Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 4:21-30, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Today we’re looking at the Love Chapter: I Corinthians 13. Paul’s words in this chapter are well-known and well-loved, and this is one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture too. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about it today.
On the other hand this is also one of those sermons where I’m going to be preaching as much to myself as I am to you. Because love – at least the kind of love Paul talks about – is something I wish I was better at.
That said, I’d like to start today with the other two readings, from Jeremiah and Luke, because both of these readings give us illustrations of different kinds of love.
In the reading from Luke we see a kind of love that’s more like popularity or fame. Jesus is preaching in his hometown. And people say “hey, isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” He’s the hometown hero. He’s like… Jerome Bettis. “Everybody speaks well of him,” Luke says.
But there’s a problem: Jesus is not called to limit his ministry to the hometown crowd, or even to Israel: Jesus intends to reach the whole world. And Jesus tries to get this across to them by saying, ‘look, you remember the prophet Elijah? He was called to live in Sidon rather than living in Israel. And you remember the prophet Elisha? He only healed one leper in his whole life and that was a guy from Syria, not from Israel. They were called somewhere else and so am I’. And when the message starts to sink in, the crowd turns on Jesus and tries to kill him. This is not kind of love Paul is talking about! In fact you and I wouldn’t even call it love, but the people there that day probably would have because he was ‘one of their own’. This is a celebrity kind of love, fleeting and fickle.
Jeremiah’s story is a bit different. In our reading from Jeremiah, we hear God’s call on Jeremiah’s life. God says, “You shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” God isn’t talking about love here, but the passage as a whole feels more loving, because God makes some beautiful promises to Jeremiah. Imagine for a moment what it would have been like to be in Jeremiah’s shoes, and to hear God say to you, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you; and before you were born I consecrated you… I have appointed you to share my truth… do not say ‘I am only a boy’ or ‘I am only a girl’… do not be afraid, for I am with you…” God actually does say these things to all of us. God invites us to join the heavenly team, invites us to take our part in the coming kingdom. Isn’t that what love is like? God is love, and God’s plans for us are an expression of that love.
Most of the time though we don’t get to hear God’s plans for us directly the way Jeremiah did. Most of the time we have to make some effort to find out what God has in mind for us. We pray, we read scripture, we listen for God’s voice.
And where it comes to reading scripture, there’s a whole lot of information in there. People have been studying the Bible for 2000 years and still get confused about what we’re supposed to do. I mean, some things we get. The Ten Commandments, for example: pretty straightforward. But there is a whole lot more in scripture.
A few months ago when we had the scripture reading marathon up at Hill Top, when we read through the whole Bible, people afterwards were saying ‘wow, I never knew that was in the Bible’. And these are people who have been reading the Bible all their lives.
So I guess I’m not alone when I say I have a hard time sometimes calling to mind all the things the Bible has to say. And it’s not that I’m easily distracted, it’s just that… my hard drive is getting full, know what I mean? So where it comes to applying the Bible, and living the way God wants us to live, the Bible has so much information, I can’t grasp it all. When I find myself in a life situation, and I need to pull something from scripture on how to deal with it, sometimes my brain just goes blank. Not because there’s nothing there but because there’s too much there. I can’t sift through the data fast enough. I need something easy, something at my fingertips, that I can remember when I’m in a pinch.
I like the one Pharisee who came to Jesus and asked, “what’s the greatest commandment?” Now there’s a man I can relate to. I imagine he’s the kind of guy who finally came to the conclusion it’s impossible to keep all the laws the Pharisees were supposed to keep. So he wants to know what ONE he needs to know, what ONE law he needs to keep. And Jesus answered him:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)
And Jesus said this one law sums up all the other laws and the prophets. For those of us whose hard drives are full, this is something we can remember. Love God, love neighbor, love yourself. We can do this!
But there’s a catch: how do we define LOVE? People talk about love all the time. ‘Love is a many splendored thing, love is in the air, love is strange, love is all you need.’ I can remember being around ten years old and asking my mother, “What is love? What’s it like falling in love?” She said, “Oh I really can’t put it into words.” “How will I know when I’m in love?” “Oh you’ll know!” (This is not helpful!)
