Text 1 Corinthians 13
Editor’s Note: One of Bug Bunny’s favorite things to call Elmer Fudd was “Nimrod.” This name comes from Genesis 10:8,9 where the descendants of Noah are recounted and it says of Nimrod “He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.” So Bugs was being ironic and really calling Elmer a jerk. File that away for a moment.
Most folks have heard this beautiful love passage of 1 Corinthians 13 in the context of a wedding or have seen it hanging on a wall, written in lovely calligraphy with flowers around the borders. And while both of those are certainly appropriate, we get a better understanding of this passage when we see what has come before it. It may surprise you to learn that St. Paul wrote this piece as much as a corrective as he did to inspire. Let’s pull the camera way back to see the bigger picture.
1:11“For it has been reported to me that there is quarreling among you.”
3:1,2 “But I could not address you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh…for while there is jealously and strife among you, are you not of the flesh?”
5:1“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you that is not tolerated even among the pagans….
6:1 “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to the law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?”
He goes on telling them to stop doing things that evidently they were doing. In chapter 6 he tells them to flee immorality. In chapter 8 he tells them that they should not eat meat sacrificed to idols if it makes a weaker brother stumble. In chapter 10 he tells them to flee idolatry. In chapter 12 he corrects them from thinking that if someone has a differing gift or if they are not very important then they are not needed in the Church.
So after numerous corrections over 12 chapters, then and only then does he show them a more excellent way and he speaks to them about love. In a very beautiful and poetic way he is telling them to stop being such Nimrods and start living like Christians should live. Seeing this passage as addressed to the whole Church changes our focus when we read this passage from – “I need to learn how to be more loving” to “How are we doing as a Church in the way that we treat one another?”
St. Paul gives us a kind of grid so that we know what genuine love is about and raise the bar for the whole Church. He speaks of the absence of love, the essence of love and the preeminence of love.
First he speaks of the absence of love. “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.
St. Paul is saying that the inherent problem of being spiritually gifted or having great spiritual insight or even possessing enormous faith is that if these things are not completely baptized in love then they are worthless. And they are not only worthless, they are dangerous because they lead to malignant pride. The Scripture says that pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction. Both the Scriptures and current times are replete with examples of folks who were incredibly gifted and yet were toppled by their own hubris. Pride is so destructive because it places me first. Love is so healing because places you first. And we cannot have both because one forces out the other.
Next St. Paul gives us the essence of love. Note how little it has to do with feelings that is the culture’s major definition of love. Rather loves true essence is filled with actions and attitudes towards the well being of others. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful] 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
One scholar points out that all of the verbs St. Paul uses in describing the essence of love are in the present continuous tense. He says that this denotes “actions and attitudes which have become habitual, ingrained gradually…”
That says to me that love, like so many other things, is learned by practicing. Fr. BE didn’t just wake up one day and decide that he was a great tennis player. It took him years of practice to be good at it. Thus the more we practice love then more it becomes ingrained in us.
The line that jumped out at me in this description of love is that love “does not insist on its own way.” A couple of years ago I was in the Post Office and an elderly lady, seeing my clerical collar, approached and asked if she could ask me a question. When I said “Surely” she asked if I believed that it has become increasingly difficult to be a pastor in the last few years. I told her that I believed that it has. After I explained why I asked her why she brought it up. She said that her church had just gone through a split over the color of the carpet in the Sanctuary and that the split had nearly killed her Pastor with grief.
That sounds petty and ridiculous but insisting on having our own way runs deeply in the church. It runs from the color of carpets to the splitting of denominations to have our own way. But it is broader still. It is an evil power that dominates our politics and our culture and results in states recently passing laws that permit infanticide. “I’m going to have my own way even if it costs the life of a child.” How did we get here?
In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard states, “Jesus’ resurrected presence with us, along with his teaching, assures us of God’s care for all who let him be God and let him care for them. It is love of God…and regular experience of his care that frees us from the burden of ‘looking out for ourselves.’…Then I meet everything that happens as sent or at least permitted by God….I not longer have to manage weather, airplanes or other people.” So a paraphrase of “it (love) does not insist on its own way, is“love is not being a control freak, stop being a Nimrod.”
But how do we do that? How do we stop being a Nimrod? Dallas presses the point further and says that we stop insisting on having our own way when we die to self. This comes from St. Paul who wrote in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Or to quote St. Carrie Underwood, “Jesus take the wheel.”We turn it all over to Him.That is how we die to self.
Dallas describes the fruit of that approach to life. “Being dead to self is the condition where the mere fact that I do not get what I want does not surprise me or offend me and has not control over me…what we surely can say it that those who are dead to self are not controlled in thought, feeling or action by self exaltation….but are easily controlled by love of God and neighbor.”He concludes with this. “To accept, with confidence in God, that I do not immediately have to have my way releases me from the great pressure that anger, unforgiveness and the need to retaliate imposes upon my life…It removes the root and source of by far the greater part of human evil we have to deal with in our world.”
Lastly St. Paul speaks of the preeminence of love. “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 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.12 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.13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
So many of the things that our Lord has graciously given us to make our way in this world will pass away. As we heard last week from St. Paul this includes our bodies that will be sown perishable but will be raised imperishable. He gives us gifts to see our way on the journey but once we have reached our journey’s end there will be no more need for those gifts. We need them now because we have only partial sight. But once we see Him face to face we will be like a child who puts away those childish things to embrace a full and perfect relationship.
Some of the early fathers suggested that ultimately even faith and hope will fade away. Why? Because we won’t need faith when we know as we are known and we won’t need hope because all that we have hoped for will be realized. So all that is left, and all that we will need throughout eternity, is love. And for the first time and for all of eternity we will perfectly fulfill the command to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. For all eternity we will live in the fullness of God’s kingdom and that is why the Church has always prayed, “Come Lord Jesus!”
Today we heard about the Transfiguration of our Lord. A chief purpose of this event was to present the divinity of Jesus Christ to His disciples. His divine glory was as brilliant to them as when He spoke to Moses.
Since Jesus is divine, and God is love, then it is correct to say also that Jesus is Love. When we take that truth and apply it back to our text we can look at this diamond through a different facet. Let’s listen to it one last time.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not Jesus, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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 Jesus, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not Jesus, I gain nothing.
4 Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast;..is not arrogant 5 or rude. Jesus does not insist on His own way; He is not irritable or resentful; 6 Jesus does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Jesus never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away…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.13 So now faith, hope, and Jesus abide, these three; but the greatest of these is Jesus.
As we see who He is and seek to become more and more conformed to His image then love becomes less about what we DO and more about who we ARE. Of course we will practice love and fail at times and practice some more and fail some more. So I find the words of St. Paul to the Philippians encouraging as we practice walking in love. He writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
As we enter into Lent this week let’s make this Lent much less about what we are giving up and much more about what we are putting on. Let’s put on Christ and learn to walk in love. Amen.