1 Corinthians 13:1-13 CEB
If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.
Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. We know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things. Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.
Imagine yourself for a moment arriving for a wedding ceremony, taking a seat, and the ceremony begins. As you start moving through the liturgy for this special day there are the words and songs that precede the exchanging of the vows and rings. You probably expect to hear some scriptures, and I will say as a pastor, these passages are beautiful but some of the them are worse examples of scripture being taken out of context. Our scripture selection for today is an excellent example by being one of the worst culprits. You see, when one of these scriptures is taken out of context defined as referring to romantic love, it can be harder to understand them when they are put back into the whole scheme of a book or letter. Paul’s description of love did not spring from a vacuum but out of a particular set of problems in the church of Corinth. They did not know how to practice the kind of love that God shows us and hopes to instill in our hearts. That love in Greek is called agape. It is a love that does not seek to be filled but to fill. It is a kind of love that is more than a feeling as it finds its fullest expression in action. Agape is the kind of love we need to cultivate because it does not necessarily come naturally for us. It is the kind of love that makes our invisible God visible through our lives and through our communities of faith for a world torn by hate and hurt. For us today, just as in the days of the Corinthian church, the same challenge remains, how do we cultivate the kind of love necessary for us to be the love of God active in the world?
I do not think I can overstate this kind of love because the Apostle Paul finds it to be essential for our life and work as the church. I have said before context matters, and this is also true of chapter thirteen of 1 Corinthians. Since we often pluck it out, we do not often see how it works within Paul’s overarching arguments in this letter. Paul writes this letter because Corinth had a lot of problems. We already talked about how they misused the gifts of the Spirit to give themselves status. The community was also filled with strife, with members taking each other to court. They could not share the communion meal without some getting drunk and full while others were left hungry. In effect, they did not know how to love in action, so Paul decided to show them a better way.
Now, in our modern times, we like hearing about qualities of love described in these passages, especially how “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful” and so on, but we miss something in our modern translations. First, Paul names the qualities he does because they are in direct opposition to the realities of the Corinthian church, so when Paul calls for patience it is because they are distinctly impatient. They fight, so they need to be kinder. They strive for status, so their love should not be boastful. In fact, our English translations often fail us here. Our modern readings use passive linking verbs through a verb like “is,” but Paul’s description of love is far more active in the original Greek. Really, we should be reading this section and hearing Paul say “Love acts patiently.” In effect, if you wish to have agape, you must act patient, you must act kind, etc. and etc. Paul offers an answer to what ails the church, and it is through putting agape into practice, trying to live out the very love of God for people.
Paul speaks of agape, and in 1 John, God is agape. Hear these words from 1 John, “Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t know love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8 CEB). Yes, my friends, the same Greek word for love is used here as in the letter from Paul this morning. Agape is at the basis of our entire Christian life. All other actions of charity, of giving, of faith, of justice, of miracles, and of prophecy are empty without agape. We are here because of agape, for you see God’s greatest act of agape is in Christ Jesus. Here God did not simply say, “I love you,” but instead made love an active force in our individual lives, our church community, and in the whole wide world. Our God is love because our God acts.
Agape acts. The very love the church and all of us as Christians should be practicing in our faith lives is not one of passive sentimentality, it should always be acting. This love is always acting for the sake of another. A couple of weeks ago we heard how gifts of the Spirit, the gifts we all have are for the common good. Last week, we heard how this common good is the well-being and deliverance of all God’s people across this whole wide creation. Now, we are told that our love should seek to imitate and embody the kind of love of our Savior shows, one that can deliver and lift up another. How do we make sure that our gifts are not a “noisy gong or clanging cymbals?” We do this by making sure that this kind of love is at the core of our faith lives and at the core of our relationship with our God and neighbor. It should govern the practice of our gifts and interactions with one another.
This is easier said than done. To love this way is not easy. Even our best efforts at love can be tinted with self-interest, pride, and ego. We can have a ministry of charity, for instance, giving lots of money to those in need, but that pesky pride, justifiable as it might be, sneaks into our hearts. Suddenly, it can become, we give the most! We are the best at this! Before we know it, we may be giving because it is what is expected of us to maintain our pride, not answer the call in our hearts to love our neighbor. This can happen in any of our ministries. We may not yet be banging away at our cymbals and striking the gong to sound out their empty tunes, but it is a close thing. Our love can begin to get hollow. How do we carry agape in our hearts then? How do we make sure that it endures? There is no easy or simple answer, as this kind of love, like any kind of love, takes work. This one most of all. It is the kind of love that will frustrate us. It will be the kind of love that terrifies us. It will be the kind of love that challenges us more than any other.
Look at our example of Christ, the very visible example of God’s love. How easy do you think it was to love all the humanity he encountered? He saw ugliness. He witnessed people who hated and harmed one another. I imagine he may have even gone to the cross knowing that there were many who would not even notice or care about the kind of suffering he was about to endure for their sake and ours. What love it must have taken. After this act, Jesus appeared post-resurrection to the disciples, and in the gospel of John, he has a relevant conversation with Peter:
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’” John 21:15-17 NRSV
What stands out here is that the word Jesus uses for love here is agapan, based on agape, and Peter uses philein in his response, based on philia which is more like loving affection. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me as God loves you,” to which Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, I am very fond of you.” Jesus, as God always does, seeks to push us deeper into love. Do you love God? Act like it. Practice it. Feed God’s people and tend to God’s people. Jesus says it without a qualifier. Jesus calls for us to love in the face of ugliness and hurt and harm.
Who do you love? Who do you find it hard to love? How do you love? Search your heart this morning. Extend love from yourself, and extend that love outwards to your family, to friends, and to those you know. Extend it out to those you do not know, or maybe they are the ones that you have only heard stories about. Maybe their names have come up in the media. Maybe you have heard generalities about who they are, what they do, and the threat they pose to you. Can you love them? I do not mean the feeling but the action of love. If you cannot, if there is resistance, roll back then to the ones you love. What is different there? What keeps you from extending that agape love outward? Where do we all need practice this morning to love as God loves?
My friends, this love is key. Agape is at the foundation of who we are. I can say this because Scripture affirms it. The Apostle Paul once wrote, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NRSV). We were not so lovable that Christ easily shed this kind of love for you and for me. God shed this love because God is agape. God gave us this love and made us lovable. This kind of love does that. It builds up rather than tearing down. It cares about justice. It cares more about the needs of the other than our own. It has the power to transform. It is the love that is eternal. Where can we practice this kind of love today? What do we need to do to overcome the barriers of our own hearts to truly love our neighbors as God first loved us? Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman