Today we begin a new series for our new year called Words to Live By. Over the next several weeks, we will be talking about some words I think are important to following the Way of Jesus. These words are going to be familiar words to some extent, but we will be delving deeper into their meaning. I hope as we do, we can learn a bit more about what they meant to the people who first heard them and how we can hear the echo of those words in a way to help us better live out what I think, was intended.
We just heard a very familiar passage, 1 Corinthians 13, one all of us have heard many times over the years. I have, on a number of occasions, stood before a soon to be bride and groom and read these words aloud as they celebrated the beginning of their journey as husband and wife. I have also heard this passage read in churches when Valentine’s Day falls close to a Sunday. Pretty much any occasion where the idea of love is going to be talked about in a service, Sunday school, or small group gathering, there is a good chance you might hear these verses.
But what did these verses mean to the people who heard them read during Paul’s lifetime and shortly thereafter? What did the early church hear as instructions from their pastor?
First, we have to translate a few things. I’ll give you an example. If you were going to grill food and eat it outdoors at a table or on a blanket, what would you call it? Some would call it a barbeque, even if actual barbequed meat wasn’t on the menu. Some would call it a cookout, because, well you’re cooking outdoors. Some would simply call it a picnic. Others still would call it a hassle because you have to drag all the stuff outside which was perfectly fine in your kitchen to start with.
The thing is we use different words to express ourselves depending on our background and preference. In the New Testament, this word love is used in a way I think would be foreign to us. In the previous passage, Paul talks about spiritual gifts and continues that discussion in the next passage. But sandwiched between them is a side conversation about the motivation for using spiritual gifts. Paul’s greater point here is if we do the good things we do without the right motivation—the proper motivation being love—then there is no point in doing it. It becomes something meaningless.
The word Paul uses for motivation is agape or what we translate as love in English. Most of the time this word is thought of as one of three things though we only use one word for them. The first is a physical expression between two people, something akin to a sexual relationship. The second is what we call brotherly love as in someone you think of as if they are family. The third is a kind of self-sacrificing theological idea, usually thought of in relation to Jesus giving himself for us and us giving ourselves for each other. The word Paul uses throughout this passage is closest to the last definition but even that needs a bit of tweaking for us to get it in its time and place.
The world of the New Testament was a world of the collective. Where we see the world through the idea of the individual and the needs of the individual (meaning we see ourselves and our immediate needs), they saw the world through a collective lens. We ask, what is best for me? They asked, what is best for those around me, especially with regard to family honor or shame and social standing. Because of this collective mentality, I think we have to tweak the idea of agape to mean something like group allegiance or group loyalty. It was a way of showing that you supported those who were socially connected to you.
For those who followed Jesus and the Way of Jesus, this meant they showed complete loyalty or faithfulness to those who were part of the Way. When someone was in need, they tried to supply the need. When someone needed to be defended, either in court or the court of public opinion, they defended them. The list of characteristics Paul uses in verses four through seven are all characteristics Jesus followers were expected to have, especially toward one another:
- Not jealous
- Not bragging
- Not arrogant
- Not rude
- Not seeking its own advantage
- Not irritable
- Doesn’t keep a record of complaints
- Isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth.
- Puts up with all things
- Trusts in all things
- Hopes for all things
- Endures all things.
Those are pretty high standards for how we should show our devotion to one another. So, why does Paul call them to do this? Why set this high standard? I think they had to. It was how the early Jesus followers managed to survive local persecutions, being outcasts of the Jewish society, begin outcasts of Roman society, and just being the largely poor, marginal religious group, they were. When Paul wrote this, Christianity was not the dominate religion known on every continent of the world. It was made of ragtag bands of Jews and Gentiles trying to figure out how to continue with the work Jesus had started in a backwater Roman province. If they were going to survive and continue the work, they needed to show this kind of group allegiance or loyalty. Without this loyalty to one another, it would be all too easy to walk away from other’s needs or turn others over to the authorities or simply slip back into Roman society.
Knowing that, what do we do in this post everything world of the early twenty-first century? How do show this kind of love to our Jesus family? Actually, it really doesn’t change much from the original. Now that we have a definition of what I think Paul meant, I think we live into it. Same ideas, different tools and methods. Being patient, kind, and all the rest still work for us now and still help to create the sense of servant-based connection tying each of us to one another. The attitudes will simply be on display with new tools. We can use modern technology to communicate needs—prayer and otherwise—to one another. We can still treat each other with all the characteristics and attributes Paul describes for the Corinthian church. We must still lean on each other, learn from each other, care for and protect one another in whatever ways we can by whatever means we can within the Jesus Way of Life.
The world systems and technologies around us have changed but people are still people. They have the same drives, same needs. They are still spirit beings wrapped in flesh. They still hurt. They still want. They still need. And through the Jesus Way, we can offer relief for their hurts, fulfillment for their truest wants, and meet their deeper needs. They questions is will we? Will we be the things Paul talked about, the things Jesus modeled?