Love Trumps All

The text for this sermon is I Corinthians 13.  Pastor Jim Kniseley prepared this sermon for January 31, 2010, the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany.

Dear Friends in Christ,

This morning I would like to do a very simple Bible study with you on a most familiar portion of scripture.  It is the “love chapter” in I Corinthians.  When I say familiar, I mean this is read at practically all weddings and a lot of funerals too.  I suspect that most of you  have  heard Paul’s words on the love of God before.

Our challenge this morning will be listening anew to find what God has to say to us here and now in our life together.  Please pick up your Bible and turn to I Corinthians, chapter 1.  Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes.  To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul starts off with a bang.  He reminds the folks that he has been “called” by God, is an “apostle of Christ Jesus” and he is writing to God’s church in Corinth.  The “church” are those “sanctified” and “made holy” by the Lord Jesus, and this church is part of the whole church throughout the world who call on the name of Jesus.  And he ends his greeting with two wonderful words: grace and peace.  Grace, meaning God’s wonderful free gift of salvation and peace (shalom) now attached to God and Jesus.

Before we approach the love chapter, let me give you a brief synopsis of what’s going on in the Corinthian Church that prompts Paul to write this letter.  Factions had developed in the church (see 11:f, I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas, I follow Christ), there was jealousy and envy of who had the greatest spiritual gifts, there was sexual immorality, there was drunkenness going on at the Lord’s Supper, there were law suits going on among the members, and so forth.  In chapter 12 Paul  reinforces the idea that the church is the body of Christ, that the gifts of the spirit are given to the church for the building up of the whole body, that all parts are needed in order for the church to be healthy and alive. 

And now we come to chapter 13.  And now I will show you a more excellent way.  Paul is presenting four highly regarded spiritual gifts as examples (vs. 1- tongues, vs. 2- gifts of prophecy, vs. 2-gift of faith, vs.3-giving).  Paul is going to do something “out of the ordinary” here.  First of all he is going to “invent” a word (agape) and he is going to comment on the use of spiritual gifts in light of this “agape.”  Please note that “love” is not a spiritual gift, it is a fruit of the spirit (the fruits of the spirit, according to Galatians 5:22 are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control).  The fruits of the spirit are available to all Christians and they are a measure of our connectedness to Christ and our understanding of the heart of Jesus.

Let’s read chapter 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 trust, always hopes, always perseveres.

This love, this agape love, is really Christ-like love.  In 4 verses here Paul is describing the character of Jesus and how Jesus would respond to life’s circumstances.  Let’s try something together.  Let’s read aloud verses 4 through 8a together.  And wherever you see the word “love”, say “Jesus”.  That will include the word “it” when “it” takes the place of “love”.

Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind.  Jesus does not envy, Jesus does not boast, Jesus is not proud.  Jesus is not rude, Jesus is not self-seeking, Jesus is not easily angered, Jesus keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  Jesus always protects, always trust, always hopes, always perseveres.  Jesus never fails.

Want to get a real wake-up call.  When you go home today, read this portion again, inserting your own name.  See what it might say…

Paul is going to emphasize the temporary nature of the gifts of the spirit.  They are given for a time and someday will not be needed.  But “love” will go on forever.  Then he gives us a couple of illustrations in case we don’t understand why we can’t understand all things now: the illustration of a child vs. a man, and the illustration of looking in a mirror vs. seeing face to face.

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 a poor 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. 

Paul wraps up chapter 13 with these familiar words: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.  We know that this Christ-like love, and it is an attitude, it is a way of witnessing for Christ, it is a way of making this world a better place in which to live.

Paul starts out chapter 14 with these words: Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts…

Would you agree that if we actually practiced using the fruits of the spirit in our everyday lives that we could positively and wonderfully affect our marriages, our families, our work, our church, and our community?

I conclude with these thoughts from Martin Luther in his commentary on I Corinthians:

In short, things (in the Corinthian Church) got so wild and disorderly that everyone wanted to be the expert and do the teaching and make what he pleased of the gospel, the sacrament, and faith.  Meanwhile they let the main thing drop – namely, that Christ is our salvation, righteousness and redemption – as if they had long since outgrown it.  This truth can never remain intact when people begin to imagine that they are wise and know it all.

People of Resurrection, let’s take these words to heart.  May we always keep the love of God, namely Jesus, as the heart of our faith and practice.