There are some passages that pop out of the Bible. Passages that are well known and well loved by many. My colouring in Bible has popped out many such verses to be coloured in and reflected on. Those most loved passages get a full page to themselves, and a few even get a double page spread. 1 Corinthians 13 is one of those passages that gets a full page. Even if they don’t know where exactly it is in the Bible, it is one of the passages that almost all Christians are at least somewhat familiar with.
Although there are more confusing sections in the passage, there’s something quite poetic about its description of love in verses 4-7. These verses are so simple, and elegant, and beautiful, that we could simply read the passage, and walk away, so as to let it speak clearly for itself. Not surprisingly it’s these beautiful verses describing love that are popped out for colouring in and reflection in my Bible.
This passage stands very nicely alone, and works amazingly as a text for weddings because it speaks into relationships including the deep and special relationships that are marriage. But, like every Scripture passage it has a context. In the case of 1 Corinthians 13 it is part of a wider letter about differences, difficulties, divisions, quarrelling, and some boasting. And its particular place in that wider letter is right in the middle of a discussion about diversity coming together to make one body, the body of Christ. Differences in things like gifts, abilities, personality, culture, outlook, and even theology and beliefs.
Paul knew that those differences between us are important and necessary to the work of the Kingdom of God being done proficiently. But he was also aware that these differences can also hinder the work of the Kingdom of God because we humans find difference difficult and as a result, we can find it genuinely hard to love our neighbour as ourselves; and lack of love causes all sorts of problems. Although some in the church in Corinth boasted in their gifts and their spirituality, love for each other was severely lacking.
Love as the key sign of the Holy Spirit
In Corinth the people felt they were filled with the Spirit because there were all sorts of amazing and spiritual gifts among them including tongues. Paul doesn’t dismiss their gifts; in fact, he encourages them. But what he does do is to say that the most important sign of Spirituality is love. Without love it doesn’t matter how spiritual your gatherings seem, it is nothing but outward show. And showing off is pride.
Being a Christian is about journeying in love. An expert in the law once put Jesus to the test with the question ‘which is the greatest commandment in the law?’ and Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’
Jesus is our ultimate example of love. People were drawn to Jesus because he showed genuine care and compassion for people. He also showed genuine acceptance of people. Especially people that religious folks tended to look down on. He had a reputation for eating with tax collectors and sinners.
When someone I know was a child, their parents used to say to them, ‘Do as I say, don’t do as I do.’ The problem with it is that the most natural way to learn is by example. When I was a child, we had a poster up in our house with a poem on it. My memory tells me it was hung in the downstairs toilet but I’m not entirely sure the memory is accurate. The poem went something like this:
Children Learn What They Live. If a child lives with criticism, they learn to condemn. If a child lives with hostility, they learn to fight. If a child lives with ridicule, they learn to be shy. If a child lives with shame, they learn to feel guilty. If a child lives with tolerance, they learn to be patient. If a child lives with encouragement, they learn to be confident. If a child lives with praise, they learn to appreciate. If a child lives with fairness, they learn justice. If a child lives with security, they learn to have faith. If a child lives with approval, they learn to like themselves. If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, they learn to find love in the world.
People learn by what it lived out around them in their cultures. Everyone, though, longs to live in a culture of love. People long to feel loved, and if they sense that they will be truly loved, accepted, understood, and valued in a Christian community, then they will be drawn in.
Journey and Humility
I mentioned earlier that pride is the opposite of love. The other week I read a book on the journey of following Jesus. The book was by someone called Joshua Hopping, and it was based on his doctorate thesis. Throughout the book the author drew on the writings of an ancient saint called Saint Maximus. I say this now because the next two things I say are from the book.
St. Maximos was a philosopher and theologian in the seventh century, and he says this about the relationship between humility and love ‘The person who fears the Lord has humility as his constant companion, and through the thoughts which humility inspires, reaches a state of divine love and thankfulness.’
In other words, to act lovingly is to walk humbly. Love is to be actively seeking the good of others even if we don’t believe they deserve it. Jesus did just that Romans 5:8 tells us that God demonstrated his love for us by dying for us while we were still sinners.
1 Corinthians 13 ends with the words ‘now these three remain. Faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.’ On Faith, hope and love Hopping says this: ‘It is our love for Jesus that starts our journey and keeps us moving forward with him, while faith allows us to trust him as we embark into the darkness of life. Hope provides the destination towards which we walk…’
In my own words I believe what is being said is that love both starts and drives our discipleship journey. Maybe a bit like a journey that is about swimming or rowing down the river of love. Life is often dark, confusing, and hurtful. Faith allows us to trust God as the river of love takes us through all the challenges of life. Hope keeps us looking forward to our destination as we travel down the river.
The last section of chapter 13 contrasts life in our discipleship journeys here and now with life when that destination of hope is reached at the second coming of Jesus. Faith, hope, and love are all that we need to live our lives for Christ here and now. But love is the greatest because it characterises both now and the future time for which we are hoping.
The gifts of the Spirit are not about the future. They help us in the present as we walk our journeys of faith, hope, and love. But they are helps for this present time. They are not independent of love, but can only be effective in the flow of love. You need to be in the river to use the gifts effectively. Love isn’t something that people do or give. Love should be holistic and characterise all that we are as Spirit filled Christians.
The first three verses of the chapter say that it does not matter which gifts we exercise, without the example of love they do no good to others, or to ourselves. It wouldn’t matter how amazingly I could preach on 1 Corinthians 13, the real sermon that I preach, is in all that I am. And the sermon that you preach is in all that you are.
Let’s look more closely at the beautiful verses describing love. Patience and kindness work well together as a pairing. Patience is passive, while kindness is active. When others act towards us in ways that we struggle with, patience does nothing to change the action of the other person. When we do act, it is in kindness. Kindness is gentle and encouraging. Kindness is able to promote the well-being of the other person, no matter what. We can’t do that without the help of the Holy Spirit.
Love does not envy.
Envy or jealousy, boasting, pride, and self-seeking go together. All of these actions are about promoting ourselves, and aiming to get ahead of others for position, or favour. These kinds of actions go hand in hand with putting others down. To big up ourselves, usually includes belittling some one else, or some other group because of differences. But love does not belittle others.
Love is building up others, even at the expense of ourselves. Again, we can’t do that without the help of the Holy Spirit. Our natural inclinations are to want what is good for ourselves. To be able to set aside our own desires for the sake of others is something we can only grow into with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Love is not easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs. These are about acceptance and forgiveness, and also relate back to the fist two verbs. Not getting angry is a form of patience. Not keeping a record of wrongs is not something we can do with ease. Forgiveness is a big and difficult topic, and can’t really be dealt with to any satisfactory level in a short talk on love. In short, it is about giving up the act of trying to get even for wrongs that have been done to ourselves, or that we have seen done to others around us. Again, these things are impossible without the gift of the Holy Spirit. We need the help of the Holy Spirit to help us to grasp that Jesus died for the wrongs done against us or others, just as he died for any wrongs that we have done.
Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. Love is able to rejoice when it sees love in action. When it sees others released and comforted from their pain and suffering. It rejects joy in seeing our enemies fall.
Intermission 1 John
Love is only possible through the Holy Spirit, and it is what shows others we are Christians. The book of 1 John is an entire book about love, and about how it is the case that we recognise true disciples of Jesus, by love. I’m going to read quite a long chunk from 1 John because I think it is important.
1 John 4:7-21 7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
How love helps
We can only love because God first loved us. We are able to love others because we know that we ourselves are imperfect and yet are loved. We can only forgive others because we know that we are forgiven and loved in all of our faults. Love is able to say I am not in any way any better, or more important than you are. Love is able to say that those things that divide us, that pit one group of people against another, and seek the superiority of one group over another, are nothing because we are all one in Christ Jesus.
Love is challenging because we are not usually very good and being kind when people wind us up, irritate us, or frustrate us. We tend to want to fix people. We want others to change their behaviour, and sometimes we take unkind action to get them to change. Perhaps by losing our tempers.
In Gil’s fable last week, the body parts got angry at the Belly and wanted it to change and tried to make it change. But God had made the Belly just how he wanted it. Love is about letting go and trusting in God’s work in others. we can’t change others. a) it’s not our place, and b) we lack the understanding necessary to decide what changes a person needs to make. We’ll get that wrong, and perhaps what we want to change is something that is perfect just the way it is.
We can’t change others, but we can change ourselves. Love is about changing ourselves, not trying to change others. We tend to want to make others photocopies of ourselves. The Holy Spirit wants to create a bigger picture out of our differences. Love is about seeing the beauty in diversity, like the beauty in the colours of a rainbow.
With only two or three exceptions verses 4-6 were all about the things we often do that are not love, but are the opposite of it. Finally, in verse 7 we find some more active and positive words. Love protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. There is a sense of movement in these verses. Remember what Joshua Hopping said about faith, hope, and love: It is our love for Jesus that starts our journey and keeps us moving forward with him, while faith allows us to trust him as we embark into the darkness of life. Hope provides the destination towards which we walk…’
We can protect others, and persevere in challenges in our discipleship journey because we are working towards the hope of the future, and we trust that God will work in the lives of others between now and then.
Remember in its context this passage is about difference, and working together as the body of Christ. Love is a way to live well in the midst of difference; and it provides a way of coping with difficult situations that involve other people. Every person, and every group is on a unique discipleship journey. That journey is in the tension of the present suffering, and the hope of the future. Love is a trust in the Holy Spirit to bring us, and all our loved ones, to the final place of perfection. Each person’s discipleship journey is a journey of love: of being loved, and loving others. Everyone is at a different place on that journey. But we need to make our own journeys in the power of the Spirit, and trust the Spirit to work in the lives of others to bring them on their journey. Let go, and let God.
I believe a sermon like this one deserves a little footnote though. When we live with others who do not act towards us, or others around us in love, we don’t go undamaged. Yes, we need to be patient and kind, but we also need to know that lack of love in relationships causes harm to ourselves and to others. There may be times when it is wise to make a little distance between ourselves and others who are causing us harm, so that we are able to be kind to others and to ourselves. If that is you, don’t be afraid to speak to someone about what you are going through. Speak to a friend in the fellowship that you feel safe with, and trust to pray with you. we’re not quite in the place yet where we can have a prayer team available on a Sunday morning. Social distancing makes it a little tricky. But that doesn’t stop us all being available by phone. The healing hurting hearts course might also be a good thing to take part in as well.