I like reading parts of the Bible slowly. This year I have been reading 1 Corinthians 13 again and again – not every day, but certainly a few times each week. I have particularly focused on verses 4-8 which describe love. It has been challenging to reflect on this passage – and not always easy as it has confronted me with my sinfulness and self-centredness.
I meet with a delightful group of ministry wives four times each year – I love them dearly and have gotten to know a number of them – either from their time when their husbands have studied at College or when they have joined this group. This year, we are spending our meetings together reflecting on these four verses about love. Our overall theme is “It’s not what we do, but who we are.”
In March, I gave a talk on the whole chapter to give us a bit of an overview in which to understand these verses. The Corinthian church was filled with people who didn’t particularly like each other. They were proud, and known for their selfishness. They were aware of the sins of their brothers and sisters and oblivious to the sin in their own lives. Love, in this chapter, is Paul’s word for what you do with all the people in the church you don’t really like. It is a bit like a survival manual for a difficult church.
They are facing huge pastoral issues. There were marriages not in good shape, verbal reports of problems of divisiveness, incest, and immorality and there were those who denied the resurrection of Jesus. As people, they loved to argue for the sake of an argument and were quick to find fault in each other. They were jealous of each other’s spiritual gifts. Indeed they were consumed with being “spiritual” and displaying “spiritual gifts” – particularly those gifts that were prominent and public that everyone noticed.
Lets think for a moment about sandwiches. What is the best part? What do we look at before we eat it? The centre. Paul has symbolically put what is important right in the centre – he sandwiches it in the middle so that we take notice of it.
We could sum up the Corinthian problem with the phrase “look at me” “look at me” “look at me” – this seems to be at the heart of this church –“ look at how spiritual I am because of what I can do”. Does this seem to be a contemporary problem with us today too?
In one short sweep, Paul puts the Corinthians in their place and says that their very public displays of the spirit count for nothing without love. If you are going to become a martyr, you only have one chance at dying, and if you do it without love, it counts for nothing. Without love, in the words of Paul we are nothing.
I have been thinking about love and how to be a person characterised by love and have found it enormously challenging. If you try to put your name in front of each of the descriptions – for example “sarah is patient, sarah is kind” you will want to laugh and say “as if…”. But if you put Jesus’ name there, you see that these verses describe and capture the character of Jesus beautifully.
Keith loves finding books that he hopes I will read, so when he read a review of “Loving the Way Jesus Loves” by Phil Ryken, IVP, 2012, he bought it for less than $11 from the Book Depository as a gift. A wise investment.
I have read it slowly over the last few weeks and found it readable, thought provoking and encouraging. There is nothing worse than reading a book and feeling bad and guilty and powerless to change. This book is not like that at all. Ryken uses this 1 Corinthians 13 passage as a springboard to look at Jesus – each of the twelve chapters explore the character and behaviour of Jesus – there is a chapter about the kindness of Jesus and how Jesus demonstrated loving kindness with his life. He also refers to the stories of different people – in this particular chapter on kindness, he talks about Elizabeth Prentiss a Christian woman who lived in the 1800s – she wrote Stepping Heavenward a beautifully written an inspiring story. I love this book too.
Ryken also writes about Kim Phuc, who became famous as the little nine-year old girl photographed in 1972 depicted in a photo taken from the Vietnam war of terrified people running away from a napalm attack near Saigon. Most of all, I appreciated the way that Ryken got me to look at Jesus through fresh eyes – his encounters with Mary and Martha, with Peter after he had denied him three times, in the garden of Gethsemane and finally on the Cross as he died for us. Each chapter gave me much to ponder and return to in my thoughts and discussions with Keith.
Each chapter has discussion questions – you could use it as a springboard with a bible study group or one on one. When I reached the end of this book, I thought I would value the opportunity to return to this book again and share my thoughts and responses with others. Perhaps I am a slow learner?