Saturday, May 23rd
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 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; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
–I Corinthians 13
Taking a Mediterranean Vacation with St. Paul as a Guide
I suspect most of us have more than a mild case of “cabin fever” by now, and how we would like to get out and travel! Of course, planes, trains, ships and buses aren’t considered the safest of ways to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. With that noted, please join me as we accompany Paul in his letters to those early Christian churches. I won’t get into the debate as to which New Testament letters scholars believe that Paul actually wrote. If you are interested in that conversation, please avail yourself of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s excellent book, The First Paul. We’ll just be doing an excursionary trip, touching on the main attractions and issues about which Paul was writing. In some ways, I hope to be like a docent in a museum, pointing out things I hope will interest and inform you.
As we begin, let’s get to know our tour guide, Paul, a most iconoclastic human being. Rather than trying to draft a definitive biographical sketch, let me simply suggest several things that I think give us insights into this complex person.:
(1) Paul was a cosmopolitan individual. He was from Tarsus, a city in modern-day Turkey, located about twelve miles from the Mediterranean seacoast and the site of one of the most famous universities in the world. As William Barclay has noted, “Perhaps it was not just as famous in the academic life as the ancient universities of Athens and Alexandria, but the scholars of Tarsus were famous for one thing – a burning and even passionate enthusiasm for learning.” Paul would have been trained in Greek philosophy and rhetoric, and was fluent in various languages. He hailed from a prestigious Jewish family, one who had attained Roman citizenship, not an easy thing to have in those days.
(2) Paul was unequivocally Jewish. The fact that he was sent to Jerusalem to study under the famous rabbi Gamaliel is a telling sign. And Paul was quite proud of that fact, boasting of it in his letter to the Galatians as “being blameless under the law.” (By law, he was referring to the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures.) Ironically enough, his teacher, Gamaliel, a grandson of the legendary progressive rabbi, Hillel, was also quite open-minded. As the leader of the Sanhedrin, it was Gamaliel who cautioned the fanatical Jews, who wanted to prosecute the Christians, to be patient and let God be God. I use the term “ironic”, because while Paul may have sat at Gamaliel’s feet in learning the technicalities of the law, he was his polar opposite in implementing it, even to the extent of persecuting the Christians.
(3) Related to Paul’s Judaism is the fact that his experience on the Damascus Road has been considered by Krister Stendahl and others not so much a conversion as a calling, similar to the experience of the call of Ezekiel. In this way of thinking, Paul, who never disavowed his Judaism, saw himself as part of the prophetic lineage of God, given meaning and direction from Jesus the Christ, whom Paul saw as the fullest expression of Judaism.
(4) Paul was a mystic. Albert Schweitzer and others have noted that Paul had visionary encounters with Jesus. It was these mystical experiences that directed his theology. Mysticism has never been particularly easy for academia or religious institutions. But one might think of Paul this way – a curious combination of the secluded visionary, Julian of Norwich; American monk/social activist, Thomas Merton; and South African human-rights evangelist, Bishop Desmond Tutu.
(5) Paul integrates his mystical experiences with Jesus and his Jewish training during three years in Arabia (most likely the Nabatean capitol of Petras) where he conceptually developed this spiritual amalgamation of the theological “justification by faith,” and the spiritual being “in Christ Jesus.” His analytical mind was engaged in an intensely personal way.
Paul felt most profoundly to be “on call for God.” His ministry could be described in a phrase borrowed from Augustine’s Confession: “sine vi humana, sed verbo,” which is “Without human force but by the word of God.”
And so, with the person and heart of Paul in mind, on to Corinth…
Corinth was a city with an important position as a trading site, because it was located between two nearby ports. Biblical historians believe that Paul’s trade as a tentmaker would have been especially valuable in the city, given the needs of the many travelers passing through. Sailors also often lived onshore in tents while their ships were in dock. It is generally felt that Paul’s intermittent tentmaking work offered him some financial support, in addition to being a way to interact with people to share his gospel message.
Ancient Corinth had been a Greek city, but it had been defeated by the Romans in 146 B.C.E., at which time it was refounded as a Roman colony and exposed to new settlers and influences from elsewhere in the empire. This made it a very cosmopolitan place, with Greek culture, language, and religion being reshaped by Roman civilization. Latin then became the official language, and there was much diversity in religious life, with the worship of traditional Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, local heroes, and even Egyptian deities. Of course, from Jewish and Christian perspectives, this was idol worship. Paul visited Corinth at least three times, founded assemblies there, and wrote at least four letters to Christians in the city. The letter we know as 1st Corinthians is believed to have been composed by Paul in Ephesus around 54-55 C.E. in response to reports he had received from the church in Corinth.
I find today’s Scripture passage to be a most telling portrait of Paul. The words seem to me to be that remarkable combination of heart and head, of Paul’s own mystical spirituality and disciplined Jewish mind. While the words are often used at weddings, they are, I think, words of calling just as applicable for a baptism. As Scott Peck once noted: “Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who truly loves does so because of a decision to love….True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed. It is a committed, thoughtful decision….True love is an act of the will that often transcends ephemeral feelings of love…” This is the kind of love that Jesus lived and modeled, and one that Paul beautifully captured in his letter to the church at Corinth, a committed, thoughtful decision to love, no matter what, no matter how.
Michael Lindvall is the retired pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City. He is a gifted storyteller and writer. In one of his stories, he tells of a time in his own life when he was the minister of a small-town church in Minnesota. He titled the story, “Our Organist,” and tells about being a guest supply preacher for a little church in Carthage Lake, a town on the way down and out. The Carthage Lake church hadn’t had a minister of its own since 1939. But a handful of people held on and gathered one Sunday a month, at noon, for Sunday school and worship with whatever preacher they could convince to come to Carthage Lake. The clerk of the congregation, Lloyd Larson, told Michael that there were only eleven members, but they would all be there. And he promised an organist, who had been Carthage Lake’s organist for 60 years, Lloyd’s sister-in-law, Agnes Rigstad.
The Sunday of Michael’s guest appearance arrived, and Michael described the small white frame building, the large sentimental stained glass windows of Jesus the Good Shepherd, lamb in one arm, staff in the other, and Jesus praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, and two cars and a pick-up truck out front. There were eleven regular worshipers, scattered throughout the sanctuary, sitting in their customary pews, with one visitor, a young man. Lloyd explained that there was no bulletin, that the preacher should just announce the hymns.
Michael nodded to the organist, with her wig slightly askew, who responded with a broad smile. Worship began. Michael announced the opening hymn, number 204, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” Agnes smiled at him and played “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The eleven elderly members sang by memory. Only the young man used a hymnal. Before the sermon, Michael announced the next hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” He looked directly at Agnes, who smiled back and played “I Love to Tell the Story.” After the sermon, Michael walked over to the organ bench, bent down, and whispered, “Agnes, what are we going to sing?” She smiled and began to play “Just as I Am, without One Plea.” After worship, Agnes shook his hand but didn’t say a word. Lloyd sheepishly explained: “Forgot to tell you about Agnes. . . . You don’t need to tell us what the hymn is, only when. Agnes only knows those three hymns, so we always sing ’em.” “Good grief, Lloyd, you mean to tell me you’ve been singing the same three hymns for 60 years?” Lloyd was concentrating on the frayed sanctuary carpet. “We like those hymns well enough, and we know ’em by heart . . . . And she’s our organist. . . .”
Later, Michael met the young man, Neil Larson, Lloyd’s grandson, who explained, “Agnes is my late grandmother’s little sister, Lloyd’s wife’s baby sister. Agnes has never been quite right. She never says more than a few words. . . . But she learned to play those hymns in one week 60 years ago when the regular organist got sick. It was a moment of musical emergency. Anyway, she hasn’t been able to learn one since. Playing the organ this one Sunday a month means the world to her. Sometimes I think it’s mostly for her that they keep the church open. Aunt Agnes lives for the first Sunday of the month.”
I love that story, because it resonates with Paul’s words: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. . .” Those words and the ones that follow are radical pronunciations of the love called for in the Kingdom of Heaven, and its outpost here on earth – the church.
As Michael was talking with Lloyd’s grandson, the young man continued, “Yes, Aunt Agnes lives for this, and I think it is because of that that they keep the doors open once a month.” Then he went on, “They asked me to play, of course. They had to ask. But grandpa knew I’d say no. I remember how he sighed with relief when I said no. Then he slapped me on the back.” “You’re an organist?” Michael asked. “Eastman (School of Music) class of ’84. I’ve had some big church jobs, the last one down in Texas, big church . . . brand new organ, 102 ranks. Four services a Sunday. Then I got sick. I’ve been HIV positive for six years. The personnel committee of that church figured it out, the weight loss, all the sick days, not married. They told me it would be best if I moved on, but not till after Christmas, of course. My parents live in St. Paul, but my father and I haven’t spoken since I was 19. . . . I’m not sick enough to be in the hospital, just too tired most of the time. I really had nowhere to go. My grandfather said I could move in with him and Agnes. To tell the truth, I feel right at home in a town of 80-year-olds.”
He paused and went on, “They keep Agnes, and they took me in. And since I moved up here, most every night Lloyd or old man Engstrom from down the road opens up the church for me. If it’s cold, they lay a fire in the wood stove. And then I play the organ. It’s a sweet little instrument, believe it or not. Lloyd’s kept it up. These last few weeks it’s been almost warm in the evenings, so they leave the doors and windows of the church open and everybody sits out on their front porch and they listen to me play— Bach, Buxtehude, Widor, all the stuff I love. And they clap from their porches; even Agnes claps.”
And, from his heavenly porch, so does Paul.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Most of us remember a time when we have heard today’s verses read during wedding ceremonies. Can you think of other contexts where they would be just as profound? Thank God for the lessons in Paul’s words.
Consider some of your favorite travels. What is it about traveling that is appealing? How does it help you to understand the world?
Paul addressed this letter to a very diverse, globally-influenced community. Modern travel and technology have caused our own community to both benefit from and struggle with diversity. What about Paul’s spiritual journey might help us in sharing the gospel with today’s world?