The Greatest is Love

Sermon 1804 1 Corinthians 13.1-13 May 15, 2022

Don’t look for the bride to come down the aisle. Put away that rice back there. And you two guys way in back—you know who you are. Do not go decorating my car with streamers and tin cans. This is not a wedding.

I have to say that because the only time we seem to hear this portion of Scripture is as a sermon for a wedding, as if the Apostle Paul was talking about young love, marital bliss and yeeehaww receptions late into the night. It’s actually the wedding preacher who twists and distorts Paul’s words. The Holy Spirit is teaching us something about all the good gifts he give us. They all have their place, but

The Greatest is Love

1. Without love, nothing else matters (1-3).

2. Love always (4-7).

3. Love never fails (8-13).

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing (1-3).”

Quite the list of spiritual gifts Paul gives us. Oh, you know spiritual gifts. They are the things the Holy Spirit equips each individual believer with. They are the sort of gifts that build up the Church, the believers. Sometimes they are the sort of gifts you look at and think, “I could never do that.” Sometimes they are the sort of gifts you think, “That’s a spiritual gift? I do that every day!”

Paul starts with speaking in tongues, because that’s what the Corinthians were hung up on. They thought people who spoke in tongues should rule the roost, that they were better Christians, more mature than those who couldn’t sputter and yowl in some supposedly heavenly language of angels. Paul handled that issue in chapter 12, but now he shows them what does rule the roost—love! It is a love for God and a love for our fellowman which is rooted in God’s love for us. I suppose you could call it faith in action. It is the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments—love. I didn’t come up with that. Paul said that, in Romans (13.10).

Now it makes sense when I say without love nothing else matters. Without love, I am an unbeliever, a pagan, headed for hell. What good is it if I can speak twenty-three foreign languages? What good is it if I can predict the future through the power of the devil—the Bible has instances of that (Paul is be thrown into a Greek prison because he casts a demon out of a slave girl who could predict the future because of a demon)—if I am not a believer? What good is it if I have a miracle working faith, but am so selfish I do not use that miracle power for the good of God’s people? Without love, the use of all these gifts, which we would think are pretty amazing, would be just showing off. “Hey, look how wonderful I am!” That’s not the Christian life.

The showing off life is a life dominated by the sinful human nature. We recognize it in our kids or grandkids. When one shows us something, a birthday gift, a craft from school, the other one has to quick scurry and scrounge around to show what marvelous feat he, too, has accomplished! It’s the inability to let anyone enjoy their short time in the spotlight, be it the sister announcing her engagement on your wedding day or the guy dashing in to photobomb your family vacation shot. Show-offs. Show-boating. They don’t know the world doesn’t revolve around them. But I have news for each of us—the world doesn’t revolve around us, either.

If ever there was someone who could show-boat, it would have to be Jesus. But he never did. He was humble, kind. He used his powers only to help people and only when the situation demanded it. He didn’t use his miracles for his own benefit, to fuel the PR machine. When he brought a little girl back to life, he told her parents not to tell anyone. Same thing when he displayed his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration to strengthen his disciples’ faith. Don’t tell anyone until I rise from the dead. Instead of tooting his own horn, Jesus did the opposite. He appeared to be the most common of men, a simple peasant. Silent before his accusers, quiet as a clam before King Herod. But by his love we are saved. He loved us so much he gave up his life for us, when we were still his enemies. You might be tempted to sacrifice yourself for a good person or a friend, but Jesus showed his love for us in this, while we were still his enemies, he died for us. And I didn’t come up with that off the top of my head, either. Paul said it (Romans 5.8).

Without love for God, the product of God’s love for us, we will never get into heaven. That’s why Paul says without love nothing else matters.

The greatest is love. Love always…

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (4-7).”

There is something about all these attributes of love. All I have to do is add the words, “almost never” to them and they are ruined. Love is almost never easily angered. It almost never keeps no record of wrongs. It almost never delights in evil. Or “most of the time.” Most of the time love is patient. That’s funny--most of the time love is kind. That is no help at all, is it? We need something we can depend upon—always. If 9-1-1 doesn’t always work, lives will be lost. If the tornado warning works most of the time, what confidence do the people in Twister Alley, Oklahoma have? If the firefighters usually keep the New Mexico fires away from buildings, how well am I going to sleep at night on my ranch outside Las Vegas, New Mexico? We are playing the odds. You might as well be in the Las Vegas, Nevada casinos. At least there you know you have a very good chance of losing. The world would have us think we will be on the winning end of the deal—the other guy lose his shirt. I am reminded of tasty sheep whose sole defense seems to be get into a herd so the wolf will eat me last.

