Summary: Unless done in love, all of our work and sacrifice will be for nothing. How can we maintain a motivation of love?
When you heard today’s text being read, you could be forgiven for wondering if you had inadvertently wandered into a wedding. Because the reading of chapter thirteen of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has become as much a fixture of marriage ceremonies as unity candles, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, nervous grooms, and fainting bridesmaids. No wedding would be complete without it.
So it may surprise you to learn that when Paul penned these words he wasn’t, in fact, writing about marriage, or romantic love. He was not writing specifically to brides, or to grooms, or to Valentine’s Day sweethearts, but to a church. A difficult, confused, proud, status-obsessed, self-centered, man-centered, church. Located in Corinth, Greece, about halfway between Athens and Sparta. And what he wrote to the people of that congregation, almost two thousand years ago, has resonated throughout the centuries. Because it reminds us of what is central to the Christian life, and what is not, what is important and what is unimportant, what matters and what doesn’t.
Now, I should pause and note that it is impossible to study and to preach this chapter of First Corinthians, as I am doing this morning, without being confronted by the fact that you don’t measure up to the standard which Paul describes here. Of course, that’s always a problem for preachers. But especially here, where the ideal of authentic love is placed before us. In comparison with this, we’re all hypocrites, to a greater or lesser degree. So let’s acknowledge that together, but not let it prevent us from learning what God has to teach us in this portion of his Word. Because this text is not intended to be merely a beautiful piece of poetry. We’re not intended to stand back and admire it, like a Rodin statue, or a Vermeer painting. These aren’t just words to embroider into a wall hanging. God expects us to engage with it; to allow it to challenge us, and instruct us, and change us. It isn’t just part of the script for a wedding. It’s part of the script for our lives. So let’s look at it together and, as we do, let’s each ask ourselves what God would have us to do in response to it. Will you do that with me?
Now, as background, the church at Corinth had a lot of problems. Theological divisions. Blatant sin. Class divisions. Pride. Arguments over speaking in tongues. You think the modern church has worship wars? They invented worship wars. But the root of all these various problems was really quite simple. It was a failure of love. A failure of love shows itself in a myriad of ways. And you can’t always start with the root cause; sometimes you have to begin by addressing the effects, the fruit. But eventually it always leads back to that fundamental problem, a lack of love, for God and for one another. A focus on serving self. An unwillingness to sacrifice, and to serve, and to submit, for the good of others. And so, after twelve chapters of patiently and laboriously addressing all of the more obvious issues in the Corinthians church, Paul finally writes chapter 13.
And this is really the core of 1 Corinthians. Because love is not just one Christian virtue among many; it is the essence of what it means to follow Christ. If you have that, you have everything. If you don’t, you have nothing. It’s really that simple.
So let’s see what Paul has to say about love. We need to hear it. Because although we may not have precisely the same problems as the Corinthians, or have them in the same measure, we all have the same root problem, which is sin and selfishness. So the message they needed to hear two thousand years ago, we need to hear today as well.
Paul begins by making a series of rather startling statements: [1 Corinthians 13:1-3]
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Now, in each of these statements, Paul begins with a known spiritual gift — speaking in tongues, prophecy, giving — and then he intensifies it, he heightens it to the greatest degree possible.
• Not only speaking in tongues, but speaking in angelic tongues.
• Not only prophecy; that is, declaring the wonderful deeds of God and encouraging God’s people, but having complete understanding of “all” mysteries and “all” knowledge. And by the way, this was something which even Paul did not claim for himself, because he writes a few verses later, “now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully”.