“I show you a more excellent way…”
This verse ends chapter 12 and is something like a trumpet blast for opening up the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians where Paul discloses Love to be “a more excellent way.” Love, the theological gift of Love, is greater in quality, greater in merit, greater in brilliance than all the other gifts, therefore St. Paul presents this “more excellent way” to the Corinthians as though each one of them has the responsibility and the potential to become a particular type of person while Love is the very key to that achievement. Christians receive the theological gift of Love when they are baptized; we say, as Holy Mother Church always had said, that the baptized have been “infused with heavenly virtues.” We passively receive the heavenly virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love, but to be happy Christians we have to cooperate actively with the Holy Spirit to live a life marked by the heavenly virtues. But before we get into the specifics of the Corinthian problem and possibility, I want to build upon a little of what I talked about last week.
You are a human being; you are a person in a context, a total view of things — you are a person in an all-encompassing framework that is called a horizon. You are who you are within a specific horizon. A literal horizon is the limit of my vision from a specific point of reference. Your personal horizon is the limit of your vision, your knowledge, your loving, your caring and your valuing from a specific point of reference — that point of reference being you. It is your horizon. What I know, how I know, what I value, what I really care about, all my potentialities and possibilities are integrated into my personal horizon. Our horizons are ladened with knowledge, interests, values we have passively received as well as knowledge we have claimed as our own, of interest and values we have judged worth of living by, as well as values we devalue, ignore and have no interest in.
Last week I said that you are in the world and you are marked by the world; I am given meaning and a place and a narrative by the world, which is another way of saying that the world provides me with a horizon. The world, the many worlds around us, seek to relieve us of the burden, the toil, the anxiety of discovering what is to be valued and Loved in the world. Most people are only too happy to be relieved of such responsibility. As I live and make decisions, or avoid decisions, as I act or avoid acting, my narrative begins to take shape, my life story begins to take on form and content. But is my narrative one of truth and reality? Furthermore is this really my life story or have I simply appropriated someone else’s story?
Look again at St. Paul who was at first a highly successful enemy of Church, but he experienced a conversion and his narrative, which once was the story of Saul, a man at enmity with Christ, ended as the story of Paul, a man who Loved Jesus Christ more than anything else in the world. Remember that a personal horizon is the limit of my vision, my knowledge, my loving, my caring and my valuing from my point-of-view. Saul’s horizon valued the destruction of Christ and his Church as a high good, but his conversion led to a new horizon symbolized by replacing the name Saul with the name Paul. For Paul high goods still existed, but rather than being the destruction of the Church, one of the highest goods became the very opposite –- the multiplication of the Church through missions to the Gentiles. In fact everything that was a part Saul’s Jewish horizon was incorporated into Paul’s Christian horizon except that everything was radically redefined, radically realigned and relationally lifted higher than Saul could originally have imagined because it was beyond his horizon. Grace fulfills, completes nature; grace does not destroy nature. So in both horizons Paul experienced that which for him was a high good, but the good changed from destroying the Church to building up the Church; in both horizons Paul experienced a deep, personal Love for Israel: in the horizon of Saul, his Love for Israel was manifested by attempts to eliminate Christians; while in the horizon of Paul, after his baptism, his Love for Israel was transformed such that he prayed and yearned for Israel’s conversion to Christ. If I, as a Christian, take this seriously then I have to ask myself a potentially sobering question: Am I really who I claim to be? I claim to be a Christian and therefore I claim that my narrative, my life story, is a Christian story and, as such, other Christians and even one like St. Paul would recognize that to be the case. Now that does not mean that a Christian narrative is Christian from the beginning, but it does mean that a Christian narrative will actually become Christian at some point and that this story will finally become a story of progress in the Christian way although the progress will probably have some twists in the plot, some close calls, and set backs along the way. But the twists, the close calls, and the set backs will not become the story itself. The authentic Christian is the Christian man or woman who takes personal responsibility for being who he claims to be. The inauthentic Christian is the man or the woman who drifts through life without taking personal responsibility for being who he claims to be.
For the authentic Christian the upshot is that I am personally responsible for my life and all the avoidance in the world will not change that – I remain the one person most accountable for who I claim to be and for really being the person I claim to be. And this brings us around to the Epistle for today.
