The Greatest is Love (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

I read a great quote about love a few months ago in a book written by a friend. The quote came from a sermon preached by Dr. Haddon Robinson at a pastors’ conference, and the text was our epistle for today, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13. Toward the end of his sermon, Dr. Robinson said this: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”.

I think this is exactly what Paul is trying to get at in our epistle for today. Before we dive right into it, let’s remind ourselves of two things. First, the meaning of the word ‘love’. It has many different meanings in the English language, but nowadays we mostly use it to describe an emotion. Paul, however, was writing in Greek, not English, and Greek is richer when it comes to words for love. There’s ‘eros’, which refers to what today we would call romantic or sexual love – love that is a response to beauty or goodness in the beloved. There’s ‘phileo’, from which we get our word ‘philanthropy’; in Greek its meaning is close to what we would today call ‘friendship’. There’s ‘storge’, which carries the sense of ‘love of the familiar’ – the love we have for family members or people we’ve known all our lives.

But Paul doesn’t use any of those words, and neither do most of the writers of the New Testament. Instead they use a word that they may have invented themselves; it certainly doesn’t appear in any earlier Greek literature. The word is ‘agapé’, and it doesn’t describe an emotion at all. Agapé isn’t based on affection or approval; it’s totally unconditional, coming as a free gift, not because the beloved deserves it but because the lover chooses to give it. It’s a decision of the will to act in the other person’s best interests, whether we feel like it or not. It’s getting down at the supper table and washing your disciples’ feet. It’s being willing to lay down your life to save people who don’t even care about you. It’s the way God loves us, and the way God calls us to act toward others as well.

So let’s remember this: when Paul says that love is the more excellent way, he’s not talking about storge or eros or phileo ; he’s talking about agapé. Secondly, let’s remember who this letter was written to. Corinth was a city in ancient Greece, famous throughout the world for its sexual immorality. It was also a place where the Greek mystery religions were very popular. Those religions went in for spiritual experience in a big way; the people who participated in them were used to being moved by powerful supernatural forces. They might go into a trance, or experience a powerful emotion like ecstasy, or be transported out of the body, or carry out some other strange course of action. This sort of thing was regarded as normal in the mystery religions; not only that, it was the way you knew that you were encountering something real. If you didn’t experience any of this, there wasn’t much point in being involved in that particular cult or religion.

So the Corinthian Christians liked dramatic spiritual experiences. They loved supernatural gifts like speaking in tongues and miracles and healings. But they were rather self-indulgent about them, and Paul had a suspicion that sometimes there wasn’t a lot of love in the way they used those gifts. So in last week’s passage Paul reminded them that the church is like a body, the Body of Christ. Each organ and limb has an essential part to play in the life of the body. So it is with the church; each of us has been given spiritual gifts, but we’re to use them in love, to build up the whole Body of Christ, not to show off or chase after spiritual thrills.

And so we come to this great chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s look at it in three parts. First, in verses 1-3, Paul teaches us that love is essential to the life of the church.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Knowing what we do about the Corinthian Christians, we can understand why Paul is using these examples. These are the things they valued the most in their spiritual lives – speaking in tongues, prophecy, understanding mysteries, having enough faith to do spectacular things. And they loved the ‘grand gesture’. There’s a story about young Francesco Bernadone, who later became St. Francis of Assisi. As a young man he had a powerful conversion experience, and in obedience to the gospel call he proceeded to start giving away his possessions. Except that they weren’t his possessions, they were his father’s! His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and when he saw what his son was doing, he dragged him before the Bishop of Assisi in the town square and demanded that the Bishop tell his son to stop giving away things that didn’t belong to him. In response, Francis stripped himself naked in front of everyone, handed his clothes to his father, and said, “There – now you have everything that belongs to you”. He then went off to live as a hermit in literal obedience to the gospel call of Jesus.

The Corinthians would have loved this story; they loved the grand gesture – ‘If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast’ (v.3). But Paul is reminding them that all of this – using miraculous gifts, performing dramatic acts of faith and so on – is worth absolutely zero if it’s not all about agapé love for others.

Well, it’s easy for us to sit in judgement on the Corinthians; after all, most Anglicans aren’t tempted by speaking in tongues or displays of religious emotion. But what would Paul say to us today? How about this:

‘If we have the most beautiful liturgy ever designed by human beings, performed by people in the most splendid robes, with music from the best possible choir, but do not have love, we are a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. And if we have the most beautiful church building, with a gorgeous sanctuary and lots of program space, and fancy offices and plush carpets, but don’t have love, we are nothing. If we produce excellent ministry plans and offer a multitude of different programs – if we have multiple services aimed at different kinds of people – if we have a high profile in the city and people are talking about our church – but don’t have love, we gain nothing’.

Yes, I think that is what Paul would say to us. Remember again the wise words of Haddon Robinson: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”. That’s exactly what Paul is trying to say in this passage. We aren’t going to be questioned about our splendid liturgy and impressive list of programs. We’re going to be questioned about love.

