To Feast on Love

February 3, 2013
“To Feast on Love,” by Rev. Christina Cataldo

READING:
1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

REFLECTION:

I was a student at Wake Forest University when I first encountered a Lovefeast. A simple ritual with a delightful name, the Love Feast had become an important tradition at the University and in the Divinity School.[1] For those of you unfamiliar with the Lovefeast, it is a ritual meal not unlike communion. In the Moravian-style service, servers called dieners, often wearing big white aprons and little doilies on their heads, give all the people present a sweet bun and creamed coffee. Everyone waits to eat together.  A short grace is said, “Come, Lord Jesus, our guest to be,  and bless these gifts bestowed by Thee. Amen.”[2] And, the congregation then shares the simple meal, eating together and serving one another as a sign of unity and fellowship as the body of Christ. Beautiful songs are sung by the choir during the meal. As the members of the congregation eat, they may share stories of their faith with their neighbors, or take that time to make amends. They may eat in silence and join the choir in song.  It is a quiet and reverential meal, a meal meant to remind those present of the love God intends for them and of the love that we are called to show one another. As one writer described it, “A Lovefeast seeks to remove social barriers and strengthen the spirit of unity and goodwill among all people.”[3] And, the buns are delicious.

There are few people who seem more in need of a love feast than the church in Corinth. They seem to be at one another’s throats about all kinds of issues. There are divisions within the congregation over who is the greatest teacher. There is a man who is sleeping with his step-mother while other congregants are telling married couples that they can’t sleep together. Members of church have gotten so angry with one another that they have begun taking each other to civil court rather than address issues within the community. They argue over whether they can eat the meat that has been sacrificed to idols (it is way cheaper than the unused meat at the market) and they argue over how women should wear their hair when prophesying. And if that weren’t enough, at their regular communal meals, some people come and eat all the food and drink all the wine, leaving nothing for those who must come later (ostensibly, the late arrivals are those of lower class who must work all day and have to come late to the gatherings). They argue over the meaning of the resurrection of the dead. And, last but not least,  members of the congregation seem to put on fits of ecstatic speech to demonstrate how much more spiritually attuned they are than those who do not speak in tongues. These people need some coffee and sweet buns, STAT.

The apostle Paul had helped to found the community in the course of his missionary work across the Roman empire. Community members were more likely to be Gentile converts than Jewish, and they seem to come from a broad swath of social classes, though most were likely lower class.[4] They have also had other teachers than Paul. Cephas and Apollos are also important figures in the story of their community. However, Paul seemed to be viewed by many members of the church as their spiritual father and founder. So, they turned to him as the conflicts caused more and more fissures in their community. Paul, who had already moved on to Ephesus, wrote them a letter (well, maybe 3 or 4 letters)[5] to try to offer encouragement and correction.

Now, I know that Paul’s writings can be a tricky subject. After all, Fundamentalists point to Paul’s writings in this very letter to keep me and women like me out of the pulpit. They point to Romans to exclude me and LGBTQ people like me from full membership in the body of Christ. And, for centuries, people pointed to the household codes in 1 Peter, Ephesians, and Colossians to uphold the heinous practice of chattel slavery. Why even talk about Paul when what he wrote (or didn’t write, but was merely attributed to him) has done, and is doing, such great harm to so many people?

Well, for one thing, not talking about Paul does not make him go away. Paul’s writings and interpretations of Paul’s writing have shaped the church for thousands of years. Talking about Paul and his history and context can only shed more light on these important works. And, talking about Paul in a progressive, inclusive community means that fundamentalists don’t always get to control that part of the conversation. More light and more balance are good things.