Besides, what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 13 is not romantic love. Not even remotely (in spite of the fact we hear it at so many weddings). Paul is actually talking about spiritual gifts. The Corinthian church had some people in it who were bragging about their spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues for example. Have you ever had someone tell you if you don’t speak in tongues you can’t really be a Christian? There are people even today who believe that. And while the spiritual gift of tongues still exists, that doesn’t mean every Christian is supposed to have it. Paul corrects that kind of thinking in I Corinthians chapter 12. Paul talks about the fact that there is a variety of spiritual gifts, he says the gifts were meant to build up the body, not to compete with each other. Paul says:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord… To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit…” (I Corinthians 12:4-9)
…and Paul ends the chapter by saying “Strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a more excellent way… If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but have not love I am nothing…” Love, he says, is the greatest spiritual gift. And Paul says to strive for it. The writer of Hebrews says “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24)
But what is love? I remember one time when my old pastor was given this passage to preach on. He’s an inspiring preacher, so I couldn’t wait to hear him preach on this one. That Sunday he preached for 45 minutes… on… obeying God. I was sorely disappointed, and I’m not going to do that to you today. But he had a point. Jesus said, “If you love me keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) The first letter of John says: “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” (I John 5:3)
There is a direct connection between love and obeying God. Which kind of makes sense. If God is love, then it makes sense that doing what God commands is the loving thing to do. When God says things like “do not kill” and “do not steal” and “do not commit adultery” and “honor your father and mother” God is giving us commandments, yes; but God is also giving us examples of what is and is not loving behavior. Living life God’s way is a loving thing to do.
But there’s a problem with defining love just as ‘obeying God’. The problem is we live in an imperfect world. There are times when two of God’s commandments seem to come in conflict with one other. In a perfect world that would never happen. In a perfect world, the right thing to do and the loving thing to do would always be the same thing. But in an imperfect world that’s not always the case.
Here’s an example: let’s say a friend comes to you and says “I want to tell you a secret. Promise you won’t repeat this to anybody.” And you promise you won’t tell anyone. And then what your friend tells you leads you to believe another person you know might be in danger. What’s the right thing to do? Keep your word? Or break a promise and warn a friend?
In a perfect world we would never be faced with these kinds of dilemmas. But in an imperfect world it happens far too often. And when it does, I come back to I Corinthians 13 and ask “what is the loving thing to do?”
There’s a danger in solving problems this way, and that is people tend to confuse what’s loving with what’s nice. Here’s an example: Let’s say your 17-year-old son comes bouncing into the house one day all excited and says, “I’m moving in with my girlfriend!” Do you say “that’s great honey!” Or do you say, “son I’m glad you’ve found a wonderful young lady but I’m not sure you’re ready for that yet”? The first response is nice. The second is more loving.
So what is love? I Corinthians 13 gives us a working definition (and this is paraphrased from the Greek). Paul says: Words spoken without love are nothing more than noise. Prophecy and knowledge and faith have no meaning without love. Even giving away everything we own and dying a martyr’s death gains us nothing without love.
Love is patient, kind, and merciful. Love is not jealous, it doesn’t brag or boast, it doesn’t go around all puffed up or with its nose in the air. Love is gracious, doesn’t insist on its own way, is not easily provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love does not find joy in wrong but in truth. Love bears up through it all, has faith through it all, holds onto hope through it all, and lasts through it all.
That last verse is usually translated “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” – but I paraphrased it this way for us today because I think sometimes people hear this verse as saying “love puts up with all things” and that is NOT Paul’s meaning.
Paul’s next sentence pulls it together. He says: “Love never ends.” Some translations say “love never fails”. The actual literal translation is “love never falls”. As in, it never crumbles, never topples over, is never corrupted (like rust corrupts or like sin corrupts). In other words, love has structural integrity. And in that sense love never fails.
This past week was the 35th anniversary of the tragedy of the space shuttle Challenger. And that tragedy happened because an O-ring lost its structural integrity. It gave way at a critical moment during launch, and the result was death.
Love will never do that. Love has structural integrity. Love never fails.
This kind of love that Paul is talking about is not a feeling. It’s a choice. It’s a decision. It’s a course of action. Someday, Paul says, prophecy will end. Someday all tongues will be silent. Right now we are like children, and our future in heaven is an enigma. In the end we will know completely, even as we are completely known. But that’s tomorrow. Today we have three things to hold onto: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest is love.
Jesus once said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, edited)
Most of us hear those words as saying ‘you can’t take it with you’. But when Jesus tells us to ‘store up treasure in heaven’ there must be a way to do it. I think ‘faith, hope, and love’ are heaven’s bronze, silver, and gold. This is the wealth of heaven. When we love we are building up treasure in heaven.
Just one more thing. In I Corinthians 13 love is defined as a spiritual gift. The ability to love like this is not something we can do in our own power. Trust me I have tried. The attempt is good practice. But at the end of the day, this kind of love only comes through God’s spirit. Love is a gift to be prayed for, and as Paul says, to strive for.
God is love, and God has created us to become like Him. We are God’s kids. This is what we were made to be. I Corinthians 13 is a pattern we can follow; a goal we can aim for; a glimpse of eternity. When we strive to love the way Paul describes love, we are like children putting our feet into our heavenly parents’ shoes and clomping around the house. Our feet will grow into them eventually. In the meantime, keep on walkin’. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District (Pittsburgh) 1/31/16