Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Love, the Supreme Christian Virtue

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

 I’m pretty sure this is the most frequently read Scripture at weddings.  Don’t misunderstand me.  There’s nothing wrong with this text being used at a wedding.  It certainly has a lot to say about how people must behave to have a successful marriage.  But the danger is that someone listening to it, who is not familiar with the Bible, might think that this chapter is only about marriage, only about the love between husband and wife.  And that is not the case.  1 Corinthians 13 is about the love followers of Christ should have for all people, not spouses only.

 In the Greek language, there were four different words for something that could be translated as love.  

 The first is EROS, which means passionate love, romance, attraction.  This is the one our society is so fixated on, based on what we see in movies, television, books, etc.   We are apparently obsessed with romance.  In God’s design, this kind of love rightly belongs between one man and one woman.  And obviously, all kinds of problems arise when it is taken out of that context.  

 Even Christians, I find, can fall into the trap of fixating on this particular love.  Several years ago, the movie “Frozen” came out.  I really like it because while it does have that romantic love aspect in the story, the real key event in the story is an example of self-sacrificial love, the highest form of love; the heroine gives up her life to save another.  When the movie came out, I remember reading about a Christian radio host who condemned the movie as a “lesbian love story,” because at the end, the heroine professes her love for another female character, for whom she sacrifices her life.  Obviously, the radio host had never seen the movie.  But it bothered me that a Christian missed that this was a good story about the highest form of love.

 The second word for love is STOICHOS.  STOICHOS is mostly the idea of family loyalty.  Again, it is limited in scope.  Not everyone is our “family.”  It’s the idea that while family may have their disagreements, at the end of the day, they have each other’s backs.  Or at least they should!

 The third Greek word for love is PHILIA.  This one means friendly affection, companionship, kindred spirits.  Again, it is limited in scope.  We don’t feel friendly affection for all people.  We don’t know all people, and at the end of the day, not

everyone is cut out to be “kindred spirits.”  Our personalities clash, our interests are different, and so on.  We’re just not able to be friends with everyone.

 The final Greek word for love is AGAPE.  This is God’s love.  AGAPE is self-sacrificial love, the love that puts others before self.  And it is not based on feelings.  It is a choice.  We can choose to put others first, even if we don’t feel affection for them.  Unlike the other kinds of love, this one is not limited in its scope.  It is universal.  It flows from God, to God’s people, and from God’s people into all of creation.  

 This is the kind of love that 1 Corinthians 13 is about.  Not romance, not friendship, not family, but the love that chooses to sacrifice of self to serve others.  We do a disservice to Scripture if we make this chapter about any other kind of love.  

 An interesting note about this chapter:  While it might be one of the most beautiful chapters in Scripture, at the end of the day, it is a side-note.  It’s a digression.  Paul has been talking about something important in chapter 12, and he’ll get back to it in chapter 14.  But in chapter 13, he is going down a rabbit trail.  The main thrust of this section of the letter is about gifts of the Spirit and their use.  This is a digression from that main thrust, but what a digression it is.

 There are three parts to the chapter.  First, there is the necessity of love.  Second, the character of love.  And finally, the permanence and supremacy of love.

 Verses 1 to 3 are about the necessity of love.  The Corinthian believers have been arguing about which gifts of the Spirit are the most important and striving to have the best gifts.  What’s missing is love.  No matter what you do, it must be done in love.  

 The gift they were clamoring for was to speak in tongues of “men and angels.”  Most Jews believed that angels, in addition to speaking human languages, also spoke their own language.  And some people say that’s what the gift of tongues is all about.  But don’t ask me, because I do not know the answer!  

 But if you’re speaking without love, then you’re no better than a “loud gong or clashing cymbal.”  Gong might better be translated as vase.  Large vases were used to direct and amplify sound.  These things were made out of bronze, a metal for which Corinth was famous.  And they were used in the noisy, disorienting worship in pagan temples.  So without love, speaking in tongues is no better than noise.  Indeed, Paul said of the Corinthian worship that it was disorienting and confusing.  

 Next Paul speaks of prophecy, which was basically preaching.  Preaching without love can easily become ugly ideology and fear-mongering.  There was a famous sermon by the Puritan preacher, Jonathan Edwards, called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  After the sermon, one distraught man went out and hanged himself.  Good preaching must balance judgment and wrath with love and grace.  

 Next Paul speaks of faith without love.  Faith referred to knowledge and trust.  But having great knowledge without love can become intellectual snobbery, looking down on others rather than building them up.

 Generosity without love can become contempt.  We can give with an attitude of pride, thinking that we are better than others.

 Even martyrdom can be done without love.  Rather than an act of self-sacrifice showing love for God, it can be an act of pride and self-display.

 Any gift, no matter how significant it might seem, if it is used without love, can be meaningless or even harmful.

 Verses 4-7 are about the character of love.

 Love is patient.  To be patient is to be slow to get angry.  A patient person is not interested in vengeance.  And they keep no record of being wronged.  No relationship can last long without love.  Unless we are willing to overlook the faults of others, we can’t have relationship with them for long.  The Greek word used here was a term of accounting.  It meant to keep a ledger book, marking down another person’s credits and debits.  And some people do that.  They keep a mental checklist of the good and the bad someone else has done to them.  Love calls us to wipe the ledger clean.

 Now this doesn’t mean that love is a doormat.  Love is never glad about injustice.  It is often necessary for us to confront others about the ways they have wounded or offended us and others.  We have to do that for the good of all.  If we let people make us into a doormat, then we have a hard time not becoming resentful.  We also have to do it for the good of the person who is hurting others.  This is especially the case when the weak are being abused by the strong.  Love doesn’t mean a wife should ignore abuse, or that children should.  Abuse is harmful to the abused and the abuser.  We become less when we mistreat others, just as we make them less.  Both the abused and the abuser become less than the image of God, for which we were created.

 Love and justice are not at odds with each other.  One of the worst theological statements I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard it many times, is that “God’s love is greater than his justice.”  That’s simply not true.  Both are perfect.  Christ died out of love and to satisfy the requirements of justice.  

 But we must be able to forgive each other.  And we must not hold onto the offenses.  It is not true forgiveness if we continue to hold it against the other person.

 Love is also kind; it actively seeks out opportunities to do good for others, even when it is undeserved.  Love is not jealous.  It does not want what others have, nor is it put out when others gain.  Love is not proud.  It thinks more of others than self.  Love is not demanding.  And it is persistent.  It does not give up on others easily.  

 If you read through the rest of 1 Corinthians, what you find is that most of these qualities of love show up in other places when Paul talks about the failings of the Corinthian Church.  And all of these qualities are found in Jesus, who is love in the flesh.  

 Finally, the rest of the chapter is about the permanence and supremacy of love.  

 Love lasts forever.  All these gifts that are so valued by the Corinthians are only temporary.  God gives us gifts so that we can know him and make him known.  But they will not be necessary any more when the Kingdom of God in fullness comes.  

 Paul gives two illustrations of this.  The first is the knowledge of a child versus the knowledge of an adult.  Obviously, there are a great number of things that we thought we knew as children that we understand very differently now.  The second example is seeing in a mirror versus seeing the real thing.  This one might not make as much sense to us because we have good mirrors.  But in Paul’s world, most mirrors were made of polished bronze, which gave a dim and poor reflection.  The point of both examples is that our knowledge of God right now is always going to be limited, so we need the gifts of his Spirit to help us to know him and make him known.  But when Christ returns, the gifts will no longer be necessary.

 But love, AGAPE, will endure.  In the new heaven and new earth, we will have a perfect relationship of AGAPE with God and with each other for all of eternity.  

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