Love … a still more excellent way
And I will show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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 have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13 ESV)
We continue with Part 2 from last week where we had listened to Paul describe a Christian community – one with factions, disputes, arrogance, questions, and an inability to discern both sins and spiritual gifts in a helpful way – as a body, comprising many parts, which can’t claim superiority – not needing the other parts of the body – but rather needs to work together for the good of the body. It’s an analogy that quickly fits and can be used in numerous contexts – but is best focused on the local situation. This body comprises members from all stratas and segments of society linked by the Holy Spirit and these people individually and together say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and find themselves with gifts from God to be used for the common good and in roles in the body as appointed by God (apostles, prophets, teachers, and so on). Remember that these chapters in 1 Corinthians from 12-14 are written in response to the Corinthians’ questions about spiritual gifts and Paul wants to answer their questions but it is important for him to put the answers into context. You see the simple truth is that his answers in chapters 12 and 14 can well produce a robot – everyone in their place doing what they’re supposed to do – their programme, so to speak, in the body – but Paul also wants them not to be focused on themselves and their performances and one-upmanship but rather on the quality or health or even, dare I say it, the DNA of the body and so he writes after what we heard last week, ‘And I will show you a still more excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 12:31b)
1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most read passages from the Bible – particularly v4-8a – for it is a beautiful description of love – love as action, love personified, and not love as emotion or feelings. It’s worth hearing again … Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)
This is behavioural stuff – in wedding sermons you can interchange the couple’s names and we’d all say that if they lived up to the words then they’d have a pretty good marriage! The words exist because the people around us are difficult – remember this is first spoken to a Christian community! Them none as queer as folk – and we are called to love.
In English we need a context to help us understand the word ‘love’ for we can love chocolate, a TV show, a pet, our children, each other, our spouse, our country and so on but I hope the love expressed wasn’t identical in all cases! Other languages have words for specific loves – and so in Greek there are four main words – sometimes used with a little overlap – but generally sticking to their own
domains – storge (family love, loyalty), eros (erotic love), phileo (brotherly love or friendship), and agape (which is a mature parental love – sacrificial – not subject as much to passions) – and the Bible knows all four of these loves (even if it doesn’t always use the Greek word). Here in 1 Corinthians we have agape – a mature sacrificial love – which has its focus on the recipient of the love not on the one bestowing the love. This is not unfamiliar to us! We are in a long line of Christians who have heard and come to grips with the truth that without the love of God, we have nothing. Even the controversial claim of the first century that ‘God is love’ we today accept without batting an eyelid but it is not obviously the case as we look around that it is so. It never has been! The early Christians made this extraordinary claim about God pointing to the cross of Jesus and didn’t see that this love guaranteed wealth, prosperity, happiness, and success but rather the presence, discipline, and training by God as they grew in their relationship with him.
The writer to the Hebrews would put it this way: And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Hebrews 12:5,6 ESV)
We love not to get God to love us – to be nice to us – but because God first loved us. The theory was radical then but it is well known now where Christianity has been known but still just as hard to put into practice or, it seems, truly believe. Paul’s comments to the Corinthians are insightful because he gives us a context – seeking the unity of the community – and love is flavour, the attitude, the DNA of the body that is essential to the body functioning and living – and this is the responsibility of each member of the body. One might preach like an angel, have amazing knowledge, demonstrate sacrificial endurance in this world but without love it is all nothing.
One might counter that doing something in terms of preaching, acts of faith, sacrifice is better than nothing but Paul’s continuing comment about endings – all things will end – and about understanding (whether as child or as an adult – whether seeing things clearly or just bumping into things in the dark) reveals the priority for Christians – the still most excellent way – is love.
Today that is often translated as ‘being nice’ – even in the Church. But this love is always bound up with the truth – it rejoices with the truth – and this produces the biggest tension we face today – whether the love Paul is describing is ‘free’ or about ‘truth’. John in Revelation gives us a cosmic context for this love: To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 1:5b,6 ESV)
Christians – loved by Jesus when he died on the cross – and still loved by Jesus now – just as God still loves the world – function as priests, the intermediaries between God and the other person and so our love is always linked with God and Jesus and his word for it is Jesus who determines truth – who is truth – and so firstly to fellow believers but also to the world and even to our enemies – Christians seek to love, not for what we are to receive back but to share God’s love in Christ – to live it for the other person – to draw the other person to Christ.
The details are determined by our relationships and our circumstances. It is not easy to do at times both because of our own sin, tiredness, and laziness but also because we might not know the loving thing to do – eg. when to help and when not to help – and so this chapter can be become ‘too hard’ or make us feel ‘too guilty’ but when faith and hope struggle there still remains love. The very next words in 1 Corinthians 14 are ‘Pursue love …’ or ‘Aim for love …’ for that is who we are – beloved of God and if you ever have any doubts then look again, meditate upon, return daily to water, and weekly to bread and wine – and understand that this verse is written for you: [but] God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 ESV)
- 1 Corinthians 12:31b - 13:13