Between Text and Sermon: I Corinthians 13

By Lovell, Arnold B. | Interpretation, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Between Text and Sermon: I Corinthians 13

Lovell, Arnold B., Interpretation

Dialogue with I Corinthians 13 engages us in conversation with the faith and practice of both the church at Corinth and the contemporary Christian community we seek to address. Listening to these voices brings us into awareness of the givenness of congregations as earthen vessels through which the transcendent power of God is made known (II Cor. 4:7). Though finite and fragmented, congregational life and ministry serve as a framework for understanding and interpretation, particularly embodied in the rise of congregational studies as a discipline over the last decade (Jackson W. Carroll, et al., Handbook for Congregational Studies [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986]). The interplay of the varied dimensions of congregational life--context, identity, programs, and process--offer heuristic constructs for explication of the text.

The lectionary context of I Corinthians 13 is found in the epistle lesson for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (C cycle). Paul's Corinthian correspondence is presented in a nearly continuous progression over the three-year epistle cycle, providing the congregation continuity of study and reflection on one specific early church and its struggles. The nature of Epiphany as a season celebrating the manifestation of Jesus Christ as savior of the world and light to the nations has added significance, particularly when seen within the framework of this issue's focus upon the nature and task of evangelism.

The pairing of texts with I Corinthians 13 in the lectionary provides a further matrix for exposition, replication, and amplification of Paul's dispute over issues of speech and language found in I Corinthians 12--14. Called as a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah (1:4-10) articulates his reticence and lack of appropriate gifts, but is empowered by God to speak. The psalmist (Ps. 71) cries out for deliverance from his enemies through a prayer of lament, but ends with a word of hope, for "all day long my tongue will talk of your righteous help" (v. 24).

Jesus returns to Nazareth empowered by the Spirit to preach his inaugural sermon (Luke 4:21-30), but affirmation and admiration for Joseph's sons turn to anger when the hometown crowd finds their understanding of the homogeneous unit principle has broken down, for Jesus speaks of a grace that crosses traditional boundaries of culture and ethnicity to offer salvation to gentiles, including more than just our kind of people in the church.

Issues of congregational context are confronted readily in an attempt to interpret I Corinthians 13, for it is a particular feature of this epistle that it is "largely a rejoinder to concrete questions of a historical community" (Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984], p. 274). The received canonical form of this text provides a witness regarding agape that functions in an authoritative manner in the context of the current generation of congregations, for Childs's approach is unequivocal in assigning a normative theological role to Paul's voice when the context is roughly analogous to the original (p. 276). Thus Paul S. Minear offers a perceptive description of those congregational settings into which a word of love needs to be spoken, for Paul was grappling with a single situation in the life of the church in Corinth.

That community was being demoralized by the profusion of spiritual gifts, a profusion that was most apparent when the church gathered for worship. This profusion of gifts encouraged recipients to draw invidious distinction among themselves and to claim for one gift preeminence over others. Thus was produced a bedlam of sound and a competitive spirit that were destroying the fabric of fellowship. All this was rationalized and justified by an appeal to the Holy Spirit. The anarchy in the employment of the various gifts had reached a crisis that demanded the most careful reassessment of the nature and function of all the gifts (Images of the Church in the New Testament [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960], p. …

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