This morning we come to one of the great “love” passages found in Scripture. You have heard it shared in song by our sanctuary choir in two very different pieces. I am sure you recognized it right way. Our passage for this morning is I Corinthians 13. There is an unmistakable beauty and poetry to this passage. We have often heard this passage read in wedding ceremonies or seen it framed and presented to a young couple as a wedding gift. If we are not careful, in our desire to tie this passage to the notion of a romantic love it can lose its power and we can miss its intended word for us. In this passage Paul” is speaking not about some human virtue but about love that is rooted in God’s love in Christ.”[i] This is more than the contrast of the two Greek words for love. Paul speaks to a way of life.
Soon enough we will get to the great poetic images found in verses 4 through 8, but we cannot overlook the first three verses. They are not a prelude for the poetry that follows. They set the tone for all we will hear. Listen to how Paul writes in first person, a reflection of his deep seated fervor for the words and teaching we now hear. There first three verses read: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Paul speaks first to the issue that he has addressed across the breadth of his letter to the church in Corinth. He speaks to the way of worship that has caused so much angst in their body, the speaking of tongues. He uses two images that speak to their daily experience. Our translation reads “sounding brass” but a better way to understand this “echoing bronze” which they would have recognized as the hollow bronze sound devises used in theaters of the day to help project a speaker’s voice. Without the spoke voice they were useless. Likewise the second image, the “clanging symbol” was lifted from their streets where the single cymbal acted as the tool to call people to an ecstatic worship of a locally deity. It was a call to worship a meaningless lifeless god.[ii] Paul wanted them to understand that no matter how spiritually connected they might feel by speaking in the tongues of men or angels, no matter how profoundly they or we might experience worship, it was and is meaningless without love rooted in God’s love in Christ.
Paul now speaks to his own heart issue, preaching and teaching. He is speaking directly to the leaders of the church and to those that would have claimed a special spiritual knowledge. All of their knowledge and wisdom is nothing and they are of no value without love. He then goes a step farther. He tells them, and us, that even if you had a faith so strong that it could move a mountain, it was and is meaningless without love rooted in God’s love in Christ.
Paul now turns to those that would claim a place of pride because of the nature of their service or sacrifice. He tells them if they give away all of their wealth, all of their time, and even their bodies for the sake of the church, but do not have love rooted in God’s love in Christ, then they are wasting their time and wasting their lives. Without love born in the heart of God, their, and our, sacrifice is meaningless.
It is clear that the church in Corinth thought it was self-sufficient. They had assembled an all star leadership team, embraced those that they thought could speak with the language of the angels, had soft ears for those with convincing spiritual arguments, and thought that their own service and sacrifice was a defining witness for everyone to see. They were proud of who they were and who they had become. But somewhere along the way they had forgotten to whom they belong and whose way was to define them. The kind of love of which Paul speaks is not an emotional expression but a way of life born at the heart of God. If who we are and all that we do is not centered in the way that God calls us to love Him, to love one another, to love our community and to love our world, it is of no value. Any act of spirituality that is not dripping with God’s love is meaningless. These are hard words that must have stung that early church. They are also words that should sting us when we find ourselves defined by our pride, our own spirituality, our own reputation rather than by living in complete dependence in God and shaped and defined by a love rooted in God’s love in Christ.
Listen as Paul now describes what that way of love looks like and with equal passion tells them, and us, what it does not look like. He begins: 4 Love is patient, love is kind. These are attributes Paul uses elsewhere in this letter and across his other teachings as attributes of God. It is a love that is enduring, sustaining and embracing. It is the kind of love we heard in the testimony earlier in our service. The kind of love that is rooted in God’s love in Christ does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. This list should sound familiar. Many are accusations Paul has made about the church in Corinth already. But, we cannot hear them, point at that early church in Corinth way and simply pass by. Paul could have easily been speaking to you and me. Be clear, Paul is contrasting a love born in God to the kinds of way we twist that love in our relationships with one another Envy, jealously, pride, and self-centeredness are so easy to slide into without even realizing it is happening to us. We can be like frogs thrown into a kettle of cool water. We settle in and do not even realize that the temperature is increasing until it has reached the boiling point and it is too late. Our culture sparks the desire to want more and more regardless of the price. Our culture sparks our desire to get what we think we have coming to us, regardless of the price. Our culture sparks our desire to stand us and to get angry at any perceived offense to our way of living. Our culture sparks our desire to catalog every wrong we believe anyone had done to us. The sparks become a burning flame that burns the bounds of our relationship with those around us, often even those closest to us.
Paul continues; 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. I wish I could let these words linger in the air in front of us. Hear it again; Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. I have met with too many who have had their heart’ broken, their bodies broken, their spirit broken and their dreams shattered because they have been manipulated and exploited in the name of love. For too many a love born in the heart of God has been perverted and truth has been replaced with lies. Listen as Paul proclaims that love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. A love rooted in God’s love in Christ has no room for selfishness, self-centeredness, manipulation, distortions and lies. It demands truth – that truth that forgives, redeems, and restores. It is a truth, a love, that build each other up and a love that brings us to the feet of hope and a future. It is a love we can depend on. It is a love born in the truth on display in God’s love for us through Jesus Christ. This is the love we saw played out in the testimony of baptism this morning.
Paul doubles back to where he began to make sure that they were clear; But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. …13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Instead of a grand passage on romantic love, we hear from Paul the picture of a transformational love that must shape how we engage with God, one another, our community and the world. There is a power in this love born in the heart of God that calls us from the corrupted versions of love we see played out every day in front of us and compels us to love one another in a way that draws us toward God and one another. It is a love that pushes us beyond ourselves and toward a way of life of redemptive love that can impact everyone around us. This kind of life of love is that only thing that matters and the one thing we can do in the name of God that is sustaining. How are you living out love in your relationship with God and others? How are others touched by your love? Embrace the kind of love God demonstrates in His love for you in Jesus Christ. Come and embrace a love affair with God, with one another, and our community; a love affair born in the heart and nature of God.