Fourth Sunday after Epiphany February 2, 2020


Why Love Is the Greatest

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Scripture Readings

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 4:31-44


117, 434, 351:1-3, 351:4

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

God grant to each of us the grace to live each day as though yesterday was Christmas, today is Easter, and tomorrow is Judgment Day. Amen.

Dear Fellow Christians, one of the great and continuing joys in the life of the child of God is the sure and certain knowledge that we do not, and cannot, pay for even one single sin. This is such a profound comfort because it leaves absolutely no doubt about our eternal future. How so? Since the payment for sins does not lie within our ability or within our sphere of influence, there is no way we can mess up the payment with our usual failures and inconsistencies. The payment was made—in full—by another, and the books have been forever reconciled, closed. God the Father has declared the innocent death of his Son to be of greater value than the sum total of all of mankind’s sin. In other words, no matter how many or how great the sins of the human race, the payment of Jesus Christ was more than enough to pay for that sin.

How then can anyone be lost? Only through unbelief—the rejection of Jesus (actively or passively) as the one and only Savior from sin.

Why, again, is this such a comfort? Because if you and I had to guess at the path to heaven, or if we had to save ourselves by our own consistent acts of righteousness, we would, without question, fail. God’s Word tells us so. Temper, emotion, impatience, frustration, pride—all combine to taint and doom to failure even the most elementary decisions in life. You and I never want our eternal futures to depend on our actions. Jesus alone is our hope.

Here is where our text for this morning proves especially helpful. Along with all of Holy Scripture, these sacred words this morning not only point the correct (and only) path to heaven, they provide perfect guidance in this and countless other questions that challenge us during our time of grace on earth. Our text is found recorded in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the Thirteenth Chapter:

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.

So far the verbally inspired words of God himself. What a comfort to know that these words are altogether true and right, profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. With complete confidence in the Word of God we pray, Sanctify us by Your Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth! Amen.

At times we can honesty recognize our own faults and shortcomings. Other times these things develop gradually and they have to be pointed out to us by an outside observer or by the Holy Spirit through his Word. We have crystal clear examples of this sort of thing in the Seven Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2-3. Some interesting questions present themselves as you read through these letters. Do you suppose, for example, that the members of the Church in Ephesus knew that they were loveless? Probably not until the Holy Spirit pointed it out to them. I’m sure they knew all of the positive things mentioned in that letter: the works, the labors, the patience, the lack of toleration for false teachers or for evil in general. On the other hand, I wonder if any at all recognized that they had lost their first love. (Revelation 2:4) All of those churches (in Rev 2-3) had their strong points. We can’t help but wonder if they knew anything about their weak points.

What about us—as individuals or collectively as members of a Christian congregation? Do we have blind spots? How can we know? And is it really that important?

We answer the last question first. Is it really that important? Remember the Holy Spirit’s words to Ephesus—the church that lacked only love: Remember therefore from where you have fallen: repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. (Revelation 2:5) The answer is yes, it is vitally important that we learn to recognize our own sinful weaknesses. Here, in fact, is where our text for this morning, together with the Letters to the Seven Churches, and our own congregation all intersect. They meet at this great truth from our text: Without love, faith is nothing.”

Suppose God the Father gave you a multiple choice test as to which of these three is greatest and most important— faith, hope, or love. Which would you have chosen? My guess is that I would probably have chosen faith. Think about it for a moment. Is love greater than faith? Our text tells us without love we are nothing. But what about faith? How can we be nothing if we have faith? Doesn’t God’s Word tell us that if saving faith is found in our hearts on Judgment Day, we will inherit eternal life in heaven? So how can love be more important than faith? When we have faith, we are indeed “something” in God’s eyes. The inspired words of Holy Scripture teach us that we are God’s children through faith in Jesus. Certainly, that is more than “nothing” to God.

The point here is that without love there can be no faith.

What could the Holy Spirit mean by I am nothing but that saving faith cannot be present in the absence of love? A man with saving faith is a Child of God. God would never refer to one of his own dear children as nothing. It is clear then that without love, faith is dead. It does not, cannot, exist.

This thing about love is serious business after all, isn’t it? When we first hear that we might lack love, we imagine that our ship of faith has just grazed the iceberg and will continue to steam along its merry way, bound for heaven. Our text makes it clear that the damage must be repaired, or we will most certainly sink. It is not possible to have a saving faith without love, for love and faith cannot be separated.

What then, we begin to wonder, is this “love” that we need so desperately? What is it, and how do we know if we’ve got it or not? Here is the slippery part—trying to define this special “love.” This love is not simply a feeling, and it is not simply an action. It is both of those things, and more. Our text draws a picture as good as human words can produce. It does so by telling us both what this love is, and what it is not. 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.

We begin to see both why the love described in our text is so difficult to define and why it is so important to the child of God. This is not something we can provide for ourselves. Something so magnificent can only come from God. “Without love there can be no faith” is a true statement simply because only God-given faith in our Lord Jesus Christ can produce such love in the human heart. We have often been guilty of treating love as a spice of luxury in the bread of faith. It is rather the essential ingredient. It is that which you cannot remove without ruining all.

The second fact demonstrated so clearly by our text is that without love, deeds cannot be good. Though it is true, as James says in his Letter, that we show our faith by our works, (James 2:18) it is also true that without faith (which cannot be separated from love) it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Our text spells it out in words that even our own dulls minds can hardly fail to understand: If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. To put it still another way, “Even if I do all the right things, I have done nothing at all in God’s eyes if I have not done it out of love.

Once again, we look into our own hearts and often see very little of the love described in our text. We cannot, for example, take our own name, put it in place of the word “love” in our text, and have it ring true. Give it a try; see if it holds up. More often than not we are not patient and kind. We do not rejoice in the truth, bear all things, hope all things, believe all things. In fact the negative list usually describes us better. We envy, boast, are puffed up, behave rudely, seek our own, are provoked, think evil thoughts, and rejoice in evil.

What am I to learn from all of this? That I am not a Child of God after all? By the grace of God we are indeed his children and heirs of heaven. What we learn is that we are indeed sinners. Yet we have to stop looking at our own hearts—for there we will always find evil—and look instead to our Savior. He is the one man who could rightly substitute his name for the word love in our text and have it read as perfectly true and accurate. But then the natural question is: Why would God condemn such a man—the one example in all of human history of perfect love? Jesus was condemned not because he was perfect, but because we were imperfect. On him was placed the sum total of all our sins. God made him to be sin for us, and he now sees the perfection of his Son in you and me, because of the faith worked in our hearts. Jesus got all of our lovelessness; we got all of his perfect loving obedience. The ultimate trade—life for death; perfection for sin; love for hatred. Our sins—every single one of them—have been forgiven.

As with every other good thing, this sort of love is not something you yourself can supply. Pray instead that God—the giver of all good gifts—would increase this divine gift in you. You have it; you just need more. All other gifts will pass away. Only three will remain: faith, hope, and love. The greatest is love. Why? Faith will remain until the end of time, but it will then be replaced with an eternity of what we can see with our eyes. Faith will therefore end, replaced forever by proof. Hope will remain until the Day of Judgment, but it will then give way to the realization of the bliss of heaven—the active enjoyment of what we once could only look forward to. Hope will end because we will have absolutely every blessing in the moment. No waiting. Only love will remain unchanged into eternity.

This is the gift our Lord offers us here and now, along with faith and hope. This is the gift that he himself describes as the greatest of all attributes. Pray God not only that he would not only fill your heart with divine love, but that he would also grant you a greater appreciation of its incredible value. Amen.

—Pastor Michael Roehl

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Bismarck, ND

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