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The one essential ingredient

06 February 2005 11:00 | The Revd Canon Dr John Cullen

NT: 1 Corinthians 13.1-19; Gospel: Luke 18.31-43

The familiarity and popularity of the first of this morning's readings create problems for the preacher. The passage is one of the very few - perhaps the only one - for which many people can give the exact reference: "1 Corinthians 13". But the very beauty of the language can obscure the unequivocal, uncompromising and uncomfortable message it conveys; a tone also reflected in the Collect for this Quinquagesima Sunday.

To have the capacity to speak with the tongues of angels, to have the gift of prophecy, to understand all mysteries and knowledge, to have faith that could remove mountains - surely these are attributes or gifts to be prized. To be motivated to give generously - to the point of recklessness (to "bestow all my goods to feed the poor"); to go so far as to contemplate the disposal of my own body (the hyperbole notwithstanding!) - surely these are listed as deserving of admiration? And yet Paul tells us that in themselves they profit us "nothing". Even more chilling, he claims that even though we may exercise these qualities, we are "nothing" - if we lack one essential ingredient.

The Collect takes a similar line: without this one essential element, "all our doings" in themselves are "nothing worth"; and furthermore, without this "gift", whosoever lives is "counted dead". Beautiful language? Maybe. But the message is pretty unyielding!

And that's just as Paul intended it to be, when he first penned his letter to the young Christian community in the bustling, cosmopolitan seaport of Corinth, as notorious for its morals as it was renowned for its trade in goods and the variety of religions and cults from all parts of the known world.

Deep conflict had erupted in the Corinthian church. Factions had arisen within the congregation, discipline had become slack, even their worship had become divisive. There was an unseemly competitiveness over spiritual gifts, with members trying to outdo one another in their various religious practices. Somehow the Corinthians had lost the plot. Their local leaders and pastors seemed powerless to resolve the situation; so Paul decides to step in.

In this section of his letter Paul is taking to task a quarrelsome assembly of fellow Christians who need to be told in no uncertain terms that the very things in which they pride themselves are getting them nowhere. They amount to nothing at all. Their very spirituality has become a debased currency. Genuine spirituality is not what we do for other people, or even for God. Christ-like, Sprit-filled spirituality is what God does in us.

Which is why personal prayer and corporate worship are of the very essence of the Christian life, because it is by these means that we lay ourselves open to the Spirit of God, the God who is love, to fill us, to cleanse us, to heal us and transform us by his love.

Without that love, that essential, divine, transforming element, I am nothing, because if I have not love, I am without God. Without that love, "whosoever lives is counted dead". It's not simply that love enhances the quality of what I do or say; love doesn't perfect my understanding, my knowledge, or even my faith. Without love, I am nothing. Love transforms and perfects me, and so transforms all that I am and do.

Thus transformed I am enabled, empowered, by the love of God to become patient and kind, not envious, boastful or arrogant. It is the love of God at work within me that encourages me 'not to seek my own way, not to become easily provoked, not to rejoice in wrong doing, but to rejoice in the truth, and so to bear all things, to believe all things, to hope all things, and endure all things'.

'1 Corinthians 13' is often described as a passage written to idealize the quality of love and to praise its virtues; but this is to misunderstand it. It is, much more significantly, a call to the individual disciple and Christian communities, of 1st century Corinth, or of 21st century London, to re-orientate, or rather allow God to re-orientate their lives.

"But", do I hear you ask, "how is such a re-orientation possible? How can I be or become that kind of person? How can I live and love like that?" For the present we understand these things imperfectly, because we know only in part. Remember the process is of God's doing, not ours. The process of our transformation is the work of God's grace within us. Our part is to so dispose ourselves that God can work within us. "Now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face:… Then shall I know, even as also I am known": then shall I have the capacity to love, even as also I am loved by God.

It took Jesus' own disciples, those who were closest to him, a long time to understand these things. Which is why, when he spoke to them on their way to Jerusalem about all the things which were written by the prophets being accomplished, they could neither see nor understood any of these things; they were hidden from them. It was that blind man, the nuisance beggar on the outskirts of Jericho, who recognised Jesus as the 'Son of David' and cried out for mercy. "And when he was brought near, Jesus asked him: 'What would you that I should do unto thee?' 'And he said, Lord that I may receive my sight.' And Jesus said unto him, 'Receive thy sight; thy faith hath saved thee.' And immediately he received his sight, and followed him glorifying God."

The season of Lent which begins this week, is our opportunity to follow Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. How would you respond to his question: 'What would you that I should do unto thee?'

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