based on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and Luke 4:16-30
Don’t get distracted by the pretty love poetry, First Corinthians was written to a church that was fighting within itself, and this passage is about that. The Jewish Annotated Bible points out, “This letter, written in the mid-50s, reveals the divisions facing the Pauline churches over such central concepts as the Holy Spirit (ch 2), marital and sexual norms (ch 5-7; 11), relation with the Gentile world (chs 6; 8), worship practices (ch 12), women’s roles (ch 14) and resurrection (ch 15).”1 Paul clarifies right from the get-go why he is writing, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.” (1 Cor 1:10-11, NRSV)
The whole letter is written to deal with the disagreements – to offer advice on them and to remind the church HOW to disagree. 1 Corinthians 13 fits into the latter category, it is meant to instruct the church on what it means to follow Jesus in the midst of disagreement. It reflects the opposite of the described behavior of the members of the Corinthian church in the rest of the letter. They are said to be impatient, unkind, boastful and arrogant, boastful in wrongdoing, etc. All the things that love is NOT. “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…” After all, love is a reflection of God’s nature. The word for love being used here is “agape” or unconditional love. The church often talks about this as the love that is God’s love for humans, and when we seek to live out our faith, we seek to bear God’s agape love into the world for all people.
Earlier in the letter, Paul worked with a common Corinthian saying, “All things are lawful”. He reflects, “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.” (10:23-24) Over and over again, Paul seeks to encourage the Corinthians to take care of each other, and use their power for the communal well-being.
Luke 4 contains another example of a faith community misbehaving. In this case it is said to be the synagogue in Nazareth, although historically speaking there are some reasons to be doubtful of the factuality of this story. Some of them are: we aren’t sure there was a synagogue in Nazareth; if there was, we don’t know that they would have been prosperous enough to have a scroll of Isaiah; and perhaps just as importantly, Nazareth isn’t built on a cliff.
This passage is almost certainly a creation of Luke, based off of a much shorter narrative in Mark that centers around the line, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Its OK that it is a creation of Luke, it lets him show of his themes, which I tend to greatly support. Luke emphasizes God’s love for the foreigners and Gentiles, and Luke quotes Isaiah who reminds us that the Spirit is working to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. For Luke, this is Jesus’s mission statement. For us, this is a part of our Communion Liturgy. For those who aren’t remembering it, the “year of the Lord’s favor” refers to the practice of Jubilee, in which every 50 years all debts are forgiven AND all land reverts back to the family who owned it. This system was meant to prevent intergenerational poverty, and to ensure that people’s subsistence remained possible. It was, by the time of Jesus, common for people to be imprisoned because of debt (a way to blackmail family members into paying up), or for family members to be sold to pay off debts. To the people of Jesus time (and Luke’s), who hadn’t seen a Jubilee in perhaps a millennia (we aren’t entirely sure if it ever happened, but we think it may have happened in the time of the Judges), this was probably a bit incredible.
Believable or not for those who heard it, the Isaiah passage emphasizes God being on the side of the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed, and working towards their good, and Luke believes this work is embodied in Jesus.
Now, within the context of this story, it is entirely too easy to assume that the Jews in Nazareth were upset about the inclusion of the outsiders, and feeling like their “special” status was threatened, but in the Jewish Annotated New Testament I have been assured by Amy Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler that this is not at all the case. After all, those were Jewish stories, and the Jews had very good relationships with Gentiles. Instead, the presenting issue in this narrative is that Jesus refuses to do messianic stuff. Mark explains this as Jesus being UNABLE, but in Luke it sounds more like Jesus refuses. Initially the crowd is quite pleased with what he is saying, but if he is doing God’s work (as described in Isaiah), but not for them. This is what enrages them. They want the good work of God too! They want freedom, healing, liberation, and debt recovery. Why wouldn’t they! Jesus choice not to help them when he helps others is what Luke reports as enraging them.
Having done adequate work understanding the texts on their own merit, I believe we are now free to excavate them for meaning for us today. I believe most of you have heard that The United Methodist Church is a bit, shall we say, Corinthian? For the uninitiated into the infighting in The United Methodist Church, let me offer a few disclaimers: 1. The fights in the church at large are NOT reflected in this congregation. After two years of careful study and conversation, in 1996, this congregation voted to be affirming and celebration of God’s LGBTQIA+ children, and we hold FIRM in that position today. 2. The General Church has pretty much always been a big fight for power, money, and influence. This is a discouraging fact (I’d love it if the General Church were a spiritually centered experience in collaboration and sharing agape around the world). However, it is a fact. In part this is true because we have a democratic process – we neither have a leader at the top telling us what to do NOR have complete freedom for our own churches. Furthermore, we are super diverse, and that means we often have very different values, and ideas of where power, money, and influence should be used. It isn’t ALL bad.
