Written by Pastor Ed
You May Be Wrong
January 31, 2016
Luke 4: 21-30
I Cor. 13: 1-13
When I was a little boy, so I’m told, I had a rather large stubborn streak. If I was sure of something, no amount of persuasion could convince me to change my mind, no matter what the consequences might have been. Now in my experience, that’s not all that unusual for children of a certain age. And, thankfully, I’ve grown out of that!
But not everyone does. Edwin Friedman in his little book Friedman’s Fables, tells the tale of a man who one day proclaimed that he was dead. The family, naturally distraught, called in all kinds of experts to convince the man that he was still very much alive, all to no avail. Finally a doctor was summoned, and his first question to the man was, “Do dead men bleed?” “Well, no,” the man replied, at which the doctor pulled out a scalpel and cut the man’s arm which immediately started bleeding. “Ah,” said the man, “I see I was wrong, dead men do bleed!”
In Paul’s response to the congregation at Corinth, he urges them to grow up; to stop being mike little children. “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.” (13:11) And, he implies, so should you.
Now, let’s recall briefly what has brought on this argument from Paul. The Corinthian church was experiencing conflict, splitting into factions, and arguing over numerous things. They were experiencing growing pains; church was a new thing and they were trying to work out what it meant to be followers of Christ. And one of the things they were arguing about was the use of the many gifts of the Spirit that had been given to them. It was an alive, active church and I’m sure many good things were happening. Let’s not be too hard on them.
So Paul has addressed their concerns, first by assuring them that all the gifts they were experiencing were from the same spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, and then assuring them that all the gifts were needed and none was more important than others, using the image of the body that we talked about last Sunday. He will go on in the following part of the letter to address some specifics about prophecy and tongues specifically as well as some instructions about worship, but in the middle of all this Paul inserts this passage we read this morning, which we know as I Cor. 13, often called the love passage.
Now this section of Paul’s letter is interesting in and of itself. It is sort of inserted here and could be, and often has been pulled out and used on its own. It has some parallels in other writings both of the time as well as previous, so Paul may have borrowed at least the style he used here. However that may be, Paul uses it to further his argument with the Corinthian church about how they ought to act toward each other in the midst of this conflict over gifts. Above all he says, you should practice love.
While you may have heard this passage used most often in weddings, it is really directed at the church and how we should treat each other in the church. And how is that?
Well, first of all Paul focuses on what he’s just been talking about, namely the gifts of the Spirit. And, he says, you may be the best and brightest; you may even be the most spiritual, but if you don’t act in love, it means nothing. Because without love you will simply be arrogant and rude. You’ll be like the bully who takes his ball and goes home if things don’t go your way. Rather than using your gifts for the common good (12:7) or for building up the body, you will see them as only for building up yourself and showing off how great you are. Unfortunately, I’ve known some people like that.
Secondly, Paul describes a bit of what love does look like.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
It’s quite a description and of course can apply to love in all kinds of situations as well as church. They’re nice words, and flow glibly off the tongue, but is that really possible? And what does Paul really mean when he says love “believes all things” or “bears all things?” Really!? But remember, Paul is writing to the church, and he has already reminded them that they are all part of the same body, no matter what they may think. They all have the same Spirit and have proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord.” (12:3) So love requires them to listen to each other and believe that their brothers and sisters are acting and speaking in all sincerity and from the same Spirit as themselves.
I recall one Mennonite Church assembly where each table was asked to affirm some ground rules for the discussion, one of which was that we would presume the best of those who were presenting, even if we disagreed with them. And some people had a hard time with that. They were ready to presume hidden agendas, or that issues had already been decided. They mistrusted leaders who they didn’t know, or felt that nobody was listening to them.
Paul says that if you are acting out of love, you will approach your brothers and sisters in a spirit of patience, believing that, indeed, your brothers and sisters are filled with the same Spirit as you have and treating them as such. You will hope for the best and not insist on your own way. And why is that?
Well, I think that brings us to the heart of Paul’s argument which he develops in the third section of this short passage. We treat each other with respect and humility, because, quite frankly, you could be wrong, or maybe better, we could be wrong. I wonder how much trouble we could avoid if everyone were ready to admit they could be wrong.
When the people of Jesus’ hometown heard him speak for the first time, at first they thought, “Wow, isn’t this the kid we knew growing up?” But then when he began to apply what he had read to them, they became angry. After all, they knew the right answers. There was no way this could apply to them! After all, this was the way they had always heard it said before and no one was going ot change their minds! And so they turned against him.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that they don’t know it all. We’re not like children who are sure they know it all. As adults, we should recognize the fact that we don’t know it all. I recall someone who said the older they got, the more they realized what they didn’t know. One of the characteristics of love is the ability to admit we might be wrong.
In fact, somewhere along the way I read that one basis for pacifism, aside from Jesus’ command to love our enemies, is the recognition that we could be wrong and thus the refusal to force our view on someone else by violent means.
Now that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have convictions or be ready to state what we believe. Paul has clearly said that all parts of the body are important and we need everyone’s input and gifts, because the Spirit is at work in each part of the body. And that’s what we need to remember, that the Spirit is at work in each part of the body, even in those we disagree with. And because of that we need to hold our beliefs with a certain amount of humility and grant that others may also have a piece of the truth which we need to hear, and because we could be wrong.
The only thing, Paul says, that will endure is love. How we treat each other is the true test of our faith; the true sign that we are part of the Kingdom. You can be as pious as you want to be. You can have all the knowledge you can gather. You can be a martyr, never giving up on your convictions. But if you are only doing it to show how great you are without regard for others, then it means nothing.
It seems to me that in the current debate in the church over homosexuality, and actually in debates through the years over other issues in the church, we should spend far less time on a few particular verses that seem to prove our point, and far more time reading I Corinthians, and particularly these two chapters. I’ve sat in a lot of discussions, or arguments, over the years on all sorts of issues in the church where people on both sides have been convinced they had the whole truth, and were unwilling to grant even the slightest Spirit to the other side.
Yet, we know that there are many things that the church has changed its mind on over the years, sometimes for better, sometimes undoubtedly for worse. We could mention slavery, the role of women, divorce and remarriage, or pacifism, to name only a few. As Jack Suderman said in initial paper “On Being a Faithful Church,” sometimes the church has upheld what it said before, sometimes it has modified what it said before, and sometimes it has changed its stance. And always the Spirit has been at work leading the church toward the truth.
But we haven’t arrived yet. We are still, to use Paul’s words, looking in a mirror dimly. And that means you and I still need to listen to all the parts of the body, on any issue that comes along. And in essence, that’s what the final report of the Being a Faithful Church task group is calling us to. In essence, it’s what the entire Christian enterprise is calling us to as we dialogue with not only those within our Anabaptist/Mennonite family, but also with our Lutheran and Catholic and Baptist, and so on and so on fellow believers who claim Jesus as Lord.
Sometimes, no always, it’s ok to say, “This is what I believe, but then again, I could be wrong.” It’s the way of love.