Text: 1 Corinthians 12:32-13:13
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Listen to the sermon here.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
How many have heard our epistle lesson read in the context of a wedding? Paul’s beautiful description of love is familiar to us, but it isn’t about what Hollywood means by ‘love’. We use the word “love” to mean so many different things in different situations. I love my wife, and I love my kids. I also love Star Wars, shepherd’s pie, and the colour blue. The English word ‘love’ causes us all sorts of problems because a bunch of Greek words that all get translated as “love.”
There’s storgé, the natural love and affection of a parent for their child. There is eros. That’s erotic love, romantic, passionate love. There is philos, the love between friends. Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love. Then there is agapé, the word used in today’s text. So, contrary to popular opinion, this is not a passage about romantic love. Our reading isn’t about the love between a husband and wife. This chapter is addressed to a divided and conflicted Christian congregation. Paul is displaying the kind of love that is essential for a community that seems to lack a lot of it. This morning we’re going to examine what that kind of love is. Just what does Christian love looks like?
Love Is More Important Than Our Gifts
After an entire chapter on the gifts given by the Spirit, Paul talks about the love produced by that same Spirit. His point is simple: love is more important than any gift you might have. You can be immensely gifted, but if you don’t use your gifts in love, you and your gifts won’t matter. Without love, we will never be able to encourage our church’s growth. Without love, it does not matter what we do in the church. Fancy programmes can’t replace love. No matter what gifts we might use to support the ministry of St. Peter’s, without love, it’s nothing. It doesn’t even matter how much of yourself you devote to God: if you don’t do it in love, it amounts to nothing at all. Love is the more excellent way than gifts, service, and even sacrifice. So don’t put your focus on your gifts, but on loving each other.
Epiphany is about Christ manifesting himself to the world. How does Christ manifest himself in a dark and sceptical world? It is through the church. But what is it about the church that best shows what Jesus is all about? Some think it is the church’s relevance to the day’s needs. In contrast, others emphasise the church’s moral purity and correct doctrine. The Corinthians wanted to focus on spiritual gifts. What did Jesus say? “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). But as necessary as relevance purity and gifts are, Paul says there is a “more excellent way” to make Christ known. It is the way of love. Without love, relevance, purity, and gifts might make the world a better place, but those things won’t lead anyone to the love of Christ
What Love Does and Doesn’t Do
Paul shows a divided church how love looks and acts in our text. Paul doesn’t define it with a word; he paints a picture with many action words. Paul underscores the importance of love because it is the quality that divided congregations lack most. The cause of the division in the Corinthian church was clinging to the self. The “I am right, and everyone else is wrong” self. Paul describes love in both positive and negative terms. On the positive side, Paul tells what love must do: “Love must be patient,” “love must be kind.” Love is patient with people who have hurt you. Love is forbearing with those who have offended you. And not just patient, but even kind. Love doesn’t just put up with hurtful people; it is actually kind to them. Then we are given a list that points out the many ways in which we hang on to ourselves: by our jealousy, boastfulness, arrogance, our rude behaviour, by insisting on our own way, being irritable and resentful, rejoicing in the wrong rather than in the right. Love is not easily angered; it isn’t irritable or touchy or explosive, ready to fight or argue at the drop of a word. Love does not hurt people. Love never resents what another has or is. Love never gloats about what you have or are. Love is not puffed up with itself. Love does not walk around with an inflated sense of its own worth.
Do we need an example of this in action? Swap out “Christ” for every mention made of love in this chapter. Does it make sense? It does. “Christ is patient and kind; Christ is not jealous or boastful; Christ is not arrogant or rude. He does not insist on its way; He is not irritable or resentful.” That’s the love for which you were made. “What is here called love,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is not this general principle but the utterly unique event of the laying down of the life of Jesus Christ for us.… The New Testament answers the question ‘What is love?’ quite unambiguously by pointing solely and entirely to Jesus Christ.”
Love for others must be at the expense of ourselves. Death is the only way to grow in love. Our jealous, boastful, arrogant, and rude selves must die. I cannot create this kind of love in you, nor can I force you to show love. Growth in love happens only when the Spirit kills the old man and the new man, daily, rises to love God and love neighbour. If we love, we love because of God’s love. When we were jealous and boastful, arrogant and rude, irritable and resentful and insisting upon our way—the patient and kind God first loved us. That loving God is still loving our sorry selves.
Love Is Not A Feeling
Did you notice that Paul tells us what love does, not how it feels? Love is a choice, not a gushy feeling. If you love someone, you do so because you are committed to acting in love, whether or not the loving feelings are there. If you have the feelings, so much the better, but if not, the commitment to love, the need to love, still stands. Love is not a feeling but a choice to act or not act. We choose to be patient, help someone, or speak a kind word out of love. To love someone is to act in specific ways towards them. If you love someone, you work and pray for their well-being. Christians love each other when we treat each other with love. We love our neighbours when we work for their well-being. We love when we forgive and pray for even those who have declared us their enemies. Love is living with others as God intends us to.
So we may not like the people who don’t share our perspective on COVID, the vaccine, and efforts to deal with the pandemic. But God calls us to love them. We may not like the people who sit on the other side of the political aisle from us. But God calls us to pray for their well-being. Christians may not like our co-workers who gossip, neighbours who let their property deteriorate or enemies who betray us. But God calls us to work for their well-being. Paul isn’t calling members of Christ’s Body to feel passionate about each other or even to like each other. He is calling us to act in a self-sacrificing way toward people who aren’t nice to us and whom we may not like one bit. Put this into practice at home first, then in your jobs.
To love is to serve. It is an action, an offering of lowly service, like when Christ washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:5). It is an attitude of sacrificing one’s own interests for the sake of another. It’s a sacrificial love where you lay down your life for another. It’s unconditional love. Love to the loveless and unloveable. It’s God’s love. God is love. This love reflects God Himself. Paul is not talking about the romantic love that is uppermost in the minds of a young bride and groom. He’s not talking about the sentimental, warm-hearted family love that flows around the Thanksgiving table and the Christmas tree. He is talking about the kind of sacrificial love that led God to send his only begotten Son so that sinners who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life. The Son loves by laying down His life, offering Himself, giving Himself up. This love is an act of will, a choice to love those who are not loveable. In love, Jesus lays down his life to save us. In love, he unites us to his death and life in baptism. In love, Christ gives us his body and blood. In love, he forgives us, feeds us, clothes us, blesses us. In love he strengthens us in faith toward Him and fervent love toward one another. In love, he promises to be with us until the day when we see Christ face to face!
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.