Now that I’ve offered the disclaimers, this month the Global United Methodist Church is getting together in Saint Louis to have a big old fight. (February 23-26). Officially, the church will be discussing, “human sexuality.” Really, the church will be fighting over whether or not people who are LGBTQIA+ are beloved by God. (Yes.) More deeply, I believe the church is still fighting over who has control of money, power, and influence, and the fight has been put on the backs of LGBTQIA+ people when really it is about whether or not the old-school power brokers (most commonly older, whiter, richer, Southern US, conservative, men) can make other people do their bidding anymore. (Thanks be to God, no.)
In First Corinthians, Paul is VERY concerned about the WAYS the church treated each other in their disagreements. He seems more concerned about this than about the answers that they come to. They were told to build each other up. This is a super duper hard thing to remember coming into General Conference. I believe we are all called to see each other’s humanity, and to see each other as beloved by God, even our disagreement. I do NOT believe it is acceptable to see another member of the church as the ENEMY. I believe that the way we disagree is important, and Paul’s teaching is very important.
And I really, really wish that the other side would stop doing stuff to make that more difficult. 😉
However, I’m going to play fair right now. I’m going to start by telling you what our side (the side for inclusion of all of God’s people) does that infuriates the other side (the side that likely thinks of itself as for “purity”). First of all, we disobey. The conservatives have had the majority power in the church since 1972, and have used it to say that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and thus “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained or appointed and UM clergy can’t preside at same sex weddings. Because we don’t believe that these rules have authority in the eyes of God, we’ve disobeyed them.
Furthermore, we’ve protested them. We’ve gone to General Conferences, and other meetings, and protested, and people have been uncomfortable with that. In 2000, we (I wasn’t there, this is the “we” of the inclusivity movement) even shut down General Conference. Our Bishop at the time – yours and mine – chose to be arrested with the protesters in solidarity, which was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen.
Our refusal to obey oppressive authority, and our refusal to be quiet about it has been a problem for the other side, and is taken as unfair tactics. Now, clearly, I disagree, but I thought it would be nice to share their viewpoint first for once.
On our side, the complaints are a bit different. First of all, our primary issue, is with the church claiming that some of God’s beloveds aren’t God’s beloveds. That said, James Baldwin once said (and Jan Huston was nice enough to post on my FB this week to remind me) “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Thus, I do not believe that both sides are equally valid when it comes to discussing the humanity and right to exist of LGBTQIA+ people in the church.
Then there are the current tactics on the side of exclusion. These include: wanting minimum penalties for doing same sex weddings, kicking out Annual Conferences that ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals2, minimizing the pension payments for clergy who are part of Annual Conferences that ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals3, AND deciding to leave and form a new denomination (the Wesleyan Covenant Association) WHILE intentionally bankrupting The United Methodist Church4
That is, they want to kick LGBTQIA+ people and their allies out of the church, impoverish retired clergy, and bankrupt the denomination.
And Paul says I’m supposed to be loving.
And I think he’s right.
I sort of wish I knew how to be like Jesus in the end of the gospel, just walking away while fists are pounding and violence is imminent, like in a cartoon.
However, I’m willing to settle for a bit less. I’d like to be blessed with the ability to keep on loving, and keep on seeing God’s light in those with whom I disagree NO MATTER HOW BADLY THEY BEHAVE. I keep on praying, and practicing love, in hopes that I will be able to do so.
This feels like a lesson far larger than General Conference or The United Methodist Church. But it also takes a second step. I want to know people are beloved by God, no matter how badly they behave, but I do NOT think that means I have to let them walk all over me, nor over God’s other beloveds. Walter Wink teaches that when Jesus says “turn the other cheek” he means “use subversive methods to require your opponent to respect you.”
I want to learn to turn the other cheek in love. I hope you want to too! May God help us all open our hearts and minds to the agape love and wisdom necessary to do so, now and always. Amen
1 The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 287.
2 See, the Traditional Plan and the Modified Traditional Plan in the ACDA: http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/gc2019-advance-edition-daily-christian-advocate