Five Words

I Corinthians 13-14

Paul’s dissertation on love is perhaps one of the most famous and often recited passage from all of his letters.

He begins speaking about spiritual gifts. He calls his audience and us to seek the gifts that are the work of the Spirit. Aspire to spiritual gifts that will benefit the community. Paul apparently has the gift of speaking in tongues. It is difficult for our modern minds to grasp what this might mean or sound like, even what purpose it had for his listeners. Paul even indicates that an unbeliever coming into the midst of a meeting where someone is speaking in tongues would only hear a bunch of meaningless babbling going on. The words would have no meaning for anyone listening; so seek the spiritual gifts he counsels that are intelligible to everyone.

 As we read Paul he is very much intent on appealing to as many people as possible. To the Jews he is a Jew; to the Greeks he is Greek. To followers of Christ he is his greatest Champion. Paul the chameleon for Christ. But we do not hear Paul compromising his principles or belief in order to be heard by as many as possible, so that he might reach as many as possible. The obstacle Paul seems to be saying is to speak in a language (tongues) that is unintelligible to those who have come to perhaps be persuaded by him. Words can inspire, instruct and heal. They can also be a stumbling block.

I can’t help but connect what Paul is saying here with the language of systematic or academic theology today. I have to wonder, having weighed through many of those tomes myself, what good it does to have this knowledge, these cloistered conversations amongst themselves, but in a language that no one can comprehend and does not add one jot or tittle to the faith, or understanding of the uninitiated or even initiated believer, us ordinary folk.  Don’t get me wrong, some of this work is very insightful and would benefit the people in the pews and those who are not, but it doesn’t get to them. These internecine dialogues have a language and an exclusivity all their own. Yet they are begging for an interpreter. Someone to take it to the streets.

This secret language as it were is not Pauline nor is it inherent in the faith Paul founded.  Granted, the faith was under attack from its very beginnings. Even Paul is defending the faith from challenges within and without.  The other apostles in Jerusalem, James and Peter, too were defending a faith that came under attach even before Jesus dies. In the centuries that followed those who followed in Paul’s footsteps would have to nail down (no pun intended) the “articles of faith”, the very definition of who Jesus was, what his message and meaning were. If you were a believer, what you could and could not believe.  In their zeal they did not always get it right. They appealed to other tongues, other agendas, and even twisted Paul’s words to their intent, their agenda. As I read through St. Paul I am more convinced that it has a fluidity as a living organism, organic and addressing people in the words that they could comprehend, identify with. Jesus spoke in stories that his followers could understand and relate to.

Paul says, I would rather say five words that mean something than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Paul shifts then from speaking in tongues to aspiring to the gift of prophecy which speaks to the improvement, encouragement and consolation of others as more desirable, for it is again building something in the community and within each person. It’s pastoral; its spiritual. Its a spirituality that comprises the whole person and the world they/we live in. A few meaningful words heard from Paul and that we need to hear again today. What five words from Paul can we take away? I began meaning to write about Paul’s famous words about love in Chapter 13. But this makes a good introduction, as it is the path Paul takes to lead into that passage. Paul begins love is and he will say in a few words words that mean everything.

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