4th Sunday after Epiphany (C)
I Corinthians 12:31-13:13
January 31, 2016
“What is True Love”
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Epistle, which was read a few minutes ago.
“What is love?” is one of those universal questions that have been asked since the beginning of time, or rather just after it. Songs, poems, books, movies, all profess to have the answer. Traditionally we tend to view love as the feeling of excitement, affection, desire, or a deep friendship. Or maybe all of the above. Romantic love and the love between spouses is a wonderful thing, and as we draw closer to Valentine’s Day, we’ll have the opportunity to show this love. Today we’re going to talk about love, we’re going to talk about it a lot. But the question for today isn’t “what is love?”, rather it’s “What is Christian love?”
Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth had to have been a hard letter for him to write. He was writing to a church that was wrestling with all sorts of issues that were threatening to tear the church apart. They were suing each other over trivial things, they were ignoring blatant sin in their midst. Some of the Corinthian Christians were thinking they were better or more important than others because of their spiritual gifts. Some were abusing the Lord’s Supper by eating all the bread and getting drunk while others were left with nothing. If you read Paul’s letter you can hear the sadness, and anger at times, in his voice. What grieves Paul more than anything though is that the real reason for their problems and conflicts, was a lack of love for another. They were selfish, focusing only on what they wanted, and it was tearing the congregation apart.
To get their attention Paul begins by describing some spiritual abilities that were present in the early Church. He says, “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 then he goes on to say, “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Some of the Corinthians were wonderful speakers, others were able to deeply understand the Bible and teachings of Jesus, while others appeared to have great faith. But they were lacking love, and without love, those who were speaking beautifully were just screeching, and the rest were worthless. They’re not exhibiting true love, so what’s happening are just selfish acts accompanied by obnoxious noise, and faith didn’t appear to be present.
The root of what Paul is getting at is that love is an absolute necessity. Now you might say that this is obvious because we see it all around us. Families and marriages that lack love are miserable. Unloved children get into trouble and perpetuate the problems of their parents when they become parents. But again, I’m not talking about sociology or family dynamics because Paul is speaking directly to Christians. Love in the Church is an absolute necessity. A congregation without love is accomplishing nothing. Now people may be blessed by what the church does, but the Christians aren’t. They’re just going through the motions or doing these things to make themselves look important. Either way, it’s not good.
As Christians, and as members of Emmanuel, we have to look at ourselves and ask ourselves if we have true, Christian love. Do we fulfill the Christ’s command to love others as we love ourselves? Do we love others, in our congregation and beyond our walls, as Christ loves them? Do we love others as people who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus? If we don’t, there are certainly times when we don’t, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone, we’re sinning and we need to repent. We need to ask God for His help in loving as we should. Now, I’m not saying we’re unloving as a whole, I’m saying there are times when we don’t act like we have the love of Christ. And this is sad, because it’s harmful to all of the Emmanuel family.
To define love, true Christian love, is something that Paul will help us do, but to start I think we need to see the perfect definition of love – Jesus. He is the epitome of love, His love outshines all others, and His love is for you. Jesus once said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” He didn’t just say it though did He? He showed it, by doing it! Jesus though didn’t just die for His friends, He died for His enemies. As He was crucified, He called on the Father to forgive those responsible for His pain and death. Is there a greater love than forgiving those who are taking your life? I don’t think there is? Jesus’ love goes further though, for Paul tells us in Romans 5, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus showed true love when He put our needs ahead of His own. He got tired, hungry, worn out, rejected, and despised so that our needs would be realized. In the end, He put our need for forgiveness far above His desire to avoid God’s wrath. He endured what He most feared, so that we’ll never have to endure what He suffered for us.
It is His love then that enables us to have love. Without Him there would be no true love. His love changes everything because His love covered a multitude of sins, it covered more than that, it covered all sins. Because of His love we can now love one another as Paul instructs us. Paul’s list of love’s characteristics may sound familiar to you. There’s hardly a wedding that doesn’t use our text as one of the Bible readings, and that’s okay. But love in the Church, and Emmanuel, will be our focus.
The Bible has several words for love, depending on the type of love it is. Paul uses the word, agape. You might now that word, and it means a self-sacrificing love, a love that puts others above ourselves. Agape is a patient and kind love. It’s not always easy to show, I know I’m not very good at it, but it’s a love that puts up with things that bother us. We’re patient and slow to get angry. The Lord said to Moses, “The LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” This longsuffering attitude is what God has for us, and as Paul says in Ephesians, we show it to others. He says that we are with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bear with one another in love.
Another characteristic that Paul highlights is that love doesn’t envy. There’s a common problem in our world that we have to have what others do. There’s a reason why there’s two commandments on coveting and it’s because we’re often not happy with what we have. But Paul says, don’t worry about it. Some Corinthian Christians had spiritual gifts that others didn’t, but those who were lacking were to rejoice and to appreciate the gifts because they were for the whole Church. And those who had gifts were not to be arrogant about what they had. They weren’t better than anyone else, they were just different. Here at Emmanuel, we all have different gifts, it’s what Paul talked about in last week’s Epistle. Some of you are talented teachers or administrators, others are blessed to relate to the sick or hurting, some are good with your hands, and there are tons of other gifts sitting among you. We rejoice about others gifts, and we share what we have been blessed to receive.
Paul goes on to say that love doesn’t insist on its own way. Too often we want what we want even if it isn’t what others want. Or we don’t want what others want so they can’t have it. We insist that it’s our way or the highway, and if people don’t want what we want, one of us has to go. We push our desires regardless of how it impacts other Christians. Instead of doing this we need to see that love sets aside our own wants and desires for the sake of others. We work together and come to compromises, all in Christian love.
The last characteristic Paul mentions is probably the hardest for us sinful people to do. He says “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This can be summed up simply with the word “Forgiveness”. We know this but how often are there people in the Church, maybe even yourself, who refuse to forgive someone else? We hold onto anger over major and minor issues, and it’s devastating to Christians, and all their relationships. True Christian love is the opposite of what our sinful nature often wants and it means we bear with one another’s sins and failings. It means that we forgive and forget, we let go of grudges, and that we move from hurt to healing. Christian love endures all things for the sake of Christ’s Church. I tell my couples who are getting married that without forgiveness their marriages will fail, and it’s the same with our church – we must forgive if we are to serve God in the best possible way.
Paul ends his discussion of love by writing, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” This simply means love is permanent. Romantic love is often fleeting – people fall in and out of love and best friends become worst enemies. The true love of Christ though never ends. The various gifts in the Church will come and go. Paul even says that the spiritual gifts of the Corinthians will pass away, they’ll serve a function and then cease to be. But not love. Christian love will last because it comes from God, who is the very definition of love. We see God’s love in the death of Christ Jesus and we show this love as we view and treat everyone else as those loved by God. With His love and His forgiveness, we will be better, we will be able to live in His love and fulfill His desire that we love one another as we love ourselves. And when Christ’s love is displayed among us, He will, without a doubt, bless His Church and Emmanuel.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen