Paul’s Hymn of Love

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 24, 2016

1 Corinthians 12:31-14:1

 

It’s good to be back up here this week.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in last week as I was recovering from surgery.  I would like to especially thank our Youth and Family Ministry Director Matthew Zold, who did an incredible job in the pulpit, stepping in at the last minute to preach his first sermon.  We’re blessed with Matthew’s presence and I hope you will get to know him and some of you even volunteer to help him build a program for our children and youth.  Today, my sermon text follows the text I preached on two weeks ago, from First Corinthians.

The Greeks had a rich vocabulary for love.  There was eros: passionate love.  It could be romantic or even religious (as in the love of the gods).  Then there was phileo: brotherly love.  This word forms the root for Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.  But the New Testament writers chose another word to describe Christian love: agape.  In its original usage, the word meant “inclining toward something.”  It came to be seen as the highest level of love.  It’s universal in that it reaches out to others.  It directs believers to love everyone and the model for this kind of love is our Savior.  Because Jesus loved us, we’re to love one another.   When we are filled with the Spirit, this agape love flows out from us.[1]

My text this morning is Paul’s hymn of love.  You may be surprised to learn that this well-known passage sits in the middle of the section of 1st Corinthians that deals with worship.  Yet, it’s often heard at weddings.  But it really has nothing to do with romantic love, even though it contains some good advice for newly married couples (along with the rest of us).  Throughout this letter, Paul tries to unite the Corinthians in purpose.  It’s hard because they are a diverse and divided congregation.  They should, at least, be united in worship.  They all owe allegiance to the same God revealed in Jesus Christ.  They should be one body praising the One Lord, Jesus Christ, but they’re not.  A worship war is among the many issues dividing this congregation.  From Christ they should learn how to relate to one another and the key here is love, agape love, the kind of love that gives itself for the benefit of the other.

Now let’s get a bit technical.  Most of you probably know that the chapters and verses in scripture weren’t added until long after the Bible was written.  Here, we see a problem with the verse placement, for this entire passage includes the last verse of Chapter 12 as well as the first part of the first verse of Chapter 14.  These verses, at the beginning and the end, form a link to this passage from the previous and the next passage.[2]  Read 1 Corinthians 12:31-14:1.

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The view from Sundance Pass in the heart of the Beartooth Mountains of Montana was incredible. As a group of us traversed one last snowfield and finished the climb, we surprised a family of bighorn sheep. Seemingly defying gravity, they dropped over the edge of the cliff.  The next time we saw them they were on a distant knob, a good distance away.  The saddle between Mount Lockart and Silver Peak where the pass is located was mostly grass covered, broken up with a few boulders and in the shady areas, snow.  In all directions, the mountains rose around us with steep and rugged flanks that dropped off into the valleys below.  We could look almost straight down to our campsite at the tree line, beside September Morn Lake, 2000 feet below us.  The name, September Morn, is almost as beautiful as the lake!  The only sound was the wind.  It howled so that to talk to one another we had to yell.  It was an amazing place.  A group of us continued on from the pass, heading north up Silver Peak, where we had lunch and even more incredible views before dropping back down to camp.

Climbing a mountain is hard work (impossible in my current condition), but it can also be very rewarding.   Paul uses such a metaphor throughout this passage.  It begins in 12:31, where after listing some of the gifts within the church, he encourages the Corinthians to strive for a greater gift.  This can also be translated as a “higher gift.”  The second sentence in that verse, where Paul promises to show the Corinthians an even more excellent way, can also be translated as “let me show you the high route” or “the mountain pass.”

Paul begins with images of a higher, better way.  Perhaps those Corinthians who had journeyed to Athens overland, as Paul had done, could identify with his opening remarks here, for the passage between the two cities was steep and dangerous.  Paul continues to extol the virtue of this agape love as it relates to the mountains in verse two where he recalls Jesus’ teachings on faith—if you have the faith of a mustard seed you can move mountains.[3]  Verse eight in the New Revised Standard Version reads “Love never ends.” Others translate as “Love never fails.”  However, the Greek could also be translated as “Love never falls.”

