The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany February 9, 2003
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
7, 649, 349, 800 (or 47 in TLH)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 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. 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. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
In the name of our Triune God who is love, dear fellow-redeemed:
“Love is a many-splendored thing.”
“Some say love, it is a river.”
“And they call it puppy love.”
“What’s love got to do with it?”
With these and many, many other phrases, songwriters have talked about love. In fact, it seems that most popular songs deal with the topic of love in one way or the other. Yet the focus in these songs is almost exclusively romantic love, and in many cases love is confused with lust.
The Bible also speaks of the love between a man and a woman, but it doesn’t stop there. It also speaks of the selfless love that God has for us. This is the same love He wants us to have for Him and for one another. At the end of the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul says, “I show you the more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). This thirteenth chapter is that more excellent way—TRUE LOVE. We see this morning how that love is defined and what makes it the greatest gift that God gives us. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts to receive His message this morning as we consider TRUE LOVE. I. It is the necessary force behind spiritual gifts. II. Its essential features come from God. III. It endures while other gifts cease.
Previously in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the Lord speaks to us of the variety and use of spiritual gifts, and also of the wrong emphasis that may be put on them. Instead of helping our neighbor and glorifying God, these gifts are at times used to glorify self. It is our nature to focus too much on what we are doing and think ourselves to be irreplaceable in the grand scheme of things. The more we look at our gifts rather than the source of the gifts, the more likely it is that we will adopt an erroneous view of ourselves.
The apostle Paul had tremendous spiritual gifts, perhaps more than anyone else in history. Paul’s gifts are documented for us in the Scriptures as we hear of the great things that the Lord saw fit to accomplish through him. But listen to what Paul says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” [v.1] Hearing someone speak in a different language without training in it would be a very impressive thing. We are told, though, that without love it is all just a bunch of useless noise—static.
Continuing in verse two, Paul says, “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.” Certainly it would be amazing to hear somebody predict the future. It is gratifying to hear somebody speak for the Lord, and the faith mentioned would seem invaluable. And yet without love, “I am nothing.” “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.” [v.3] What about giving away all your possessions and sacrificing your body? If it is not with the right motivation, if it is without love, “it profits me nothing.”
Such spiritual gifts and indeed any good works that we do are fruits of faith. They only come through faith and in response to God’s love for us. Love is an integral part of faith. After all, faith is the connection to a loving God. That being the case, can we truly say that we are Christians if we don’t have love? Someone who claims to be a Christian without the love of God is nothing more than a hypocrite.
As a Christian, you are a vessel through which the love of God flows. It doesn’t come into you without going back out toward God and your neighbor. Obviously, if you cut off the flow of God’s love to you by turning away from Him, you will lose love; but it is also true that if you cut off the output of love from you to your neighbor that you are, in effect, cutting off the input as well. The inward and outward flows of love through you are that closely connected. Because of this we need to closely examine ourselves individually and collectively and see this love or the lack of it.
To know about this love, we first have to define it. We can do a better job of defining love than the music industry does. The love which God creates is more than emotion. It is also action. In our text we are told what love is and what it isn’t. It is longsuffering and kind. It is patience and listening to one another. It bears all things. It has big shoulders. It believes all things, not gullible, but ready to believe the best about everyone and putting the best construction on everything. Love is optimistic. It hopes all things. It endures all things, persevering through all the trials of life, able survive blow after blow.
We are also told what love is not. It does not envy. Rather than being jealous of someone, love can be genuinely happy for another person’s success and blessing. Love does not parade itself, is not puffed up. Love is directed outwardly, not inwardly. This is something that we as a society have yet to grasp. Love does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil. Love is not ready to seek revenge. Love doesn’t keep a scorecard of times that we are wronged, remembering every sin against us. In this way, love has a short memory. Love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth. There is the natural inclination to enjoy another’s failures because that makes me look better. Love is the opposite. It is pained when it sees others fall into sin, and wants to help them for the salvation of souls.
That’s quite a list! Does it describe you? Try substituting your name for “love.” I suffer long and am kind. I do not envy. I do not parade myself…. One doesn’t have to get very far down the list before he realizes that he and love may be very far apart. Our sinful nature automatically conflicts with love and is in many ways the exact opposite of it. As we examine ourselves according to this standard, we do see our failures before the Lord. We are self-centered and self-serving. We do keep track of wrongs and are vengeful. We are impatient and pessimistic. It becomes painfully obvious that the love of which God speaks has to come from an outside source.
You can see the Source when you interchange “Jesus” for “love.” Jesus is kind, not provoked, thinks no evil. In fact, the Bible tells us plainly, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Our text really describes the life and death of Jesus. This is how He lived during His thirty-three years on earth. He came to earth for the very purpose of giving Himself into death, into the torments of hell, not to pay for His sin, but for your sin. Love led Him to the cross. Love led God to call you into His family through Holy Baptism. Love leads Him to preserve you in the faith through the Gospel in Word and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. God is love, and He has this love to give you. This is also the way in which He wants you to live—not the easy, sleazy way of the flesh, but the more excellent way shown us by the Spirit.
The love described in our text is the greatest gift of all. It is a gift because it comes from outside of us. The other spiritual gifts that Paul mentions are present for a time and are used by the Holy Spirit because of the nature of work that still needs to be done on this earth. These gifts are necessary because here in time we have an incomplete understanding of God’s Word. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly” [v.12]
In the days of Paul, a mirror was a piece of polished metal which would give a less than perfect reflection. Think of what your reflection looks like in a spoon. In the same way, while we’re on the earth our understanding will only be “in part.” The Holy Spirit helps this by giving to us spiritual gifts, some of which have faded from use already. However, on Judgment Day everything will be completed. Our understanding will be full and we won’t need prophecies or more knowledge or more wisdom—we’ll have it all.
Then those gifts for understanding will be gone. “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” [v.13] We’ll still trust in God, but faith in the unseen will be replaced by seeing face-to-face. Hope will switch from the future to the present, but love remains constant. God is love. That has never, nor will it ever, change.
It is this love for which we strive on this earth. Pray for the Spirit to bless you with spiritual gifts, but above all pray that He gives to you this love that is the power behind those gifts. Without love you are nothing. Certainly, repentance is needed because we have so often rejected this “more excellent way” for a way more in line with our base desires.
You can be strengthened in love, but it involves a connection to the Gospel. If you wonder where that love is, you need to look no farther than the Word of God. It is vital that we practice the love of God. There are warnings about losing that first love of God, and falling into the trap of being slack and uncaring about our God and others (cf. Revelation 2:1ff et. al.)
The key is to focus on the unselfish love that Jesus has shown for you, and then return it. Showing this love is something for which we all need to work, and a lack of this love can be a problem even when we know each other for years and years. Familiarity, after all, breeds contempt. I would encourage you to read this chapter again this week, and then put it into practice by loving one another, not according to the fickle ways of the world, but with the true love that God has shown to you. “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19), and it is that same love of God for us that will generate love for one another. May God grant that everlasting TRUE LOVE to each one of us! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.