Would you like to know the secret to being a successful minister of the Lord? Would you like to know the secret to being a successful church?
I just underlined in red the relevant phrases in my Bible – something I never do anymore.
It is all right there, in verses 14, 15, and 19. How much clearer could St. Paul make it?
Verse 14: “for I do not seek yours, but you.”
Verse 15: “I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls.”
Verse 19: “But we do all things, beloved, for your edification.”
This is the secret to being a Christian, which is to be a minister in God’s kingdom. I can name that secret in 4 letters: L-O-V-E.
And I can’t think of a better person to have written the extended definition of love in I Corinthians 13 than St. Paul.
Paul doesn’t even come right out and say that it is love that motivates him to labor for the Corinthians (though he does call them “beloved.”) Instead, he shows it by his actions, and he gives us three related definitions of love.
“For I do not seek yours, but you.” This is such an outstanding definition of love that I don’t know how I missed it all these years. One of the dangers of reading too much Scripture too rapidly is that you miss some of the most important things God is saying. This is one reason that the slow, formative reading of the lectio divina is so important to us all. Another reason I think I missed it is because it is not the overtly didactic teaching in which one says, “Now get out your red pen because this is the definition of love I want you all to know.”
“For I do not seek yours, but you.” It appears as if Paul has been accused of taking advantage of some of the Corinthians or of ministering for his own personal gain. Paul is trying to clear his name, but he is also doing so much more: he has given the Corinthians and us a definition of love. “I’m not after all your neat junk,” Paul says. “I’m not after your money or possessions or prestige.” Instead, what Paul wants more than anything else from the Corinthians is the Corinthians themselves.
In this, Paul is like God Himself. Yes, God requires and demands that we spend the good gifts He has given us on Him and His kingdom. But God isn’t after the “neat junk” that he’s given us. No, God is after much bigger fish: He’s after you. We all remember the war posters of Uncle Sam pointing directly at us and saying, “I want you.” Like Uncle Sam, and like God, Paul says to the Corinthians, “I want you.”
How does Paul want the Corinthians? Not as a ravening wolf, and not as someone he can mooch off of. Paul wants the Corinthians so he can present them spotless before God. He wants the Corinthians so that he may present them “as a chaste virgin to Christ (11:2.) Paul understands that the goal of human life is union with God. He understands that the God who gave Himself for us in love wants us to give ourselves back to Him in love.
In this, Paul is like a parent, who spends his life serving the lesser child so that the child may grow to a healthy maturity. In our human kingdoms, the lesser and the weaker serve the greater and stronger. But in the Kingdom of Heaven, the greater and stronger serve the lesser and the weaker. This is the pattern that Jesus Himself laid down for us, it is the pattern that St. Paul has laid down for us, and it is the pattern that all Christian leaders (parents, pastors, etc.) are to set for those they shepherd.“I will very gladly spend and be spend for your souls.” This is Paul’s “affirmation” to himself each day. Not the kind of self-affirmation we are used to such as Coue’s famous “Every day, and in every way, I am becoming better and better.” St. Paul’s daily affirmation is more like: “Every day, and in every way, I spend myself for the good of Corinthian souls.”
This is the affirmation we need each day – not the inflation of self and ego, but the emptying of self in humility as a minister of Jesus Christ. Remembering Paul’s litany of sufferings from 2 Corinthians 6 and 11, we know that Paul is not a hypocrite and that he truly gave his life for the good of the souls of others.
And this, too, is the definition of love.
Far from ministering to the Corinthians for his own personal gain, Paul loves to spend himself and his resources on their behalf. He does this, he says, gladly, because he knows that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7.) As wonderful and inspiring as all of this is, the second half of verse 15 is like a dagger in the heart. After 12 chapters, essentially, of showing his labors of love, Paul writes: “though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved.”
“Uuuuuungh!” says the heart to the dagger that has crucified it.
This is not so much a definition of love as the very incarnation of it. Paul’s love, which is God’s love, is so big for the Corinthians that even when his love is not requited, even when his love becomes an object of extreme pain because the beloved does not return his love, he still loves.
Finally, Paul says in verse 19, “we do all things, beloved, for your edification.” Paul’s goal is to have every part of his life and ministry be used to edify or build up the Corinthians. There is no “Yeah, but what about me?” in Paul: there is only a “But what about you?”
Here, near the end of 2 Corinthians, we realize that St. Paul himself has become God’s love letter to the Corinthians.
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he has written this letter so that we might imitate him and also become God’s love letter to our own local church and others.
Prayer: Father, I praise Your holy name because out of Your love You sent Your only Son. Jesus, I thank You that You came not to be served but to serve, and I thank You that Your love was incarnated in the life of the apostle Paul. Send to me this day, through Your Holy Spirit, Your love that seeks others and not my own good and that is willing to cheerfully be spent on behalf of others, as You first spent Yourself on me.
Points for Meditation:
1. Review Paul’s ministry to the Corinthians and look for ways in which he acted in love.
2. Examine yourself in terms of what prevents you from more wholly giving yourself for others.
3. Memorize one of Paul’s 3 “definitions” of love (verses 14, 15, and 19) and carry them with you throughout the day.
Resolution: I resolve today to find one practical way (in which I am not already engaged or likely to be) that I can spend myself on another.
© 2013 Fr. Charles Erlandson