And, secondly, we need to talk about Paul because sometimes Paul is right. It’s taken me a long time to be able to say that from the pulpit, but sometimes he is. Gender equality and inclusive visions of sexuality are definitely not his strong suits. And, his understanding of slavery can most generously be called complicated, and most truthfully be called wrong. But, there is at least one thing the he can talk about well and with great insight. He can talk about building Christian communities. He can talk about getting along together as a Christian community. He can talk about building up our neighbors and about love and right relationship. And, there are few places that he does this better than here in the “Love Chapter” of First Corinthians. It is in this chapter that he reminds this community of their first responsibility as Christians, and we modern-day Christians do well to remember his exhortation.

What Paul astutely recognized as the key problem in the Corinthian community wasn’t just their greediness or narcissism or strange sexual ethics. It was their lack of love. They were taking each other to court. They weren’t sharing the communal meals. They were trapped in competitive cycles of ecstatic speech, not because they sought to build up the community with these gifts but because they sought to build up their own esteem. They lived as though Christ’s death had bought them some special knowledge that allowed them to quit caring for one another. They only remembered the exaltation of the Risen Christ and had forgotten the responsibility to love God and love one another.

Paul sought to remind them of this love. He reminded them that eloquence and insight are nothing without love. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And, faith, charity, prophetic powers, these, too, are nothing without love. “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”  He said, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” That meant stop eating all the food before everyone gets to church. He said, “[love] does not rejoice in wrong-doings, but rejoices in the truth.” So, stop taking each other to court. He said  “[love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” He reminded them that Love was so much more than their petty gripes and pious pretentions. He reminded them that love called them to be more than their greatest disagreements.

The gifts of the spirit that they so prized were limited, a certain time or place, or used to serve a certain people. But, love will never end. Their works and gifts were tied to their own contexts, but the love that should have been their foundation of these gifts would never fade. God’s loving relationship is the source for all human relationship and the source for all human love.  In relying on their spiritual gifts, they were “only knowing only in part”. But, it was love that would let them know the whole.  Love allows humanity to shine up the dim mirror and see the truth more completely. Paul reminds them that love is what will surpass all things. And, it is love that would build them up as they sought to build up the community of God.

As most of know, loving and being loved is not always easy. It can often be difficult to live one’s life by an ethic of love and it can be hard to create a community based on compassion. It is hard to to say if the Corinthian church ever figured out how to love each other better. The second letter to the Corinthians does not make one optimistic. While some issues seem to get addressed (like they got rid of the guy sleeping with his step-mom), others issues continue to cause conflict. And, we all can point to the ways that the Christian church continues to forget to love even unto this very day. But, Paul reminds us that love is “matrix of the life of faith”[6] And, Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God and to love one another.

Writing of the Love Chapter, J. Paul Sampley said, “… love’s being and existing is tied to God’s very self, and in loving, believers participate with God in a special, unique, even reciprocal way.”[7] So, maybe we can try to love better than the Corinthians. Maybe we can learn from their mistakes. Maybe we can all be dieners at the World’s Lovefeast. We’ll put on our little doilies and white aprons and go forth in love. We can serve the sweet buns of grace and the coffee of community. And, we can feast together, even if the meal is simple, knowing that it is grounded in love.

 

Resources used in preparing this sermon…

http://chaplain.studentlife.wfu.edu/worshipmeditation-opportunities/moravian-christmas-lovefeast

http://moravianmusic.blogspot.com/2007/04/guide-to-moravian-lovefeast.html.

http://www.moravianmusic.org/Moravian%20Lovefeast.html

Ehrman, Bart. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sampley, J. Paul. “1 Corinthians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary in 12 Volumes, ed. Leander Keck. Abingdon Press, 2003.


[1] For a short description of the Lovefeast and it’s history at Wake Forest, see http://chaplain.studentlife.wfu.edu/worshipmeditation-opportunities/moravian-christmas-lovefeast.

[2] The description of a standard Moravian Lovefeast the service is taken from http://moravianmusic.blogspot.com/2007/04/guide-to-moravian-lovefeast.html.

[4] Ehrman, 290

[5] Ehrman, 299

[6] Sampley, 955

[7] Sampley, 954