You are probably familiar with 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, most people are whether they’re aware of that fact or not. If you walked up to someone on the street and said “what’s 1 Corinthians 13,” they might not get it but if you said “Love is…” they could probably give you “patient, love is kind….” Or they’d go into the All Green song but chances are they’d know these verses. They’ve heard them read at weddings, maybe even had them read at their own weddings, it is a popular and familiar passage. What is often missed, and this is true for people in and out of church, is that this chapter doesn’t sit alone and independent in the letter to the church in Corinth. Paul is right in the middle of a bigger argument when he enters in to this conversation about love, and hope and faith to a lesser extent, and knowing that is going to help us as we look at what he’s saying about these three things.
Now I know we’ve looked at 1 Corinthians a lot over my time here, I’ve told you before I love the letters to Corinth because the makeup of the church is the closest to our modern situation as we can find in the New Testament, but I do want to take a second for some quick background on the church just to refresh your memory. Corinth was Greek city that was actually destroyed and rebuilt by Rome, so by Paul’s day it was only about a hundred years old. Younger than this church. Now with life expectancy what it was back then there probably weren’t any original settlers living when Paul arrived but there were probably some children and definitely grandchildren there in addition to more recent citizens. Corinth was populated mainly by freed slaves who needed a place to live after fulfilling their debts or earning their freedom some other way (like military service). And that newness, that lack of generational establishment in place (no old families who had been there forever) meant that Corinth was one of the few cities in the Roman world where there was truly opportunity for everyone. There was class mobility, there was opportunity to begin your life in one station and rise up through hard work and the right connections to a different part of the social hierarchy, and that caused the church to be more diverse socially than most early churches. There was a combination of rich and poor in the Corinthian church that wasn’t common at this point, and that led to a lot of issues that had to do with status in the church.
If you go back to chapter 12 you’ll see what is happening in the church that leads to Paul’s statement on faith, hope, and love. They’re grappling with spiritual gifts and the different ways the spirit has manifested itself in different people and how that impacts the hierarchy of the church. Because for the people of Corinth everything is an opportunity and everything is about social status rising and falling so if you’re rich and important within the city it wouldn’t do for people to find out that someone much poorer and less significant is considered more important than you in the church or they have some skill or talent you don’t. So the Corinthians are arguing over which gifts are more important and which of them is more important thanks to having those gifts.
In chapter 12 Paul responds to that issue with his famous words about the body having many parts but all are important and all matter equally and that all gifts come from the same Spirit for the service of the same Lord. In chapter 13 he goes away from that specific issue to something broader, and that’s the idea we’re going to land on this morning, he tells them that the things they’re arguing about don’t matter because they aren’t going to last. Picking back up in verse 8: 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” The problem for the Corinthians is that they’re focusing on the wrong things, these arguments they’re having are over things that are temporary and they’re missing the things that will last and Paul urges them instead to focus on the things that will stand the test of time.
That’s a good word for us here on the first Sunday of the new year. So much of our focus is on things that aren’t going to last. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good things that don’t deserve attention, all the things Paul describes are good, but at their best they’re temporal. Shane Claiborne says it more eloquently than I could: “We live in a world that wants everything to happen in an instant: fast food, quick money from the ATM, movies on demand, news at our fingertips. But the stuff that really gives life takes time. A baby takes nine months. A good meal doesn’t come in three minutes. It takes time to learn a new skill or language. And live that are beautiful take time to produce, just like any work of art.” My prayer for all us in 2020 is that our focus will go beyond the immediate, beyond even the things that seem like they’ll be so important for a month or a year or two or three or four or even ten or twenty, and earnestly ask God to guide us toward the things that are eternal, to the things that will stand the test of time and remain when all others fall away.