Strength and Love
Strength and Love
1 Corinthians 16:13-14
August 10, 2014
All week long we’ve been teaching the children that God can help them stand strong. I dressed up as a goofus knight-wannabee named Wally who couldn’t do anything right, but I kept being assured that God could give me the strength and courage I needed. I decided that all of us need that message, so I have chosen to focus this morning on these two verses, 1 Corinthians 16:13-14: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
Those verses come in the middle of a P.S. to a very long letter. The formal end of the letter comes at the end of chapter 15, the famous chapter on the resurrection we read every Easter. It ends with this note: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” That’s a nice wrap-up, as the chapter ends the letter on the note of hope, even though most of the letter has been about problems in the church in Corinth: divisions into cliques loyal to different leaders, rejecting Paul’s authority, bringing lawsuits against one another, refusing to deal with a sex scandal in the church, making the Lord’s Supper a pig-out by the rich leaving the poor members out, and being disruptive and self-centered in the way they used spiritual gifts.
But after the focus on resurrection and hope in chapter 15, Paul moves to some personal matters. Chapter 16 begins “Now about the money…” He reminds them of the offering for the hungry believers back in the Jerusalem area. There’s stuff about his travel plans and friends he may or may not bring with him. He’s going to tell them to treat Stephanas’ family well—it’s sounds like they haven’t in the past—and he sends greetings to and from several friends. Right in the middle of that, Paul has one closing admonition. “Here’s what I want you to remember of all that stuff I said before. Before I sign off, be sure you get this.”
He lays it out in rapid fire. Verse 13 is like four fingers: (1) keep alert, (2) stand firm in your faith, (3) be courageous, and (4) be strong. But verse 14 has the fifth and final instruction. It’s longer than the others and the most important. It’s not just a fifth finger like a thumb; it’s more like the hand to which the fingers are attached, the source of their life and movement. “Let all that you do be done in love.”
All those terms in verse 13 (the fingers) suggest a soldier’s attitude. These are military terms. Paul sees Christians in a battle, with an enemy coming against them. They are in danger of having their faith perverted or even taken away from them, requiring courage in the face not only of outside persecutors but people inside the church who may lead them away from Christ. It suggests, in simple form, the attitude we have spelled out in the much later letter to the Ephesians, which says that we fight not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces of evil. He urges the church to put on all the armor that God provides, and that armor does not consist of the weapons of this world. There are no shoulder-fired rockets or drones in this battle. The protection and the weapons we need are those provided by God: truth, righteousness, the gospel of reconciliation with God, faith, salvation, and the word that God speaks to us. If we put on those things, we will be able to stand, to withstand the attacks that will come—not only from the powers of this world but from the original tempter and the invisible forces of evil.
So back here at the tail end of 1 Corinthians we see Paul using that kind of soldier-language in the context of spiritual battle. But he balances it in the very next sentence with something far from the military spirit. If alertness, perseverance, courage, and strength are the fingers, the hand is love. In a way that is typical of Greco-Roman rhetoric, Paul saves the most important point for the last and expresses it most elaborately: “Let all that you do be done in love.” Of course he’s taking us back to the famous chapter 13: no matter what I do for God, if I do it without love it is nothing. Love is the one thing that endures to the end. Of course this is not romantic love or feeling-love; the King James renders it “charity,” from the Latin caritas. It’s the Greek agape, unselfish, sacrificial love which seeks nothing in return. That is the dominant trait of God and must be the dominant trait of God’s people.
I’m struck by Paul’s juxtaposition of soldier-language and love-language. It’s very characteristic of Paul’s understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It’s almost the yin and yang of the Christian life. There are those virtues we identify with macho military action-oriented life and laid over them is the virtue of love, which we sometimes think of as feminine and even weak. You can’t have one without the other. One scholar has written about this pairing, “Love without strength deteriorates into mere sentimentality; strength without love risks becoming tyrannical” [Craig Blomberg, NIV Application Commentary, 1 Corinthians].
This week in Vacation Bible School we put the emphasis on the first half of that pairing. Our Bible points for every day ended with the words “stand strong,” and we used a motion like this, putting our hands on our hips. It kind of signaled, “I’m strong. I dare you to mess with me.” Of course during our lessons we talked a lot about how we can stand strong because God loves us. But I think it’s easy for us as adults to hear talk about standing strong as Christians and imagine that the Christian life is all about will power, about our strength and our attitude, that we have to assert ourselves against the enemies of the faith. But Paul reminds us that everything we do must be done in love.
There are certainly Christians today who want to be strong in their defense of the Christian faith and stand firm against forces they believe are weakening the influence of Christianity in our culture. But all too often they have the fingers but not the hand. They have fingers pointing every which way but they are not attached to love. Poll after poll tells us that the religious right has lost all credibility with the younger generations because they see Christians acting without concern for love or justice. The polls tell us that all our finger pointing and focus on issues around sexuality have discredited not just Christian political activists but Christianity itself. This is what Pope Francis has understood. Let’s get back to love.
