to continue to come to worship services here and to sing my praises to you and throw my offerings into the collection plate but . . . it sure would help motivate me, O God, if you came through for me on that big securities deal I have pending on Wall Street. Save me from my creditors, O God, and clear away the barriers to this deal so that I will then be able to go on praising you!”
Whether or not there would be audible gasps, surely most people would feel their spines stiffening as they sat and listened to this. Can you really talk to God that way? Should you?
Now, perhaps nothing in Psalm 71 or other such Hebrew poems in the Psalter are actually quite as crass as my analogy. But even so, the language of Psalm 71 is strikingly different from what we more commonly feel compelled to confess and say and pray in church: an unconditional surrender to God come what may. If something bad happens to me, it was God’s will (and who would I be to complain about it?). We owe God and we certainly owe Jesus everything and God owes us nothing. My praise and my testimony to God will go on unabated no matter what. I would not want to leave the impression with anyone that even 5% of my ongoing praise of God is contingent on anything I might want God to do for me. Even when I prayed for rescue and it did not come, I would be a terrible sinner even to mention this to God much less hint I might just praise him a little less on account of it.
Many of the ancient Hebrews who composed these psalms had a kind of plucky faith not often seen among more buttoned-down Christians these days. The psalmists dared to lament, to complain, to cajole, to threaten. “Hey, God: guess what? If you let me die, I cannot sing to you anymore from down there in Sheol so if you want me to stay active in the choir, keep me alive!”
Like anything, such pluckiness and boldness in prayer can go too far. It can be abused. It would not take much imagination to conceive of how this could also morph into a Me-First narcissistic faith in which God is reduced to a water boy. That certainly could be a danger in our current culture of entitlement. Sometimes these days when faced with some uppity believer who seems to think it’s God’s main job to make people rich and comfortable, we need to point people the other way and tell them in humility to be thankful for the inestimable spiritual riches they have already been lavished with by grace and to hush up about their other health-and-wealth fantasies and expectations.
Still, there seems to be something deeply human about having the kind of honest relationship even with God that admits we are not stoics, we are not just in this relationship for it to be 100% one-way. The God who gave us life can be asked to sustain that life, rescue that life, help us in that life now and then. And God, being God, is no more offended by that natural expectation on our part than a good parent would feel disappointed when it becomes clear that a child really does need Mom or Dad to put food on the table and protect him or her from harm when necessary. A child’s having that expectation speaks well of his or her opinion of the parent: Mom and Dad will come through for me because they are supposed to come through because the whole thing is founded on love. Children who have no such expectation of help or rescue or protection from a parent are usually the same kids who were abused by those parents or so serially let down by them as to dash all hope. That’s not a healthy picture.
Psalm 71, then, can be a bracing tonic for prayer lives that have perhaps become too timid. God does not mind our leaning on him or having expectations of him. Good relationships are always two-way. A poem like this psalm may helpfully remind us of that.
My Old Testament professor in Seminary was Dr. John Stek. When teaching on the Psalms, he noted something C.S. Lewis also noted: a lot of the time God more or less demands to be praised. But isn’t that a bit off-putting? Do we care for people in life who seem always to be sucking around for a compliment? Isn’t it a bit vain and self-centered to ask for ongoing praise?
Well, all things being equal yes but consider, Stek suggested, this scenario: suppose a single mother worked day and night to provide for her son, Charlie. She worked in a factory by day and cleaned toilets in an office building by night to give Charlie good food to eat, nice clothing to wear to school, and all the other things a young kid might need and want. But then suppose Charlie is a bit of an ungrateful clod. He never notices how hard his Mom works, never thanks her, and even seems a bit entitled and is not infrequently a bit rude to his mother.
Now, suppose one day this mother said, “Charlie, I deserve better than this from you. I deserve far more respect and quite a bit more gratitude than you ever express to me.” Would we conclude this was a vain, egotistical woman on account of asking for a bit of thanks from her child? Hardly.
