A journey of crafting a sermon suitable for a familiar passage.

I first found myself hesitant to preach from 1 Corinthians 13 because it is such a well-known passage. Part of the issue preachers have to work through with well-known passages, is getting it out of the realm of the familiar, otherwise, the message becomes trite, passe, or even cliche. I mean, 1 Corinthians 13 is called the “love” chapter, and love changes people and the world, but still, there seems to be a hurdle.

If you know the background of the Corinthians church, you realize they are a hot mess. There are factions within the church and though they are Christians (recently converted), they are not very Christ-like. There are rampant divisions, one-upmanship, and gross immaturity.

At first, I wanted to talk about comparison being the thief of joy. My idea was to call out their comparison and how it steals from them a sense of unity of the body, unity with one another, and diminishes their own giftedness. Comparison usually ends with someone feeling superior and someone feeling inferior. A worthwhile topic, but the more it sat in the body of the sermon, the more awkward it seemed.

I knew I wanted to leverage the image of “now we see in a mirror dimly,” because inherent in that phrase is humility and a call for empathy. You can only see so much and you never see all the details, so relax and be generous with how you relate to others. Once again, worthwhile, but not something that has umph in this passage.

The turning point is when I realized that what happened in Corinth is what happens with everyone: we struggle to respond in healthy ways to people who aggravate us. I realized that I had to nail the problem succinctly. Now, instead of the focus being on one behavior (comparison), I can talk more about the process of growth. After all, the Corinthians are new believers who are learning what it means to live with Jesus as Lord. And, after all, aren’t we learning what that means as well?

Problem: the Corinthians are responding to one another in unhealthy ways, which leads to more dysfunction and toxicity. Someone has to grow into maturity and respond in ways that help and not hurt. Paul says so, “when I was a child I spoke, acted, and reasoned like a child.” What does it mean to do that like a child? Emotions first. Until we are well into adulthood and function more from the logical part of our brain, we do a lot of living out of the emotional part of our brain. Anyone who has tried to reason with a highly emotional child sees this. Only when the emotions are diminished can you reason it out.

Then it hit me, after listing the problem I can frame Paul’s advice, not as the moralistic, “all you need is love,” mantra, but that Paul’s advice is the most difficult: it’s time for you to notice the immature reflexes inside of you and to submit those to Christ’s way of living. It is time for you to reign in your emotion-first mindset and act out of the principles of the way of Christ.

Paul’s wisdom is strong. In a congregation where it is faction against faction, the answer solution would be “the problem is over there in that group.” Paul doesn’t buy that. Instead, he insists that they each become responsible for the person in the mirror. We need to learn to hold ourselves accountable for our responses. This is not about not telling the truth in order to keep the peace. It is about learning how to respond in all manner of circumstances in a way where you are not a loose cannon. As Jim Herington said in The Leader’s Journey, “The hardest thing in the world to see is yourself.” That’s my turn to the mirror phrase of Paul: right now we see ourselves in a mirror dimly. We often do not know why we respond the way we do. We often are blinded by our own impulses and are prisoners of our personality. We are often not thoughtful but just goaded into living from our reflexes. When we can step back and understand what we feel and why we feel and that we have a choice to make here – holy cow, that’s a step toward maturity!

Man, I’m happy that love is patient! This is work that is never done.

I’m keenly aware of the impulse of preacher and person to put the onus upon us and our moral duties. My tact is to first and primarily place the action on God and then speak of our response as being one of humble gratitude.

This passage and the good news of Christ’s grace frees us from being a slave to our child reflexes. We don’t have to one-up anyone. We don’t have to return tit-for-tat. We can be secure in our identity as God’s own child. We are loved, valued, seen, and appreciated. God sees us clearly! We don’t have to prove to the world that we are right. We can also be in process, as God relates to us with patience, which gives us time to change over time. God acts toward us with kindness. Paul says in Romans 1 that it is this very same kindness that leads us to change! Not rudeness, arrogance, shame, or judgment — kindness. God bears all things, even our missteps and anger, and rudeness, and calls us back to the better way, the way that is excellent. God’s love never ends and endures all things. The love God gives us changes us from the inside out so that we can also respond to those in the world with patience, kindness, and thoughtful action, instead of the harmful reflex of self-justification.

Like you, I rejoice in the future day when I will know fully, even as I am fully known. God knows you fully and stays. This is our model for our relationship with diversity and responding to others well even when they aggravate. We can maintain our differences and our selfhood and still remain (where appropriate) connected.

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