SCRIPTURE – I Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
“Love Corinthian Style”
I Cor. 13
Feb. 14, 2010
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…oh, sorry! Every time I read this passage I just assume I’m at a wedding. Whenever I meet with couples to talk about their wedding and I ask about readings, they always say, “What’s that one thing about love and stuff?” I Corinthians 13. I was performing a wedding once where this passage wasn’t read and the police actually came in and arrested the couple. Seriously, this is one of the most recognized and beautiful pieces of prose in the Bible, mainly because it accomplishes the impossible.
Love can be such a difficult thing to define. Webster’s says it’s “an intense personal attachment or affection.” Aw, that’s so romantic, isn’t it? Describing love is one of the places where our words fall short. It simply can’t be defined. People have tried. Woody Allen put it this way: “To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer. To suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy then is to suffer. But suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.” But of all the attempts that have been made to define love, I think Paul comes the closest here in this chapter.
“Love is patient, love is kind…” We hear those words and think of lacy veils and unity candles, flower girls and ring bearers. They hardly sound like a strong rebuke or harsh condemnation. But this is one of those places in the Bible where knowing the context is extremely important, because that’s exactly how the Corinthians could have perceived Paul’s message. Of all the churches that Paul helped start, the church in Corinth was his problem child. Corinth was a major metropolitan city and seaport, filled with all kinds of idolatry, immortality, and debauchery as people from around the world flowed in and out of its ports. If it was illegal and immoral, it was being done in Corinth, and the only overt sign of religion was the presence of pagan temples, including large ones to the Greek gods Apollo and Aphrodite.
It’s in this setting that the Corinthian church was struggling to survive, and it wasn’t doing a very good job. Believers in this new church were being seduced by the surrounding pagan culture that beckoned them back to lives of sin. It’s hard to worship when there’s a party going on outside. Many of Corinthian believers responded to this temptation with a hyper-spirituality, like a shirt I saw the other day that said, “Proud to be humble.” They were overemphasizing their own spiritual gifts and goodness as a way to fight off temptation and increase their own sense of importance. That led to a form of spiritual hierarchy within the church. Some parts of the body of Christ were saying they were more important than other parts. So you’ve got a church here where some of the folks are bragging about how spiritual they are, others are only half-heartedly living out their faith, and the whole surrounding culture couldn’t care less.
That’s what Paul has to deal with, so he writes his first letter to the Corinthians to address some troubling misunderstandings surrounding issues like marriage, sex, prostitution, eating habits, and the Lord’s supper. Then, in chapter 12, he turns to the role of spiritual gifts. The Corinthians were focused on developing spiritual gifts to be used with manipulative authority, not in humble service. The leaders were wrestling for power within the church. Some were making claims to be especially wise; others were getting carried away with ecstatic experiences like speaking in tongues; still others were making a public display of their giving to the poor.
Paul saw the fundamental flaw in all that the Corinthians were doing: they were doing these things without love. Their attitudes and actions, which seemed faithful on the surface, were not built upon a foundation of love. So Paul tries to get the Corinthians back on track. In chapter 12 he clarifies that everyone has gifts to be used in service to God and tries to even the playing field by saying, “There are many parts, but one body.” He ends chapter 12 by encouraging them to “eagerly desire the greater gifts,” then tells them “now I will show you the most excellent way.” The most excellent way is Ch. 13.
So, knowing that context, imagine how his words would have been heard by the Corinthians. If I speak in tongues, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor, but have not love, I gain nothing. This was Paul’s way of saying that spiritual gifts meaning nothing if they are not undergirded with a foundation of love for the other person and for God.
He then goes on to show them what love really is. This is an incredibly important section of this chapter, because Paul has the burden of distinguishing the love he is talking about from all the other types of love that existed. The Greek language had several different words for love. There was eros, which was a sensual, physical kind of love, from which we get our word “erotic.” There was philo, a kind of brotherly love, a desire for goodwill, as in “philanthropist.”
But none of these are the kinds of love Paul is talking about. No, the kind of love Paul draws on here is agape. Agape differs from the others in that they are all feelings we have, but agape is action that is carried out. It’s a selfless love, a love that thinks of others first, a love that doesn’t ask, “What’s in it for me?” but asks “What’s best for you?” That’s agape love, that’s the love Paul is defining here.
So it makes sense that Paul defines what love is by telling us what love does. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy or boast, it isn’t proud. Love at its purest is outwardly focused. It’s a love that reached out to those who didn’t deserve it; a love that puts the interest of the other first; a love that forgives people and starts over with them; and a love that sacrifices itself for others. It’s exactly the kind of love that transforms a collection of individuals into a church, and the kind that the Corinthians were missing. In the midst of the different cliques fighting for control within the church, Paul introduces this idea of agape, loving someone else more than yourself.
Those words may have stung a bit for the Corinthians as they read them and realized where they had fallen short. But how do they sound to us? I’m going to read those lines again, but I’m not going to say “love.” Instead, I want you to silently insert your name. For example, Kory is patient, Kory is kind. So I’ll leave a moment of silence for you to say your name, then say the characteristic. See if you can play along.
“… is patient, … is kind. … does not envy, …does not boast, …is not proud. … is not rude, …is not self-seeking, …is not easily angered. … keeps no record of wrongs. … does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. … always protects, …always trusts, …always hopes, …always endures.”
How did that feel? I think the question is not if you squirmed, but when you squirmed. I know when I hear my name in front of some of those things, I almost want to laugh out loud at how short I fall of that definition. How many of us do envy, or are easily angered, or keep records of wrongs? We do that so much, and so easily, that it feels like a part of our DNA.
And yet, that’s not who we are called to be. We are called to a more excellent way. Now, God knows we’ll never fully live up to all of those qualities, but if we can work on being better at even one of them, we’ll be better people. I encourage you take your bulletin insert home and use it as a checklist. “This week, I’m going to work on being more patient” or “Today, I’m going to try harder to have hope.”
Paul closes this chapter by simply stating the eternity of love. Everything else will fail. Those gifts that Corinthians so highly valued will one day be gone. Tongues will be stilled, knowledge will fade, beauty will deteriorate, wealth will diminish, even our hope can dim and our faith can be lost. But love never fails.
When we meet God face-to-face, we will no longer need faith, because our faith will have been confirmed. We’ll no longer need hope, because our hope will have been fulfilled. That leaves just one thing that will endure forever. As a famous quartet once said, “All you need is love.”
While we’re still here on earth, we can only get a blurred glimpse of what that eternal love will be like. But it’s a glimpse worth having, because it can change our lives and the lives of those around us. And we get that glimpse of eternal love by exercising agape, but offering love without hoping for anything in return, by striving to be patient and kind and all those other qualities Paul tells us about. Who in your life needs to know they are loved, to be reminded there is a more excellent way? Don’t assume they know it. Tell them. Better yet, show them through your actions. We may never get it exactly right, but our lives and the lives of those around us will be better for trying. I now pronounce you…loved.