Most of us would agree that the world today is characterized by division and disagreement more than it is by unity and common values. There are so many viewpoints, and people often hold them very strongly. What’s more, division and disagreement have a tendency to grow into discord and disrespect. Sometimes, it’s even hard to have civil conversations!
Looking back with nostalgia, we might think, “If only we could live like the people in the early Church! Everyone was united in their love for Christ, and they took such good care of each other.” But the truth is, divisions were just as sharp and painful back then as they are today.
Corinth: A Divided Church. Like the Galatians whom we featured in the previous article, the Christians in Corinth were also suffering under the strain of division and animosity. Corinth was a populous, multicultural city filled with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, so it’s easy to imagine differences between members of the church there turning into arguments that would lead to division.
And that’s exactly what happened. The believers there fought over how to deal with an incestuous relationship between two members (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). There were members who spoke in tongues or prophesied who began looking down on the ones who did not exercise these gifts as freely (12:4-24). Celebrations of the Eucharist, which at that time included a meal, became occasions of strife as the wealthier members of the church wanted to eat before their poorer brothers and sisters arrived (11:17-22). Some of them were even suing each other in a civil court before trying to work out their differences!
Paul tackles these issues and more in his letter, but at the heart of them all is his repeated appeal that the people overcome their divisions as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Love at the Foundation. Paul knew that good advice, while important, wasn’t enough. The people needed spiritual guidance so that their unity would rest on a solid foundation. So he focused on God’s desire to help them live together as one family in Christ. And to do that, he highlighted the first and most important fruit of the Spirit, the one thing that had the power to heal all their divisions: love. “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). And not just any love. Paul called them to a radical, committed love that only the Holy Spirit could give them.
The love that Paul taught in every Christian community is not limited to sentimental feelings. Most parents would agree with him on this point. They measure their love of their children by their commitment, not just by transient emotions. They might feel exasperated or irritated by a toddler’s temper tantrums or by a difficult discussion with an adult child, but nevertheless, their love remains. It’s the kind of love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). The spiritual fruit of love is expressed in actions, not just in words.
So what does it look like to have love, the fruit of the Spirit, active in our lives? For one thing, love contains the other fruit of the Spirit within itself. “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Christian love “does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth” (13:6). It isn’t reflected in “rude” speech. It doesn’t put “its own interests” ahead of other people’s needs. It’s not “quick-tempered,” nor does it “brood over injury” (13:5). Clearly, love is a decision to put another ahead of ourselves, especially when we don’t feel like doing it or when we feel that the other person has hurt us.
Paul knew that if the disciples in Corinth placed this kind of love as their top priority instead of their controversies and divisions, they would find their way back to unity and peace.
Love by Serving. Paul also understood that a key to remaining united in love was through service and self-giving. He wanted all of the Christians in Corinth to serve one another, and to do it in a way that was helpful and constructive. “There are different forms of service,” he wrote, “but the same Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:5). Paul wanted the Corinthians to imitate Jesus, who “did not come to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
Experience tells us that when we get out of ourselves and take care of someone else, our hearts soften. Just as a husband lays down his life for his wife in everyday, practical ways and vice versa, so brothers and sisters in Christ should be willing to give up their time and energy to help one another out. This is doubly true if we go out of our way to do something good for someone we disagree with. Whatever pride or willfulness or stubbornness is in our hearts can give way to compassion, charity, and an open mind.
If we could all learn to love each other by serving each other, we would see a dramatic decrease in divisions within families as well as parishes. Long-standing resentments could give way to forgiveness. A judgmental spirit could be transformed into a spirit of understanding and peace.
So seek to promote the welfare of the people around you, especially those in your immediate family and your parish family. Go out of your way to do good for them. Look for ways to care for the people who are different from you or someone you have a hard time accepting. Be practical. Be helpful. Be humble. Try to sow peace so that discord can diminish. And don’t be surprised if you end up loving such people more than you do now!
Jesus: The Greatest Sign of Love. Paul told the Corinthians that love is “the greatest” of all the gifts God could ever give us (1 Corinthians 13:13). In fact, if you turn to any page in any of his letters, you’ll find Paul teaching that the ultimate expression of this love is Jesus.
Every day he walked the earth, Jesus demonstrated his love through his words and actions—by healing the sick, forgiving sinners, and proclaiming the promise of heaven. Surely there were days when he felt exhausted, but he persevered. Surely there were days when he felt frustrated at his disciples’ weak faith, but he continued to teach them. Then, when the time came, he gave the greatest manifestation of love possible: he submitted himself to the cross.
In every possible way, Jesus showed us that Christian love proves itself in practical, daily service. For instance, we may imagine what a beautiful, moving gesture it was for Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet. But washing someone’s feet was dirty, lowly work. It was either reserved for household servants or left for a person to take care of himself.
Then, when he was done, he told his disciples, “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). He made it clear that Christian love is often a lowly job and sometimes a dirty job, but it is the greatest calling any of us could have.
Love: A Fruit of the Spirit. Paul made it clear that the love he was urging the Corinthians to adopt was God’s perfect, unending love. He made it clear that loving our brothers and sisters in Christ is not just a matter of our own decisions and human abilities but of the love that has been “poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). Or as St. John wrote, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The more we stay connected to the Spirit each day, the easier it will be to serve each other, to pardon those who have wronged us, and to treat everyone with kindness and goodness—no matter how we are treated. It won’t always be easy, and it won’t solve every problem; but we can still trust that the Holy Spirit is close at hand to strengthen us and give us the grace to carry on.