3 December 2020
Its not surprising that Paul uses musical instruments to try to get it through to the church in Corinth that following Christ is not a solo performance. Music is something we make together.
They were fighting over who was the greatest, who had the best gifts, who was the most spiritual, which teacher to listen to and who won the speaking in tongues award.
If Jesus wasn't popular in his hometown because he pointed out that they needed to stretch their neighbourliness to those they comfortably excluded, then Paul was definitely following his Lord when he addressed the new community which was to be the sign of hope for the world.
The church, in case you haven't noticed, was not perfect. [Like ours!] The Corinthians would have included Jews who knew and understood the Hebrew scriptures with the imperative to love God and their neighbour and the giving of alms to the poor, and the pagan Gentiles who brought a very different understanding of religion and how to worship.
It looked impossible. Most societies have groupings of like interests or family or ethnic groupings. But the church wasn't doing this, their old boundaries were being tested, so how were they to relate? Its relatively easy for people who are very different in backgrounds and cultures to relate on a temporary basis, to respect one another, listen to each other and then return to their communities. Its an entirely different matter when they are together forming a new community and they are staying together. Each begins to change the other and the reactions to that tend to cause conflict.
"Our Land" was a recent programme on TV, where three families recreated living in New Zealand at the time of European settlement. One family were early settlers and the other two families were Maori and lived in the local pa. It was fascinating but predictable with three families from an individualistic society. Those living in the pa found that living in community was impossible because they brought such different perspectives to the situation and they separated much to the surprise and despair of those who had set up the experiment and who had to adapt to the new situation which had taken on a life of its own.
Paul has already told the Corinthian church that they will only work as a community if they change the way they are relating to one another. That the way the worth of people is measured in the society around them does not hold in the church, that competing for gifts is counterproductive. Instead know all gifts were from God and everyone is of worth, called by God. That doesn't mean that they will all be the same - far from it - no clones in God's church - but they each have gifts given to them, God's gifts. Those gifts aren't for their own status but there for the body to function and be Christ's body for others. Its like a body where all the parts are needed and affect one another.
The Corinthians were after the showy gifts, becoming performers, some prima donnas, rather than worshippers.
I remember a discussion with my sister-in -law, who is a very good singer and who also has a very good understanding of worship. She was singing in an Easter church service I was taking in St Andrews in the city as well as in an oratorio at the Town Hall. In one she was performing, in the worship she was enabling others to worship. When performing she had to project the character she was acting, so people noticed. When singing in a worship service, although she was a soloist, she was part of the whole as herself. She was pointing to God, not centre stage, pulling the spotlight on herself. That, by the way, is why we are ambivalent about clapping a person in church. It can get in the way and start overshadowing our worship of God. It doesn't mean that we never do so, we can clap for joy that gives thanks for the gift we have received, but its easy to get into a performer /spectator mode rather than we are all worshipping together. We know this intuitively and we sense when a person is putting themselves forward to be praised rather than pointing to God.
Those who spoke in tongues were claiming centre stage, not only were they very noisy but no one could understand them. They were to be quiet and speak in tongues at home. The "feel-good" factor was putting the people worshipping at the centre of things rather than God. Paul wasn't popular when he pointed that out. But Paul was clear that all gifts were God given, and were to be asked for and desired but to be used to build up the community rather than divide it. There is one gift that everyone needs, must have and is given and that gift is love.
Into this fighting squabbling, self seeking group of individuals that God had called to be church, Paul spoke bluntly. Unless you love, agape was the Greek word to which Paul gave a whole heap of new meaning, you are wasting your time. You play the cymbals? If you don't have love its like playing with one cymbal, like clapping with one hand, the whole deal makes no sense at all.
This love, which Jesus showed us is God's primary gift, is God. You can keep all the rules, have all the other gifts, speak in tongues, sing gloriously, give enormous amounts of your wealth to the poor, but if you do it without love - love is not a feeling by the way but a very active verb, - if you do it expecting a praise that belongs to God, or in a way that dehumanises someone else, its all as nothing.
We can use serving others like that can't we? Giving all your money away very publicly, so everyone knows about it - who is being praised? Having great faith, so that mountains are removed, what good does that do if its self serving? Whom does it build up, who profits?
We can serve others, it can look good, but we could be also building up a system where those we are serving are on a lower level of humanity. People become objects to be served so the servers can get praised for their selfless serving. Love becomes charity.
The story I told last week about the guy wearing the turban coming to give money to a mission in North Carolina and being turned away because hat weren't allowed illustrates this. He was serving. The Christians in the Mission did not accept the gift he was bringing with no strings attached. Their response appeared to demonstrate that they were superior in how they did things and they invoked God as their justification for being this way. They also refused help for those they professed to be serving. Where was the love that overcomes cultural mistakes?
Paul addresses the issues that were in that community and I would say in every community and in our own lives in to differing degrees.
Imagine going into a group of people which is impatient, unkind, envious, not wanting others to succeed or have things, self seeking, thinks it knows best, is irritable, rude and resentful and is pleased when something goes wrong with a rival. Would you want to join it or feel welcome in it? Would you listen to anything they had to say, especially about love? Its not terribly attractive, let alone showing the love of God.
So Paul says to them and us. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8Love never ends. Love is lasting. Hear that. This isn't a soft people pleasing, not-wanting-to-upset sort of love. Paul is holding up the tough, gentle, persistent, faithful costly love of God as the standard for our relationships with one another. For the world to see in our actions and attitudes.
It doesn't mean that we agree with everyone, or see things the same way - our differing perspectives are part of our riches, its how we do it. We are also compelled at times to speak out, to offend. A local, on a beach up North last summer, warned a family not to let their children swim that day as the tide was dangerous. It offended the people and they ignored the warnings.
There was a drowning that day on that beach. A family that got ripped apart. Don't confuse not wanting to discomfort people with loving.
The amazing thing is that we do love, imperfectly, haltingly but we can love, because that is the gift of the Spirit, given to the church to each of us. We are charismatic, endowed with gifts, that we are all given to use.
Love, which goes outside the boundaries of our families and those with whom we are comfortable, changes everything.
Love helps us grow up. Paul says, we grow, we put away childish things. We mature, we are no longer children with the words "mine, mine," as our first reaction to the other toddler approaching our toys. We become adults who say "yours, it is all yours God, help us use the gifts you give us to live with one another in love".
Appreciate the people around you as God's gifts to you as you are to them.
We don't have the whole picture. Realise - we now see through a glass darkly. The glass mirrors and windows of those times gave a dim distorted image. At present we can't see the whole picture, but eventually we will. So have faith and trust God in hope. Then together we can give thanks to God and worship God by faithful loving in this city and place, in our families and of those whom we find difficult or different or haven't even met.
As we continue to do this, we become a community where healing takes place. Where people find the wholeness, the salvation, that Jesus brings, here and now, and which is lasting beyond even the barriers of death.
There are many God given-gifts, but get the perspective right. The lasting gifts are faith, hope and love and the greatest is love. Love is essential, none of the other gifts work without it. .God's own self is love. All of us. every human being on this planet, need the love which God gives us, to heal and thrive and to live.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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