I received extra credit from my eighth-grade religion teach-er for memorizing the second reading. Today, anyone who attends two or three Catholic weddings a year has also begun the process of memorizing it. I Corinthians 13 runs neck-and-neck with the "Good Shepherd" psalm as the Bible’s best-known chapter. Yet Paul never though thought anyone would isolate his insightful reflections about love from the chapters which precede and follow it (I Cor 13: 4-13).

As we heard last week, at this point of his letter, Paul is addressing a community on the verge of self-destruction. He’s convinced that its breakup springs from the Corinthians’ inability or refusal to recognize Jesus present in each member of the community.

Paul believes the prerequisite for such recognition revolves around a Christian’s determination to treat one another with love. Only when we listen to his famous words against this background do we surface the message he’s trying to convey.

Love’s qualities

"If I do not have love, I am nothing," he writes. "Love is patient, kind, not jealous, not pompous, not inflated, not rude, does not seek its own interests, not quick-tempered, does not brood over injury, does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth."

For us to believe that Jesus is present in the bread and wine during the Eucharist, several "technicalities" must be verified. Is the presider a validly ordained priest? Do the bread and wine contain the proper elements? Are they baked and fermented in the prescribed way? Does the priest say the correct words over the species within the proper Eucharistic context?

If we can answer "yes" to those questions, then we believe the bread and wine are no longer ordinary bread and wine. They’ve been transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.

But when we turn to our belief in a Christian community being transformed into the body of the risen Christ, Paul doesn’t come up with a parallel set of technical conditions. As he reminded the Corinthians back in chapter 11, this belief is based on an action in which everyone participates: treating each person in the community as another Christ. If we don’t treat them as Christ, we never recognize them as Christ. And the only way to treat them as Christ is to treat them with love.

How God works

Jesus gets Himself in trouble in His hometown synagogue because He delivers a similar message (Lk 4: 21-30). Though He’s not trying to convince people that He’s present in others, He is attempting to demonstrate that Yahweh can work in and through individuals who aren’t Jewish.

"There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah," He reminds His audience. But "it was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."

In each case, the person who experiences Yahweh’s saving presence is a Gentile!

No wonder some Jews want to kill Him. Jesus reminds them of something that demands giving themselves to others. Unless they’ve open and loving to Gentiles, they’ll never acknowledge God working in and through Gentiles. They, like many "religious folk," have made organized religion an excuse for refusing to be broad-minded and loving.

Along with Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul believe they’re commissioned by God to proclaim a disturbing prophetic message (Jer 1: 4-5, 17-19). No matter the opposition, the three have faith that God is with them to deliver them from their enemies. Sadly, the "enemies" are people who actually think such opposition is demanded by God. Their concept of God and God’s presence is so narrow it blocks out the biblical concept of God and God’s presence, even when, in the Christian Scriptures, that God is Jesus.

They, like many of us, simply don’t want to pay what love costs.

(1/29/04)