1 Corinthians 13:1–13 (NRSV)
The Gift of Love
13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
The past couple of weeks we have discussed some of the inner workings of Church. The companions or gifts of the Spirit. I personally prefer the term companion because of the relational aspect of that word. I am saying this because to be empowered by the Spirit one must be with the Spirit. And the gifts that the Spirit gives are not some magical ability that we can wield to smite our enemies but are to be used for the mutual benefit of the community, or for the common good.
It is important to sit here and contemplate these gifts or companions of the spirit and to reflect on the purpose of their blessings to us because it can be very easy to be distracted by little things surrounding them. Little things often creep in too our expressions of faith that may be initially good but can become something that can actually pull us away from an honest relationship with God. Little things can grow and become central to our systems until all that people see are these little quirks instead of the Gospel. This is why Jesus warned his first disciples to be aware of the yeast of the Pharisees. Yeast is a little thing that grows and spreads, it is not always bad, but it must be kept in check, too much yeast can make bread bitter and turn wine to vinegar.
The little thing in the Corinthian church focused on the gift of tongues. This one gift quickly became the standard among the faithful to determine spiritual value or proof of authenticity. The problems is that it is a gift allotted to individuals by God, not something that we can command God to grant. We may not see this gift as the method to determine authentic faith but there other singular ideas that have emerged as proof of orthodoxy in our eyes. Our positions on issues such as temperance, equality of races and genders, immigration, abortion, and social justice have all become singular ideas among the Christian community use to determine if a person is with Christ or against Him. Little things that can grow and cause bitterness. At the end of the twelfth chapter and all of the thirteenth chapter, Paul urges us to consider a more perfect way to approach identifying the true spiritual nature of those within the community. Love.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Paul dives right in to point out the problem with the Corinthian system. If we happen to have the gift of tongues and if we are using them for our own personal gain they cease being a blessing to other and become an irritation. I am sure by now you are all aware that Kristy and I are the proud parents of a toddler. Albert is an amazing boy, full of curiosity and spunk, and he is developing a keen ear for manipulation of sounds which we could say is music. Unfortunately as he explores the sounds that various things make to most people he is just making a great deal of noise. Most of the time it is a wonderful thing to observe and to assist in the exploration but at times, like when I have a headache or am trying to have a conversation, his manipulation of sounds is just irritating. There is a time where it is mutually beneficial and a time where it is not. This is how Paul is describing the gift of tongues. There are times where it is a wonderful expression of the companionship of the Spirit, but it can also become as irritating as a toddler banging on the pans in a kitchen. Paul urging the followers of Christ to become aware of the community and Spirit’s leading to understand when to speak and when to be silent, and to understand which voice to use. He is encouraging us to become disciplined in the use of our gifts.
“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” This is the verse that hits most people because these are the gifts that most of the Western churches focus on. We are an enlightened people, focusing on knowledge and truth. If you disagree with me that is fine, but what do we generally call the hour prior to our Meeting for Worship and what are our Mid-week meetings generally known as? Sunday school and Bible Study, both terms that focus on knowledge and the quest for understanding. Paul is telling us that we may be able to speak the word of God and we may understand and be able to teach the most accurate systematic theologies, but they are pointless if we cannot use them to encourage those around us into a deeper relationship with God and humanity.
He then says I might give away all of my possessions and help those in need but if I do not do this in such a way that encourages a deepening relationship with God and mankind it is pointless. The expressions of spirituality, the correct theology, and serve to humanity are all pillars of churches across our lands. It does not matter if it is a charismatic, liberal, or fundamental church Paul has told us within those three verses that our expression of faith is worthless if we do not have love. Let that sink in for a moment. Even reflect on your own personal expressions of faith over the past years and consider what we have been focusing on. Have we focused on signs of spirituality? Have we focused on knowledge and proper theology? Have we focused on social justice? None of these things are bad, but each of these can become one of those little things, or yeast that if not kept in check can make us bitter.
What is the spiritual flavor, the lasting impression that people have when they encounter us? This is the thing that Paul is urging us to consider. Those are the things that are mutually beneficial to the community the things that will continue to attract and encourage them to walk further down the paths toward God. This is passage is one of the most powerful passages in the New Testament because it so fully reflects the purpose and calling of our lives. We are made to love. This passage is one of the most widely known passages in all of scripture and is the most used passages for the most universally recognized mysteries or sacraments of life, marriage. Have we ever really considered why that is?
Human beings are social creatures. We need relationships to reproduce and to function. We have observed this from the very dawn of time and continue to observe how important relationships are. There are studies in psychology that are showing that our brains function best when there are other brains around us. We need communities starting with the family and branching out into society. It is written in the very first book of scripture, “It was not good for man to be alone.” We need relationships to function, but we need love to excel.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This is what love is, yet often our relationships reflect the opposite of love. So often we see love as being an emotion, but that is a chemical response to stimuli. We fall in and out of that type of love all the time, when our relationships are based solely on these chemical reactions what good is it? Love is focused on others not ourselves, it is focused on community not individuals. Love is focused on the character of God and how God responds to humanity.
Again consider the past few years what has been the focus of our cultures, both secular and sacred? Has it been focused on patience, kindness, or humility? We get worked up over being right, ensuring our rights, and getting our due and through it all we have forgotten the most important aspect of human life. The most important things are developing authentic relationships with God and mankind.
Every relationship, from our families to those at work, from our interactions with people at the store or on the street should be saturated in love. When we eat at a restaurant do we show God’s love? If so does it reflect in our generosity or do our tips reflect our response to service? When we provide service to others are we reflecting God’s love for them in how we respond? If so does it show? When we speak others are our words saturated with the love that God has for them? When we interact with our children and our spouses are we honoring that of God in them? Are we patient and kind? Do we have hope and are we willing to endure?
We live in a culture that hungers for love, but does not know where to find it. We often say it is in the church and certainly we have found it here but are we showing it to others or have we allowed little things to make our lives bitter and sour? Marriages across the nation are failing because they are built on self instead of love. Families are broken because they are built on self instead of love. Communities are declining because they are built on self instead of love. Churches are sitting empty because they have neglected love.
What would happen if we chose to love? What would happen if we as individuals chose to become a blessing to others and to live lives of encouragement? What would happen in our families and our communities? What would happen? It has been tried countless times throughout history, when people focus on others instead of themselves there is always the same result, growth. It may not be in ways that we would like but there is always growth. Because when we live lives of love we are constantly adding to the lives of others, and when both parties are looking for the common good of each other not only is there addition but multiplication.
The ways of love are the ways of God. It is the very nature of God. It is the life that Jesus exemplified while he lived among us. He showed us how to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and to live lives of love with others. Paul encourages us to focus on Christ, to take on that type of life and to live it out in our families, communities, places of work, and in our churches. To not let the little things become overly important and to instead use all things for the mutual benefit of those around us.
As we consider this passage in this time of open worship, let us contemplate what love really is. Let us consider how love is really expressed, and where we can best live it out. Faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.