The love of God for us is always. It is always there. And that divine love, that out-of-this-world love, that love which is always sacrificing for the other, always putting the other ahead of itself, that love of God, that love from God, is always there in us. That’s why Luther could sum up the commandment forbidding gossip in this way, “that we take our neighbor’s words and actions in the kindest possible way.” I bet he got that from this text!

The greatest is love. Love never fails.

“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears (8-10).”

Paul directs his readers back to the spiritual gifts they thought were really hot stuff. Predicting the future, speaking in tongues, knowledge of the spiritual nature of people. Those things will pass away. I’m not talking of some historic event, like in 415 A.D. the Holy Spirit no longer moved people to speak in tongues. I’m talking about the end of the world! When Jesus comes again, nobody is ever going to try to predict the future! Eternity is eternity! Tomorrow is going to be wonderful! The day after it amazing! Clear and sunny again! Another great day for a walk with Jesus next week! Why speak in tongues when everyone can understand everyone else and the angels are having conversations with us, too? And as for knowledge, well, we will all have knowledge. So all of these hot shot spiritual gifts will pass away. They will fall by the wayside.

But isn’t that the way things go? Paul makes us think about our life experiences.

“When I was a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (11-12).”

I had a binky and a blanky with a strip of silk fabric hemmed to it. Couldn’t sleep without my stuffed dog. I don’t have those things now. Neither do you. We outgrew them and don’t give them a second thought. We are grown up and would not want to return to those dirty diaper days.

Or think of your mirrors, Paul says. Back in the ancient world, people didn’t know what they looked like, at least as much as we do. They didn’t have mirrors. They didn’t have a piece of wood with a reflecting aluminum surface adhering to a thin pane of glass attached to it. Just break your bathroom hand held mirror and see what it is made of! The ancients used polished pieces of metal as mirrors. If you were rich, your mirror was polished pretty well. If you were poor, you had one pitted and marred (Paul was poor). Ladies, try using your table knife to brush your hair. Guys, use that metal pancake flipper next time you shave. On second thought, don’t. The Red Cross says there’s a blood shortage. In heaven, we won’t see poor reflections of people. We will see face to face. We will see things as they are. And as people can see me, can know me, I can know them and see them. I will fully know as I am fully known.

All these things, prophecy, knowledge, tongues, all these spiritual gifts, we will outgrow them in heaven. They won’t be needed. They will fail, fail to be functional, fail to be pleasurable, fail to be beneficial. Heaven is not going to be a living museum, like colonial Williamsburg, where we pretend we are still living with all the limitations of life in this past world.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (13).”

So strive for that love, try to show that love, pray for the ability to display that love every day we are on earth. The Bible says as the world stumbles towards its destruction, the love of many will grow cold. We see it all around us. The United States of America is becoming disunited, city against country, coast against interior, red against blue—how left out the greens must feel! People are destroying lives, property and trust. And I am only talking about civic love, the “I’ll watch out for you if you watch out for me” kind of love. Who is going to stand in the breach? Who is going to be the light on the hill? Who is going to say, for all our differences, there is something that transcends earthly quarrels, something that is higher than us?

Don’t look for a Superman. Don’t look for a Marvel comic book hero. They are all hiding in the movie theaters. Look in the Bible. That’s the only source of one-sided love we will ever find in this world. See what our God, the Lord of love, has done for us. And then look in the mirror and see what we can do for others. You don’t have to give everything you own to the poor. You don’t have to set yourself on fire in front of Congress. Just show love. Just show we care. Just show that we recognize we are all on this same troubled sea of sin together and we all have the same Lord and Savior. The Lord has equipped you and me with so many virtues, so many gifts and aptitudes, opportunities and resources, but

The Greatest is Love

1. Without love, nothing else matters (1-3).

2. Love always (4-7).

3. Love never fails (8-13).

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind this portion of Scripture being used in wedding ceremonies. It is fitting, it is proper, not because they are getting married, but because they are Christians.

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