WHAT IS LOVE? 
REFLECTIONS ON 1 CORINTHIANS 13
Michael Barrett

Corinth A.D. 55

This morning Paul writes that he will show us a most perfect way, a most excellent way. He calls that way the gift of love. He then goes on to author the most challenging and grace-filled ode to love ever to be written.

Paul would be surprised, perhaps shocked, at what we have made of his words. 1 Corinthians 13 was addressed to a conflicted congregation that was involved in doing real and destructive behavior to one another. They had divided into warring camps that prized individual spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, diving prophecy, faith accumulation, the size of donations, or bragging about their willingness to suffer. In the process, this proud and arrogant one-upmanship was destroying that congregation.

That is the real context of Paul’s message this morning. Please set aside for now, but do not forget, all those wonderful memories of white dresses and beautiful bouquets, of gowned maids and tuxedoed gents, and of how often the words of 1 Corinthians 13 echo through our collective memories of weddings, anniversaries, memorial services, and, even ordinations attended.  Love is each of those, but Paul tells us so much more. Paul’s original purpose in this letter is not to compliment and approve. His purpose is to criticize and admonish. Authoring beautiful phrases to be comfortably included in liturgical rites was never his intention.

Paul feels that the importance of love is being ignored by the Corinthians. Paul interest‘s lies in explaining and expounding on what the gift of love represents and requires to followers of Jesus.

Paul describes three requite characteristics of Love. He says love is essential (v.1-3). He says love is effective (v.4-7). He says love is eternal (v.8-13). And he carefully clarifies the importance of each characteristic.

Love is Essential

[crucial, vital, indispensable, necessary, required, vital] ‘and yet I will show you the most excellent way’

 Paul starts by singling out each of those five congregational groups, every one of which is centered on one particular spiritual gift. Paul, of course, more than any of them is an exemplar of using each of those spiritual gifts.

Who is the best speaker in tongues or in preaching? Who is the one most clearly speaking the will of God? Who has the greatest knowledge? Who knows best the Old Testament backward and forwards? Who can match Paul’s mystical experience on the Damascus road? Who has been more faithful in missionary trips into hostile territory? Who donates the most – Paul has even turned down speaking honorariums from the Corinthian? Who has suffered greater hardship – being run out of town, being shipwrecked, being thrown into prison, or having to mend tents to make ends meet?

Paul, Paul, and Paul.

Paul has done it all – so the Corinthians are likely anticipating that Paul will now pick out his favorite spiritual gift and then set up a hierarchy of worth.

If I speak in tongues – begins well enough, but then the ambush! IT’S ALL ABOUT LOVE! God’s love, Our Father loves us and is trying to love through us, Jesus is trying to teach us to love as God loves, and the Holy Spirit is striving to make us into the most loving person we can be. LOVE serves God’s kingdom better than anything else we can do.

Can you imagine the Corinthian’s sheer shock? As Rev. Jeffrey Jones points out, Paul is calling them to account not accolade. He tells them that everything love is not, they are. Everything love is, they are not. There is no fault in the spiritual gifts, but the gifts are not being used properly.

Speaking in Tongues – Glossolalia. Some are using non-earthly language in ecstatic worship, believing that their unintelligible speech is the language of angels. Proudly they posit that they are already participating in heavenly worship, excluding the praise of others. Paul uses two images – gongs – which were usually made of bronze and Corinthians were proudly the best bronze makers in the ancient world (so there’s the first slam, your bronze is worthless) and then clanging cymbals – the Corinthians know that these instruments were very often used in pagan worship. Without love, he would be just making an irritating noise.

When we strive to communicate, do we use words to impress or dominate or the terminology with by which we can command, or do we speak to that person in at the level of language that they are able to comprehend most easily?

Prophecy – this is speech that reveals the will of God, not predicts the future. Without love, we don’t speak for God. What if one possesses enormous knowledge and a deep understanding of the world’s mysteries?

Without love, we’re at a dead end. We can’t do anything spiritually meaningful with all that knowledge and mystery understanding unless it’s undergirded with love.

When we preach or teach is the underlining message one of righteous dogma and rigorous orthodoxy or is it sure to include mention of God’s forgiveness and compassion and love?

Faith – as a general gift or as the specific gift that enables healing and miracles. There are two problems – the first is that faith is not quantifiable – it’s not about the size of faith you have. Remember Luke 17:6, the mustard seed, ‘if you had this much faith… .’ It’s the not amount of faith, it’s the love with which you use that faith that reaps the rewards.

The second is misdirection – moving a mountain is not a faith activity we do or can take credit for. Matthew 17:20. The faith to move mountains believes that nothing is impossible with God. It is the faith that God can move mountains that gets those great ranges relocated. When we strive to effect great and good changes and manage to do so, whom do we acknowledge and credit God’s love and power in the process?

Proud Donors — again without love, what is the real purpose? To win applause? To win God’s approval? An example of giving without love: I do not love you. I do not even like you. I do not care about you. I am giving you this because it makes me look good, I no longer have a use for it, and besides, I’ll get a tax break. Do we start our merciful conversations by asking what do you need? By asking how can I help you? Do we start by thinking about what we are able and willing to do?

Boastful Martyrs – bragging about all the suffering our sacrifices entails. I’m going without X because the church had to have Y. A big dose of passive aggressiveness. It’s one thing to donate with loud sacrificial self-righteousness and another, to quietly, and anonymously donate with love by making a silent donation to the Pastor’s discretionary fund.

