Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
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Love: The Essential Christian Virtue

1st Corinthians 13

 More often than not, when I hear this passage read in a church, it’s at a wedding.  That’s okay.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It certainly has a lot to say about how a husband and wife should live together.  

 But the problem with reading this passage at a wedding is that it implies that this is a description of marital love, and it’s not.  It’s not about marriage at all.  It’s a description of the love that should exist in and among and between all believers.  Just look where it is in the letter: Right in the middle of a discussion about spiritual gifts, pride in Christian community, and worship.  It’s not a chapter directed at husbands and wives, but directed at the whole Church.

 Its message to the Church is that love is the indispensable, the essential Christian virtue.  That’s something Jesus also told us.  Jesus said, “By this the world will know you are my disciples; that you love one another.”  

 But does it?  Does the world know we are his disciples by our love?  Sometimes I wonder.  Not too long ago I read an article called “Why people don’t go to Church?”  They asked people who do not attend church why they don’t.  The number one answer:  The people.  There was a common perception that Church people are overly critical and judgmental.  Ouch.  But you know what?  They also asked people who do attend church why they attend.  The number one answer, again, was the people.  So maybe the best we can say is that we are not always consistent in displaying the love God wants us to show to the world.

 Let’s get a look at the Scripture.  Chapter 13 is what ancient writers called an encomium.  An encomium was a rhetorical device, frequently used in moralistic writings, in which a person, a virtue, or an action is praised.  A typical encomium began with a prologue, a poetic introduction to the subject.  Then it moved to a description of what was admirable about the person, virtue, or action.  And finally, it called for imitation.  All three of them are here in Paul’s encomium about love.

 But before we dive into the text, let’s stop to ask a question:  What kind of love is Paul talking about?  The Greek language had four different words for love.  First there was PHILEO, which was the love between friends.  Second there was STOICHOS, which was the love between family, a loyalty kind of love.  Third, there was EROS, which was the love between lovers, a romantic or sensual love.  And finally, there was AGAPE,

which describes the love of God and the love Christians are to imitate.  AGAPE is a self-denying or self-giving form of love, a love that seeks the good of others above self.  

 Our society tends to get fixated on the third of those words, EROS, romantic love.  None of them are bad.  It’s not as if AGAPE is good and the rest are bad.  All of them are good.  But there are three defining characteristics of AGAPE that set it apart from the rest:  First, it is the kind of love God demonstrated through the death of Christ on the cross, a kind of love that will give of self to benefit the other.  Second, AGAPE is a love without limits.  The other kinds of love are limited to certain situations.  For example, EROS, romantic love is meant to happen between lovers and stay there.  After all, we get pretty upset when our spouse shows romantic love to someone else!  But AGAPE love is meant to form a circle, in which each person receives it and gives it on to others, so that in the end, no one is neglected.  God showed AGAPE to the whole world and expects the Church to do the same.  And finally, AGAPE is not of human origin.  It comes from God and flows from God, through the Church, and into all the world.

 In this chapter, Paul has three things to say about love:

 First, since this is part of a larger discussion about gifts of the Spirit, it’s only natural that he begins with a discussion about the relationship between love and gifts.  Gifts of the Spirit lack value when they are not used in love.  Paul gives six examples pf gifts that could be exercised without love.

 We can speak without love.  Paul is specifically talking about the gift of tongues, since he mentions the languages of earth and heaven.  Many people believed that the gift of tongues enabled a person to speak in an angelic language or a human language that they had not learned.  But whatever we say, if we lack love, our words lack value.  They become like a gong or a cymbal, just noise.

 By the way, Paul is making a reference to something the Corinthians knew well.  Corinth was known for its bronze, which is what a gong or cymbal would be made of.  Also, mirrors were made of bronze, and Paul mentions them a bit further on.  But also, gongs and cymbals were used in the noisy, raucous atmosphere in many of the pagan temples in Corinth.  So the implication is that speaking without love is no better than worshipping an idol.

 Next, Paul mentions prophecy, which we would describe as preaching.  It’s certainly possible to preach without love.  We can also have knowledge without love,

which becomes intellectual snobbery.  We can have faith without love, which becomes spiritual snobbery.  

 We can even give without love, or sacrifice ourselves without love.  How can that be when the definition of AGAPE is self-giving love?  The answer is that we can also do those things for the sake of our own reputation or image.  We can give to be admired or respected rather than giving out of love.  Any gift can be used without love.

 So what does AGAPE love look like?  That’s the second point of Paul’s argument as verses 4 to 7 explore the character of love.  And in one way or another, most of what Paul has to say either reinforces an earlier encouragement to the Corinthians or corrects an earlier error on their part.

 Love is patient.  The Greek word usually translated as patient meant “slow to anger.”  It especially referred to being slow to anger at other persons.  A patient person is willing to overlook another person’s faults for the sake of love.

 Love is kind.  Kindness is sweetness or niceness.  A loving person tries not to be bitter or harsh toward other people.

 Love is not jealous.  A loving person is not resentful when others are blessed but is glad to see it.

 Love is not arrogant or proud.  Love considers others to be better than oneself.  Love is self-effacing, self-denying, not self-important.

 Love is not rude, nor does it demand its own way.  Love thinks of others first.

 Love keeps no record of wrongs.  I think this is the most challenging thing Paul had to say about love.  The phrase he uses here was usually used in reference to an accountant’s ledger, in which credits and debits were recorded.  The implication is that we should not keep a “ledger” about other people, keeping track of the good or bad they do against us.  

 Instead, we should be quick to forgive and quick to overlook each other’s faults.  We are all imperfect.  We’re all sinners.  If we are to have any hope of living together in relationship and community, it can only happen by us choosing to overlook faults.  

 Does this mean that we should forgive and forget?  Many people, even many Christians, insist, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget!”  But God does.  Should we do less?  I know it’s not easy, but whoever said being a Christian was easy?

 But this also does not mean that we should set ourselves up as doormats.  Because the very next phrase says that love does not rejoice in injustice but only in truth.  Love and justice are not in conflict with each other.  We cannot love by ignoring justice.  And I think maybe the best thing to say here is that there’s a real difference between the sins of weakness and carelessness and the sins of genuine exploitation of others.  It’s a very different thing to say a nasty word to someone in the heat of the moment than it is to plan and plot evil against them.  

 Love should not be used to cover over injustice.  We should not overlook evil because we “don’t want to hurt anyone.”  I think that has happened too often in the Church in regard to sexual abuse.  No one wanted to “hurt” the pastors or priests or teachers who did it, so they just covered it up.  Love and justice both suffered.  

 Love never gives up.  And I think especially that means that if we love people, we don’t give up on them.  We never lose faith that God is at work in them.  

 Finally, love will last forever.  All the gifts that the Corinthians were so eager to have were all temporary things.  Tongues, prophecy, special understanding; all of these are temporary and incomplete.  They will not be necessary when the “end” comes.  In Greek, the word end could also mean fullness or completeness or perfection.  When Christ returns, and our faith becomes sight, we will not need such gifts any longer.  But love will last forever.  We will always be loved by God, love him in return, and be called of God to love each other.  

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