The Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
In the early centuries of the Christian church, Christians were a minority. They were seen as a strange little group of people and often met with hostility from the outside world. A man named Tertullian documented the early church, noting a common reaction from people who came into contact with these early Christians. He quoted them as saying about these early Christians: ‘See how they love each other’. ‘See how they love each other’. Despite the problems people had with the early Christians they could not help but be surprised by the love in their communities. This was something different. This was something powerful. It was love of Christians for each other that made people sit up and take notice and ask: what makes these people tick?
St Paul speaks to us today about love, which he called ‘the more excellent way’. There are many different ways or paths in this life on which we can choose to travel. Christians are called to travel the way of love. As St Paul speaks about love today there’s three clear sections. First he’s talking about the absolute necessity or the supreme value of love. Second he’s giving us a description of the character of love. Third he speaks about the permanence of love.
First is the absolute necessity or supreme value of love. This is where Paul references speaking in the tongues of angels and having prophetic powers and understanding all mysteries and having incredible faith and giving away all one’s possessions and even giving away one’s very body, and in all this Paul says, ‘if I do not have love, it is nothing’.
What’s Paul’s getting at here? You might remember Paul is writing to the Corinthian church which had all these spectacular spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, but the gifts had made them arrogant. They weren’t using them for building up others but just to build themselves up. There was plenty of impressive stuff happening in Corinth, but they were lacking in the more excellent way, the way of love. If God’s people are a temple, then love is God’s cement which holds everything in place. If God’s people are a body, then love is the vital oil which keeps every ligament and joint working smoothly.
It’s actually quite easy in the church to get so carried away with the busyness of our activities that we lose our love for God and for people. I wonder if St Paul might say to the modern church: ‘you can have lots of fancy buildings, you can have all sorts of impressive programs, you can be on the cutting edge of technology, but if everything in the church is not begun, continued, ended and permeated by love, it’s nothing’.
This is the absolute necessity and supreme value of love.
Then Paul goes on to give us this famous and beautiful description of the character of love that begins, ‘love is patient, love is kind’. At this point you all wanted to look to the church entrance for the bride to come in for the wedding didn’t you?! That’s where we’ve heard this so often. Indeed, this is a beautiful passage for couples to reflect on as the sort of love which makes for a healthy marriage. However that’s not actually Paul’s main concern here. He’s talking about the whole Christian community.
The description of the character of love is just so beautiful that it can best simply to let the original words speak for themselves. But let’s make a few brief comments on each phrase.
Love is patient – long suffering. It doesn’t ‘write people off’ but goes the journey with them.
Love is kind – there’s a gentleness with love, and compassion to love.
Love is not envious– so rather than envying what others have, love is able to rejoice and give thanks for other’s joys.
Love is not boastful or arrogant or rude – this is the other side, that when things go well, love doesn’t use these things to boast or become arrogant or rude because love is continually looking outward to the other, not inward to the self.
Love does not insist on its own way – love is willing to take a back seat sometimes and let others have their way, and then not say, ‘okay you can do it that way but I’m not going to help you’. Love doesn’t insist on its own way but still hangs in there.
Love is not irritable – ‘not easily provoked’ is another translation. Love can turn the other cheek. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing – that’s either our wrongdoing or more so others’ wrongdoing. Love is not like the Pharisee rejoicing in the sins of the publican. Love doesn’t take some perverse pleasure in seeing others fall into sin but love grieves over sin.
Love rejoices in the truth – this is the tough side to love. Love is kind but that doesn’t mean not caring about the truth. Truth is important, especially truth about God. It’s life-giving, and so love doesn’t say ‘oh well you’ve got your truth and I’ve got mine, it’s all relative’. No – love rejoices in THE truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things – this is whole picture is of the character of love.
Then Paul’s third section is about the permanence of love. Love never ends. Love is a piece of eternity which is shared with us here in this life. Have you ever thought about this, that there are things in our Christian life now that are only for this life? As examples here Paul says prophecies, tongues and knowledge will come to an end. Now we have a need to study and learn and grow in our knowledge of God’s word. We need pastors and teachers to help us delve deeper into God’s word. This is because, as Paul says, we know only in part now. In our relationship to God, we only see in a mirror dimly. When eternal life comes, we will see God face to face. We will know fully. Then teaching and studying, which are very important parts of our Christian life now, will no longer be needed. But not love. Love never ends. Love begins in this life but continues on into eternity. Love is the air you breathe in heaven itself.
This brings us to an absolutely crucial point. To say that love is a piece of eternity in time, or a piece of heaven on earth, is to say as it does in First John that, ‘love comes only from God’ (1 John 4:7). And even stronger: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16). And most importantly of all, ‘In this is love, not that we love God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins’.
We need to see this, because the problem is that as beautiful as Paul’s description of love is, we all know we don’t even come close to living this way. Just try putting yourself into that passage where it describes love. Imagine putting ‘I’ wherever it says love. So it would say, ‘I am patient, I am kind, I am not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. I don’t insist on my own way. I’m not irritable or resentful’. And on it goes. Friends, we can hardly even get through the passage reading that way – it is just so humiliating. Our hearts can be so cold, our hearts can be so lacking in love. This is why we need our Saviour Jesus Christ, who the embodiment of God’s love.
If your measure yourself against this description of perfect love, you fail miserably. But now put Jesus in there. Jesus is patient. Just think of the way he hung in there with his disciples even when his chief disciples denied him three times. That’s patience. Jesus is kind. He had compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus was not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. The one person in the world who had something to boast about was completely humble. Jesus did not insist on his own way – instead he obeyed the way of his Father even though it meant his own suffering and death. Jesus endured all things and even hung on the cross and said ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’ – that’s love.
Paul says he wants to show us the more excellent way of love. Jesus said He is the way, the truth and the life. Paul’s description of love is a portrait of our Saviour who comes to reveal to us the love of God. As we are united to Christ, as our identity becomes wrapped up in Christ, then the love of Christ begins to ‘control’ us as Paul says elsewhere in 2 Corinthians. Love comes from God and is revealed in Christ who sends us the Spirit who creates and sustains this love in our hearts. The first on the list of the fruit of the Spirit is love. Remember, it’s not the fruit of you, it’s the fruit of the Spirit in you.
There’s a scene in the story Les Miserable which demonstrate this point so powerfully. The story really hinges on powerful act of love that the main character John Val Jean receives. He’s out of prison having a tough time and a kindly old Christian Bishop welcomes him in. But Val Jean has been so hardened by the knocks of this world that he turns to crime again and steals the Bishop’s silverware during the night and takes off.
He’s caught and hauled back to the Bishop. And what does he do? With one word he could’ve send Val Jean back to prison for life or maybe worse. But instead he says, ‘You left so quickly, you forgot I didn’t just give you this silverware, I also gave you the best items, the candle sticks.’ And so Val Jean is free.
It’s a powerful moment. An act of love that the Bishop shows to Val Jean, and an act of love that comes from God through the Bishop. The rest of the story then is about that love working itself out in Val Jean’s life, so that slowly the love of God ripples out through him and his heart is turned from being full of hate to being full of love.
God has shown his love for us in Jesus Christ, let us pursue this more excellent way of love. May our church and our congregation be so permeated by love that people in our world take notice and say ‘See how they love each other’. Amen.