So Paul starts by telling us that love is essential to the life of the church. Secondly, in verses 4-6 he describes to us what love is and what it does.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

As I was reading this passage over in preparation for this sermon, it became very clear to me that all the positive statements in this passage could be applied to God, and all the negative ones could be applied to me. God is patient, God is kind. God rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. But me? I’m envious, and boastful, and arrogant, and rude! I insist on my own way, I’m irritable and resentful, and far too often, I rejoice in wrongdoing! So I have a long way to go – as do we all.

Paul tells us that those who love are patient with one another. In modern English, ‘patient’ can mean we’re not in a hurry, but it can also mean we bear with one another’s weaknesses and make allowances for one another. It’s the second meaning that Paul is using here. Those who love, know themselves well; they know we all grow slowly, fail many times, and need healthy dollops of forgiveness. This is how God acts toward us – he is infinitely patient with us – and those who are growing in love are learning to treat others in the same way.

Those who love are kind to one another. They treat each other gently and considerately, do good things for one another, give freely to one another, and treat each other as valued human beings. They always remember Jesus’ golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), and they do their best to practice it.

Those who love are not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Envy, boasting, arrogance and rudeness are all about competition – I’m in competition with your wealth, your popularity, your success, your good looks, your spiritual gifts, your experience of God. Deep down inside, these folks are insecure; they believe there’s only so much love and success and good fortune to go around, and if I’m not careful, someone’s going to cheat me out of my fair share. But those who love are not in competition with each other; they rejoice in each other’s blessings without wishing to have them for themselves.

Those who love do not insist on their own way. They understand that, as someone one said, ‘Everyone is an “I”’ – in other words, everyone I meet has a life of their own. They don’t see themselves as supporting actors in my play; they’re the lead actors in their own play. And gradually, as we grow together, we all learn to see ourselves as supporting actors in God’s play. It’s not about me, so I don’t always have to get what I want.

Those who love are not irritable or resentful. They don’t get easily upset or offended by others; in fact, they choose not to take offence. They don’t hold grudges and hang on to past hurts. They’re learning that if you do that, you bind yourself to the past with chains of iron. They want to be free, so they’re learning to let go of pride and anger and embrace the way of forgiveness and grace.

Those who love don’t rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth. In other words, their love isn’t an easygoing love. When they see people doing wrong and hurting others, they don’t just stand by and let it happen. When a word of truth needs to be spoken, they’re ready to speak it – but out of love, not out of a need to judge or control others.

Those who love bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. In other words, they don’t give up on people. Their love for one another is stubborn; it’s what the Old Testament calls in Hebrew ‘chesed’, which is translated in our NRSV as ‘steadfast love’. Eugene Peterson’s ‘Message’ translation of the Bible says, ‘Love…puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end’.

So this is what Paul means by love. Of course, it’s a tall order. I can see why some churches would rather work on splendid liturgies or efficient organization! It’s so much easier to have a brilliant website or a service for every taste than it is to put yourself out to truly love people as Paul describes it here, not holding anything back, never giving up hope, remaining faithful to the end. I have to confess, all I can think of is how far I fall short. But at the same time, the passage inspires me and challenges me: this truly ought to be our goal as a Christian community!

So Paul has told us that love is essential to the life of the church, and he’s described for us what love is and what is does. Finally, in verses 8-13 he tells us that love is the only thing that will last forever.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Many of us have probably heard this passage from 1 Corinthians read at weddings, but I have to tell you that in recent years I’ve also used it at funeral services, and people seem to appreciate it. Paul is asking his friends in Corinth is, “What’s going to last? On that day when we see God face to face, what will really be important?” Will it be our reputation for wisdom or knowledge or supernatural experiences? No – in fact, on that day, we’ll be brought face to face with the truth of how little we really knew! We might think we have a good understanding of God and the way God works in the world, but one day we’ll look back and think, “How could I have been so blind?” All our inspired speech and glorious miracles and splendid liturgies and sophisticated programming – on the day we see God face to face, it’ll all just be like child’s play to us then.

So many people, when they come to the end of their lives, regret all the time and energy they’ve spent on things that mean absolutely nothing to them on their deathbeds. Some people set great store by accumulating possessions and money; some people spend their lives trying to be a success in all they do. Some people live for the good opinion of others; their greatest desire is to impress others and to be popular and well-liked. But in the end, Paul would say to us, none of that’s going to last; it’s all going to pass away.

What will last? Only three things, says Paul – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love. Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in ‘The Message’:

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of these is love.

So, my brothers and sisters, let’s never let ourselves settle for less than this. Let’s never forget that this is the most important thing we can work on, because without it, everything else is just noise and busywork. So let’s end as we began, with these wise words of Dr. Haddon Robinson: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”.

Amen.

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