|1 Corinthians 13:1-13
By Bruce G. Epperly
Epiphany proclaims the universality of divine revelation and inspiration. Strangers from East are inspired to follow a star that leads to the baby Jesus. Within the body of Christ everyone is gifted for the good of the whole. Everyone has a vocation, a calling that brings fulfillment to themselves and health to the community. Along with the ubiquity of revelation comes the counsel to humility. As a saying attributed to Augustine affirms, God loves everyone as if he or she is the only one. Our unique relationship with God remains healthy only if we recognize that God has a unique and ultimately affirming relationship to everyone, even those who go astray or oppose our visions.
In today’s readings, Jeremiah embodies the spirit of prophetic humility: his recognition of his inexperience opens him to a superabundance of divine insight and the ability to respond to revelation in a creative, rather than self-aggrandizing manner. I Corinthians speaks of the agnosticism of love: recognizing that we see in a mirror dimly and know only in part enables us to grow spiritually, recognize the gifts of others in the body of Christ, and see our own limitations as the seedbed of possibilities. Jesus’ life is threatened because he dares to remind his listeners that revelation goes beyond ethnicity and that foreigners are also “chosen” to be companions with God’s “chosen” people as mediators and recipients of God’s grace.
Jeremiah’s humility at being a channel of divine revelation is a model for every spiritual leader. There is an adage within politics and leadership about the danger of believing “press releases about you.” It is wonderful to get that twenty minutes of fame every Sunday morning and receive the adulation of a congregant amazed by your wise teaching and erudition. While it is fine to affirm your giftedness and bask in adoration, such self-affirmation becomes problematic when separated from our connection with God. Jeremiah’s confession is not meant to be a statement of unworthiness, but an affirmation of connectedness. Like the vines and branches Jesus described, Jeremiah recognizes that his own agency and creativity depends on the insight and energy of God for its fulfillment. Our gifts and talents are not entirely our own; they emerge from an ecology of inspiration. At the end of the day, no one is fully equipped to pastor or preach, we need the grace of interdependence – our connection with divine wisdom and pilgrims on the way. We are the beneficiaries of God’s graceful insight and guidance, the riches of a seminary education, the wisdom of mentors, the faithfulness of church school teachers and youth workers, the inspiration of good theology and literature.
Jeremiah is not abdicating his own agency and responsibility for sharing God’s message to the people. Our affirmation of divine wisdom is intended to deepen our own self-affirmation – God does not need you to play small or diminish your own giftedness. Jeremiah recognizes that he can’t do it alone and that the more he opens to his connectedness and dependent interdependence, the greater insight, energy, and wisdom he will receive. Our congregants need to be challenged to claim their gifts and insights, and see these gifts as “gifts” from many sources, including God, and in response, present these “gifts” to the larger community. It is appropriate to benefit from our gifts, but our gain should be balanced by our freely given care for others and our willingness to generously share what we have for the larger good.
Psalm 71 continues this spirit of creative interdependence. The Psalmist recognizes that apart from God he or she would be lost. God is our refuge, inspiration, and guide in the turbulence of life. Leadership without accepting graceful interdependence leads to burnout and boundary violations.
The glorious words of the “love chapter,” I Corinthians 13, can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Given the context within the text, the words pertain to community as well as personal relationships. Despite their ubiquity at weddings, these words were not intended to be marital counsel, but were meant to provide community edification and guidance. Love is at the heart of good gifts within the community. Even great gifts require love to bring health to relationships. Love involves humility – the spirit of agnostic “not-knowing” that enables us to look beyond our gifts and viewpoints to see the value and giftedness of others. “I don’t know,” “I could be wrong,” “I need to listen more deeply,” are good words within the community of faith as well as in the relationships of lovers, friends, and parents and children. The agnosticism of love allows others to grow; it delivers us from the burden of having to know it all; and the temptation to objectify others, most especially God and our loved ones. Not knowing is the soil of growing. Finitude opens us to future possibilities. Incompleteness is the inspiration for adventure.
In the gospel reading, the crowd turns on Jesus when he has the audacity to expand the circle of revelation and divine care. In the spirit of the laborers’ response in parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus’ listeners are infuriated when he tells them that God is at work beyond the boundaries of Israel. They see grace as a possession not a gift to be shared. The good news of grace becomes bad news when we see it as our fixed possession and deny it to others. Today, pastors need to balance God’s work in the church with God’s work everywhere. Being part of a community of faith is a life-transforming grace and responsibility and, yes, God is also moving creatively through the mosque, laboratory, classroom, and library.
We can say “God bless America” as long as we affirm that God chooses every people. Our nation has its place in God’s historical movements and our largess, creativity, and empire require great care and responsibility if they are to become gifts to the earth. We need to cherish and affirm our national gifts. The giftedness of the USA is problematic only when we fail to see – or deny – the giftedness of other lands. We need not be guilty of our status as a nation; we need however to use this status to be leaders in planetary healing. There is no “American exceptionalism” in God’s realm; all are exceptional within the body of Christ and God’s vision of planetary shalom.
Let us be bold. Let us affirm our gifts and let our self-affirmation inspire us to nurture the gifts of others. Healthy humility is affirmative – it is the Serenity Prayer in action, inviting us to let go of what is beyond us, embrace the interconnectedness of life, and do what is in our power as we support others’ journeys.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty three books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. Contact him by email for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).