My first experience with what I think of as the “mean” version of fundamentalism came in college at Princeton, which you wouldn’t expect to be a bastion of fundamentalists. To join the campus group you had to swear that you believed in what they listed as the five fundamentals, but along with that you were told to separate yourself from any believers who didn’t accept those doctrines. Not only that, you should separate yourself from orthodox believers who refused to separate themselves from the unorthodox. I got involved in starting an evangelistic coffeehouse on campus during the days of the Jesus Movement in the early ‘70’s. We were going great guns and reaching druggies and townies as well as students, baptizing some of them in the Woodrow Wilson Fountain on campus—all under the sponsorship of the University Chapel and an intern from Princeton Seminary. But our fundamentalist friends were alarmed. The Chapel, being ecumenical and mainline, was apostate, wandering away from the true faith. And the Seminary was just as bad. The leader of the fundamentalist fellowship issued an edict—we didn’t know the word fatwa back then—saying that no member of the fellowship could go to the coffeehouse. That’s when I quit the fellowship. It is a measure of how much that stung that I am still telling the story 43 years later.
About that time the fundamentalists held a public lecture on campus by a visiting professor with the title Truth or Love: Priority? The thesis was that concern for defending the truth came before the obligation to love. You couldn’t love people if it meant compromising the truth—for example, the truth that there was a literal Adam and Eve, or the truth that men should rule the household, or the truth that mainline Protestants are evil. That actually helped me to understand them and, to some extent, forgive. They felt that shunning me for working at the coffeehouse was necessary to stand firm for the truth. I’ve been shunned by lots of Christians to the right of me, and not a few to the left of me, over 35 years of ministry because they thought that standing for the truth meant that they could not embrace me as a brother in love.
Can we go back to Paul’s idea of love as the sine qua non of Christianity? Can we stop pointing any fingers that are not attached to the hand of love? Can we understand that even the spiritual warfare of defending the faith and the weak must, as Paul says, all be done in love? I don’t want a mush-mouthed Christianity that doesn’t stand for anything, that wants to be liked, that never says anything it is likely to be attacked for. In other words, I don’t have much use for culturally friendly mainline Protestantism either, which reduces love to sentimentality and being nice and kind with no soldier-spirit at all to stand against the enemy. What Paul hints at in these two little verses—in a way consistent with the whole letter and all his teaching—is that we have to have both: strength and courage and alertness and standing on one side, and love and love and love and love on the other.
Think about these four quasi-military values he lists for the Corinthians. The first is to “keep alert.” The implication is that there is something out there you need to watch out for. 1 Peter 5:8 states it in dramatic form: “Keep alert because your adversary the devil is roaming around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.” That will keep you on your toes! You don’t have to have a traditional picture of the devil to believe that there is evil at work in the world which wants to suck you into its vortex. Watch out! Another way to translate this word is “Stay awake!” How many people are just sleepwalking through life, running on an automatic pilot programmed by the consumer culture? In his early letter to the Thessalonians, Paul said “Let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” There may, of course, be a hint there that those who fall asleep have had too much to drink, and we certainly need to ask if we are less spiritually alert in our lives because we are medicated.
The second instruction is to stand. That’s what we kept saying with the VBS children: “stand strong.” In Ephesians 6, the passage with the armor, this is the favorite verb: “take up the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” Paul says the same thing in Philippians and Galatians: “stand firm.” Here it is to stand firm “in the faith.” The faith (rather than “your” faith, which the NRSV adds) means the gospel of Christ which Paul has delivered to the Corinthians. Stand firm in that, even though the wind may be blowing against you in the culture at 90 miles per hour, even though the earth may shake under your feet. Stand. Hang in there. Persevere. Never give up.
The third instruction is one that can get us into trouble, because the Greek word starts with the root andro—which means “man” as opposed to woman. The King James translated this word “quit you like men,” and some recent translations have rendered it “be men” or “be manly.” The translation used by Messianic Jews says “Behave like a mentsh.” If you Google search 1 Corinthians 16:13 you’ll find a large number of sermons on Christian manhood and Father’s Day messages on being a real man. You can make a case for translating Paul’s instruction as “Man Up!”
On the other hand, most modern translations like even the old RSV and the NIV, translate this one word as “be courageous,” which seems to be what Paul was really meaning by the idiom. After all, he addresses women in the letter and would have been including them. I think courage is the virtue called for here, but some scholars think “be a man” means “be an adult,” “be mature,” or grow up!” God knows we need that message too.
The fact that so many would read this verse through a gender lens points out the two-sidedness of Paul’s instructions. A lot of people still read verse 13 as “be masculine” and the command to love as “be feminine.” The point Paul is trying to make here and elsewhere is that Christ wants his followers and spokesmen to be both courageous and caring, both strong and tender—as he was and is. By the standards of some cultures, the Christian is androgynous—like Jesus. Can you think of anyone who fits Paul’s list better than Jesus? He was alert to what was going on, he stood firm, he was courageous and strong, and everything he did he did in love. The heart of compassion can be accompanied by a soldier’s virtues. Being loving does not mean that we are naïve or wishy-washy or eager-to-please or afraid-to-rock-the-boat. Telling the good news of Jesus and living a life of love for the oppressed requires courage and strength. Paul’s message to us is not “be a man” but rather “be the Man,” be Jesus—who Jesus would be if he was in your body in your culture in your time. Be strong. Be courageous. And do everything you do in love.
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