So also with God: God can dare ask for our praise because due to our sin we are like Charlie: we just often miss seeing how much God gives us. We need to be reminded of how much has been given to us already and on an ongoing basis.
Of course, in the case of what we said here about Psalm 71 it goes the other way too: in a healthy relationship it is both OK that a child expects a parent to provide for him AND the parent will not take it ill that this expectation is there. It is a two-way street and if the parent is in a position to provide for a child’s needs, then it is a source of delight that this is so and if at least some of a child’s gratitude is contingent on such provision, well that, too, would be only natural.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Author: Doug Bratt
In the more than twenty years that I’ve ministered with and to the church I currently serve, I’ve never preached on 1 Corinthians 13. Now I remember why. Not only is it so lovely that it nearly defies description. It’s also like a figurative lit stick of dynamite. So I take comfort in the assertion of a biblical scholar as wise as Stephen Farris that “this surely is one of the most difficult of all passages to preach” (The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings, Eerdmans, 2001, p. 211).
Those who proclaim the “difficult” Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may first want to explore its context. That will include examining at least the least the identity of its first hearers and its setting within Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
We don’t have to read much of 1 Corinthians to note that the apostle writes it largely to address divisions within the Corinthian church. After all, he spends only its first nine verses addressing the Corinthians and thanking God for the grace God has shown them.
Paul then hurries in chapter 1:10 to appeal to his brothers and sisters to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” He subsequently spends most of the next nine chapters addressing those divisions that center on things like worship, marriage and lawsuits among believers. If 1 Corinthians’ modern readers squint hard enough, we may think we’re reading something out of current issues of The Christian Century or Christianity Today.
By the time Paul and we get to I Corinthians 12, we may feel like we’re ready to take a deep breath. We’re perhaps as ready to hear some good news as the Apostle is ready to deliver it. Thankfully, then, Paul spends much of 1 Corinthians 12 describing the “spiritual gifts” (1) God so generously showers on Christ’s Church. There is, the apostle marvels, both a remarkable unity and diversity in those gifts that God gives in order to advance “the common good” (7).
While some people argue that 1 Corinthians 13 is largely independent of what precedes and follows it, scholars like Farris (ibid, 211) point out that’s it’s actually anchored in its literary context. First, it at least alludes to gifts of the Spirit, including the gift of speaking in tongues that Paul’s already said so deeply divides his audience. Second, 1 Corinthians 13 picks up and expands on the theme the apostle’s letter has raised before of “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up” (8:1).
While the Lectionary doesn’t include it in the text it appoints for this Sunday, wise heralds of 1 Corinthians 13 will want to include chapter 12:31a in their proclamation of it. There, after all, Paul invites his readers to “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” In doing so he doesn’t seem to be just talking about, for example, the gifts of apostleship, prophecy and teaching, etc. (12:27ff.). He also appears to be speaking of the “greatest” of the enduring gifts that is love (13:13).
Those who announce 1 Corinthians 13’s gospel might also take Professor Karoline Lewis’ (Preach This Week, January 31, 2010) advice by including chapter 14:1’s call to “Follow the way of love” in their proclamation of it. That verse, after all, reminds its hearers that while love is a gift from God, it’s also a gift that God invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to cultivate.
How those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 13 actually do so will be shaped, through the power of the Holy Spirit, by the needs of their audience. My colleague Stan Mast (Epistolary CEP Sermon Starter, January 25, 2016) gives some excellent suggestions about how we might shape our proclamation to fit our own particular contexts.
Yet regardless of how those who proclaim this text apply it to our own situations, we’ll want to note, as James Boyce points out (Preach This Week, February 3, 2013) that when Paul begins it with “I will show you the most excellent way,” he’s using Epiphany language. By contrasting the sinful divisions of the Corinthian Church with the unity the Holy Spirit instills through the practice of love, Paul shines light on a better way to be the body of Christ.