Paul is asking us, individually and as a congregation is, how much in terms of what we do in using our personal spiritual gifts, or in terms of our congregational ministries, teams, and mission, or in terms of all those things we identify as doing so well – how much a part of doing those things is love? How might those things be done with greater love? It always helps to ask. Without love, all the other gifts are worthless, just noise. No spiritual gift works without love. Paul is harsh, but he is right. Without love, don’t even bother. Love is essential.

Love is Effective

[active, competent, efficient, forceful, potent, productive]

Paul tells us that love acts in specific ways. Paul is fond of using list (Romans12, Corinthians 12, Galatians5) and we find here another one. In 4 verses Paul presents 15 action verbs. He lists 7 positive deeds and 8 negative deeds that bear on love. These are deeds, not attitudes or qualities. Paul doesn’t say love is patience, he says the way love acts is patient. Namely, love is:

Patient – it is composed, calm, and willing to endure the passage of time.

Kind – while it is waiting, it is compassionate, caring, and merciful.

Rejoices with the Truth – it takes joy in God’s Word as revealed in Jesus.

Protects and Bears – at all times it makes an effort to sacrifice for others.

Trusts and Believes – at all times it seeks a right relationship with God. It is neither gullible nor naïve but strives to walk with God. Love walks by faith not sight, after all, we are only seeing reflections in the mirrors of life.

Hopes – at all times it is confident that God is completing the work He has begun.

Perseveres – at all times it endures and lasts, it stays the course.

Namely, love does not:

Envy it does not let jealousy open the door to quarreling and division.

Boast – it does not seek to praise its own accomplishments but praises God in gratitude for achievement.

Act Proud or Arrogant – literally ‘puffed up,’ it is not self-important, conceited, haughty or overbearing.

Act Rude – it does not live outside expected standards of propriety or good form; it is not discourteous, crude, vulgar, inelegant, or uncouth.

Self-Seek – it puts the needs of others first, even when one is just in exercising a right or privilege. It does not insist on its own way.

Act Easily With Anger – it is not irritable or resentful. It does not fly off the handle.

Keep Records of Wrong – it does not maintain catalogs of grudges, resentments, or grievances. It tries to maintain a running forgiveness account.

Delight in Evil – it does not enjoy another’s troubles, comeuppance, or downfall.

Yes, perfect love pretty much expects the impossible. Yet, on our best days isn’t that the type of love we’d like to give? And on our worse days, isn’t that the type of love we’d like to receive?

Of course, we do have that one perfect ideal of human love. Jesus got all of love’s characteristics correct on his final exam. Look at Jesus’s love for his family; his disciples; for lepers, blind, and the lame; for prostitutes and tax collectors; and even Samaritans and Romans. Look at the love that took Jesus through trial and torture, crucifixion and death. Look at the love that then raised Jesus from the dead, conquering death, evil and sin. Jesus is a powerful model to imitate.

The effectiveness of love does not only lie in its perfect accomplishment. Its magnificence lies in our continual striving to live a life of love. Of all love’s requisites, there is not one of these actions we cannot observe by trying to do it better or by not doing it at all.

I love baseball. Do you know who is the greatest hitter, by far, in the game ever? TY COBB with a batting average of .367.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb, Georgia Peach, Batted Left, Threw Right, Center Fielder: 4194 hits, 117 home runs, 1938 RBIs. 892 stolen bases.

Yet, out of every three times he came to bat, he struck out twice. Next time life throws you a fastball or a curve ball, or a slow ball or a spitball, remember that. Two strikeouts for every hit and he is still the greatest. We do not have to be perfect either in baseball or in love to make a mark. Love is essential. Love is effective.

Love is Eternal

[ageless, continual, endless, imperishable, relentless, timeless]

LOVE NEVER FAILS. Could anything have been said with more beauty, perfection, or challenge? LOVE NEVER FAILS. Consider adding that to your spiritual mantras. I have three – ‘Thank you, Lord,’ ‘God has this,’ and ‘Love Never Fails.’

All those other important spiritual gifts – those gifts that all are infused with love will cease. They are on loan to us for use in the present time. They are all, like us, on borrowed time. They are gifts to be unwrapped and used in the here and now. Most of all faith, hope, and love are all foundational to the Christian life, now.

There will come a day when we will know all we need to know when we will have all the ample wisdom in God, when we won’t need to hope for we’ll be home, when our trust and faith will be realized. And what will be left is love.

Paul doesn’t spend time telling us that God hopes this or that God believes that. But in Paul we find out that God sure does love. Love remains because it is the one gift tied to God’s very being and to God’s very nature. God wants to create us and recreate us in that very loving image.

God’s love says, ‘You are Valuable.’ God’s love redefines our lives. God’s love happens outside us and within us and it is more than the words we say, more than the feelings we feel, and even more than the deeds we do. Love in its very nature by causing us to seek out not our own needs but the needs of others, not only ultimately secures the other person, but our own self as well.

Love is Essential. Love is Effective. Love is Eternal.

I’d like to leave you with a quote by Rev. Edward Markquart (Seattle) about 1 Corinthians 13.

‘God commands us to love one another in these ways. It is like God commanding fish to swim. It is like God commanding birds to fly. It is like God commanding daffodils to be beautiful. When God commands us to love as God loves, God is simply commanding us to be the kind of people we were created to be in the first place.’

That is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 13 because it is to Paul’s message to us, which is Jesus’ message to us, which is God’s message to us.

That message is LOVE MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE.

My sisters and brothers, in the love of Jesus, let us go out and with our love make all the difference. Amen.