Again, Paul draws our attention to the higher way; the higher we go the more dangerous the fall.  Paul reaches the pinnacle of this thought in verse 13, “the highest of these is love.”  At the end of the passage, in Chapter 14, verse 1, Paul tells the Corinthians to “run” (or, as it is translated in here, to pursue) after love.  This may also hint at the mountains for the Corinthians would train for their games by running up the steep slopes.[4]

For Paul, love is the highest, the greatest gift. It’s not that the other gifts of the Spirit are unimportant; they have a role in building up the church.  But the other gifts of the spirit, such as prophesy or preaching, important as they are, are not eternal.  Only love, faith and hope are eternal.  You know, all the work that I and countless other preachers have put into the art and craft of proclaiming the gospel is only good here; it isn’t going to be much good when we are all awestruck in the presence of the Lord.  No one is going to want to listen to us preachers when they are in God’s presence!

Of our earthly gifts, the only ones we will take with us when we leave this life are faith, hope and love.  Jesus tells us to store our treasure in heaven.[5]  When we have filled ourselves with love, as Paul shows here, we are doing that!

After Paul makes the case for love being the ultimate gift of the Spirit, the one we should focus on, he then gives characteristics of love.  It is patient and kind. You know, it’s easy to see the faults of others—especially when you live and work and play with them—that’s why we have to be patient with each other and allow enough time for love to work. Ann Lamott, a wonderful writer whose book Traveling Mercies I highly recommend, talks about families being the training ground for forgiveness.[6]  Remember, a family doesn’t have to be just biological.  The church is also a family and within such a fellowship, we need to be patient with one another, willing to forgive.  Likewise, we should be kind.  Nobody likes a sourpuss.  “Do to others as you would have them do unto you,” Jesus teaches.[7]  Who among us wouldn’t want to be treated with kindness?  If we want to receive kindness, we should give kindness.

To put this in the words of the slightly unorthodox theologians, The Beatles, “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” That may not be exactly what that other Paul (Paul McCarthy) had in mind when he penned the words for the Abbey Road album, but you get the idea.[8]

In addition to listing the positive attributes of love, Paul provides a list of things contrary to love: envy, boastfulness, and arrogance.  It’s hard to love someone when we are jealous; it’s easy for us to forget that life, even life within the church, is not a competitive sport. Love isn’t about building up our egos; instead; it seeks to build up others.  Love isn’t boastful.  You don’t brag about yourself; you don’t need to, for those who truly care for us will do so regardless of what we accomplish in life.  Love isn’t arrogant.  We’re not to think too highly of ourselves or to be egotistical.  Instead, we love others as equals.

Next, Paul returns to the superiority of love over other gifts as he emphasizes its eternal nature.  Love never ends.  Even though we change, growing from childhood into adulthood, from a cooing infant to a responsible adult,[9] going from this life to the next, love remains constant.  Certainly, we are not yet able to perfectly love, but we continue to try because God has loved us first and promises, as Paul reminds us in Romans, there is nothing that can separate us from his love.[10]  God loves us and empowers us to love one another.

Faith, hope and love abide, Paul says.  They all continue to exist, but of the three, love is the greatest.  So, now that we understand the importance of love, how do we apply this to our lives?

George Whitefield, the great 18th Century revivalist who spent time in Savannah, began a sermon on this passage saying that “nothing is more valuable and commendable than charity (which is how the King James Version translates agape love), yet not one duty is less practiced.”[11]  The cynic in me immediately thinks, “Things haven’t changed much.”  But isn’t it time for a change?  What would happen if we started loving the way that Paul encouraged the Corinthians to love?   I don’t know, but we should find out.

Ask yourself, does your life reflect the self-giving love of Christ?  And since it’s no big deal to be nice to those people we like,[12] what will you do this week to show such love to someone you don’t particularly like?  Reflecting the face of Jesus is about showing his love. Amen.

[1]Kenneth E, Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians  (Downers Grove, IVP, 2011), 349-352

[2] Bailey, 353-355

[3] Matthew 17:20 (see also Matthew 21:21)

[4] Bailey, 357-358.

[5] Matthew 6:19-20, 19:21.

[6] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 219

[7] Luke 6:31.

[8] This comes from “The End,” the closing track on the Abbey Road album.  It is attributed to John Lennon and Paul McCarthy.  According to Wikipedia, in an interview before his death, Lennon credited McCarthy with these lyrics.

[9] See Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:11

[10] Romans 8:38

[11] George Whitefield, ‘The Great Duty of Charity Recommended,” Sermon 47, 1 Corinthians 13:8.  Found at http://www.swartzentrover.com/cotor/e-books/holiness/Whitfield/Sermons/SGW_47.htm

[12] Matthew 5:46


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