Of course, as countless scholars note, most western citizens of the 21st century, including Jesus’ adoptive brothers and sisters, have a very murky understanding of love. We easily confuse it with things like lust, attraction, emotion or affection.
So those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 13 will want to consider ways to describe the kind of self-giving, determined love to which it refers. But we want to anchor it in the love of God, particularly as Jesus Christ manifested it. That will help those who proclaim this text avoid the murky waters of cheap moralism. It will also ground our proclamation in the most perfect example the world will ever see of the kind of love Paul describes.
From a theological/literary standpoint, scholars often divide 1 Corinthians 13 into three sections or, since this is poetry, “stanzas.” In the first, Paul uses the formula, “If I … but have not … nothing.” There, says N.T. Wright (Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p. 173) Paul mentions some of the impressive spiritual and religious things the Spirit empowers Christians to do. But the apostle goes on to insist that all those great things benefit no one unless they’re wrapped in love.
In 1 Corinthians 13’s “second stanza,” Paul tells his hearers what God’s gift of love is and is not. The love that he commends has, after all, a very specific shape and flavor. It’s not the amorphous love about which so many of our contemporaries sometimes swoon. The love the Holy Spirit equips God’s adoptive children to cultivate is very concrete.
Because it’s at the heart of 1 Corinthians 13, Wright invites those (including, I’d suggest, those who proclaim it) who hear this second “stanza” to “take it slowly, a line at a time, and to reflect on at least three things: first, ways in which we see this quality in Jesus himself; second, ways in which we see it (or more likely … don’t see it) in ourselves; and third, ways in which, if we were like that, it would work out in practice” (ibid, 174).
1 Corinthians 13’s third “stanza” features love’s enduring and complete character in contrast with the exercise of the other gifts the Spirit generously gives God’s beloved children. God’s people use those other gifts “for the common good,” but only imperfectly, incompletely and for a time. The greatest as well as most enduring gift is that of love.
Those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 13 are surely aware of the dearth of the kind of love it describes. We may be, as a result, tempted toward being unloving in our proclamation of it. So those who prepare to proclaim this text might put on our computers, lecterns, pulpits and any other tool something like this paraphrase of Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 love song: “If I preach and teach like a combination of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. and Charles Spurgeon but don’t do so with deep love, I’m only a howling smoke detector.”
In her wonderful volume of sermons entitled Help My Unbelief (Eerdmans, 2000, p. 87-88), Fleming Rutledge recounts Mike Wallace’s interview of the great French film star Jeanne Moreau. Cornelius Plantinga says that in it Moreau “completely locked Wallace up into inarticulate bafflement.”
Wallace tried to get Moreau to bite on his conspiratorial statement, ‘There’s a feeling in America that passion in a woman of a certain age is unseemly.’ After a long pause Moreau said, ‘They’re right.’
This astonished Wallace: a French woman, veteran actress in R-rated films, downplaying passion? Wallace obvious discomfiture revealed itself in his ‘Passion is unseemly?’ ‘Oh, come on,’ Moreau replied. ‘Passion! When you get to sixty, you know about love. Love is not passion.’
‘But there’s nothing wrong with passion,’ Wallace protested, his face a picture of disappointment . . . Moreau replied, ‘I would hate—I would hate to still be overcome with passion.’ As though she were a wise grandmother talking to a teenaged boy, Moreau explained, ‘I have passion for life, but I know about love. Love and passion don’t go together. Passion is destructive. Passion is demanding. Passion is jealous. Passion goes up and down. Love is constant.’
As Wallace tried to recover, Moreau added, ‘Compassion. That’s what love is about. You give even more than you receive.’ It was, summarizes, Plantinga, as if Wallace was talking from a “secular, sensualist perch, and Moreau from 1 Corinthians 13. He was talking about eros. She was talking about agape. And her preference for agape made Wallace ‘gasp and stammer’.”