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
In First Corinthians thirteen St. Paul describes a horizon shift, a conversion, that is excellent and necessary for an authentic Christian way of life. He insists that we radically examine our personal horizons and change the way we live in the Christian community and all other communities by making Love the priority. When Paul says, “I show you a more excellent way,” one naturally asks: “More excellent than what?” We know that the more excellent way is the way of Love, but what is its inferior? Its inferior is a life without Love. Even a life like that of a Corinthians parishioner living in a community that regularly experienced spiritual gifts like prophecy, speaking in the tongues of angels, miracles, healings, great teaching, and liberal giving, to name only a few – that rich and exciting life was inferior because there was an absence of Love. And the absence of Love was and is destructive for both the community and the gifted person. It may be perfectly true that God has gifted me, and I may spend years developing that gift for use in the Church, I may sacrifice of my time and my personal treasure to refine my gift, and in the end discover that the gift was the greatest distraction in my life from the more excellent way of Love. Gifts, talents, knowledge, as well as a distorted use of gifts, talents and knowledge regularly block Love. Am I the person I claim to be or not? Though I have knowledge, though I have great faith, though I give liberally of my time and treasure, even if I present my body to be burned – all that, even God’s gifts, may occlude the more excellent way and lead to self-deception. St. Paul takes beyond the question “Am I the person I claim to be?” to “How may I become the person I claim to be?”
“Love is patient and kind; Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”
Here in four verses St. Paul describes some of the characteristics of a Christian narrative not with adjectives, but rather with verbs – fifteen verbs in fact. Fifteen verbs in four verses. When Paul speaks of Love in this passage he describes Love on the move; Love is dynamic and active and responsible. In other places Paul gives attention to inner feelings, but here he is unmistakably certain that Love as action is the only appropriate context for the Christian to exercise his or her God-given gifts and graces. Gifts that are not freely given, gifts that are exercised in a spirit of competition or attention seeking or without understanding will prove destructive for both the gifted person and potentially destructive for the community. Lets quickly look at five of the fifteen verbs.
The habit of Love exercises patience; Love consciously and intentionally performs the positive act of waiting. As one experiences personal suffering or even endures injuries from another person, Love remains patient and never seeks retaliation. Love is a Christian willingness to “live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there (some grace from God I do not see) will manifest itself to us.”
The habit of Love exercises kindness. The word Paul uses has the sense of being tender hearted toward others and quick to forgive. Kindness recognizes that every one of us carries a heavy load.
The habit of Love is not filled with jealousy. This verb can have a positive or a negative sense, but here Paul is using it negatively. It refers to a person who has intense feelings over another person’s achievements and attention. Envy was a big problem in the Corinthian parishes because there were so many gifted and talented Christians involved who displayed their gifts in a public setting. The gifts that were given to the body of Christ for the building up of the body became sources of competition that resulted in jealousy, suspicion and distrust.
The habit of Love is not to exercise fits of anger. The verb Paul uses once again refers to an inward state of negative arousal, to irritation. Love will not follow such a path nor will Christian Love seek to provoke anger in others.
We cannot look at all the verbs given here to paint a picture of Christian Love, but one last phrase that deserves our attention is St. Paul’s declaration that “Love rejoices with the truth.” The verb itself means to rejoice together in the truth. Love does not evade truth. Love does not suppress truth. Love would never exchange the truth for a lie. Without the truth of reality, without rejoicing in the truth of reality I cannot live up to this text and that brings us back to our question: Am I the person I claim to be? There are two specific imperatives, two actions of Love.
The first act of Love is Attentiveness. One is drawn to the object of one’s Love and one experiences an infinite desire to pay attention to everything about the object of one’s Love. Desire is an aspect of attentiveness and it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. Desire could help us remain attentive even when we are tempted to distraction.
The second act of Love is Understanding the object of one’s Love, which is understanding the object of Love you are attentive to. Understanding cannot go before attentiveness. If it does it is what we call “prejudice.” Attentiveness is not merely “taking a look” but it does involve taking many long looks and asking “What am I looking at?” Desiring to understand what I am being attentive to is essential to Love. Anyone who only attends to the object of one’s Love without wondering what it is makes no sense at all. What is the point? I do not even have to be told that there is something phony or at least unfinished going on if all one does is to mindlessly gaze upon the object of one’s Love without wondering what it is that I am beholding. We are called to love the truth, so we want to know, we have to understand what we desire. We pay attention and we want to know what we are paying attention to — to our families, our children, our spouses, our parish, and our neighbors. We are also called to be attentive to ourselves, to our own life story. Am I who I claim to be. Would other Christians recognize my life story to be a Christian story? Or is my life story really just one more standardized and accepted narratives that the world has bestowed upon us?