You know the dilemma. You’ve written a message or letter to someone, and you’ve had to say some hard things. Perhaps you even have more to say — but you sense that it might be wiser to wrap up and let what you’ve already written stand. But this can be the most difficult part of the letter to write. How do you sign off without sounding wishy-washy, abrupt, or trite?
Paul has tackled many a thorny issue in his letter to the Corinthian church. On what note should he end?
Just the one you might expect: on a love grounded in grace.
With his news that Apollos will visit in due time, Paul finishes addressing all the concerns the Corinthians raised in their letter to him. What will be the last exhortation, before he gives his final acknowledgements and greetings? It’s this: “Stay awake, stand firm in your faith, be brave, be strong. Everything should be done in love” (1 Cor 16:13-14, CEB).
“Stay awake” or “Watch”: it’s the same command Jesus gave his exhausted disciples in Gethsemane. Together with the imperatives to steadfastness and courage, the command warns them to hold on to the true gospel in the face of all the social pressures that have been causing problems in the church. And the practical expression of that faithfulness is that everything should be done in love.
We’re reminded, of course, of the way of love described in chapter 13, the way that is more excellent even than striving after particular spiritual gifts. Think back on all the issues Paul has addressed in the letter: the divisions over leadership; Christians suing one another; marriages hurt by spiritual beliefs; people stumbling in their faith over the self-serving libertinism of others; the clueless disregard of poorer members of the congregation in their celebration of Lord’s Supper; the confusion sown by arrogance about spiritual gifts. Imagine what difference a communal commitment to Christian love could make in all these situations…
Do everything in the kind of love that should mark the church that follows Jesus. Paul urges them to honor those who diligently serve others (1 Cor 16:15-18), and to greet one another warmly with a holy kiss (vs. 20). But this isn’t a lesson in the social niceties. In a final impassioned statement — possibly a last theological dig at his opponents! — Paul exclaims, “A curse on anyone who doesn’t love the Lord. Come, Lord (in the Greek, marana tha)!” (vs. 22, CEB).
There is both frustration and longing in Paul’s words. He knows that the lack of love between some of the believers in Corinth is symptomatic of their self-preoccupation and lack of love for Jesus himself. One imagines how maddening it must be for pastor Paul to have such a passionate love for the Lord himself and yet to have to deal with the pettiness that too often plagues the congregations he mentors. It’s enough for him to cry out that those who don’t love Jesus should be anathema, calling for Jesus to return ASAP and have done with it.
But in the meantime, he continues to labor. And for Paul, it is truly a labor of love, even in the midst of frustration. Having dictated the letter to someone else (possibly Sosthenes, see 1:1), he signs the letter personally and ends on the dual note of grace and love: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love is with all of you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 16:23, CEB).
For Paul, all of the gospel is about the grace of God revealed in and through Jesus, and the Christian life is about living out that gospel truth in love. We can be sure that his love for the Corinthians was genuine, making it possible for them to break his heart.
And as we’ll see in 2 Corinthians, they will do just that.