“The Love Chapter: Way More than a Wedding Text” (1 Corinthians 12:31b – 13:13)

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 3, 2019

“The Love Chapter: Way More than a Wedding Text” (1 Corinthians 12:31b – 13:13)

It’s February! And you know what that means. Soon we will hear those most wonderful of words: “Pitchers and catchers report.” No, I’m just kidding. While the start of Spring Training is a beautiful thing, I’m referring to something else that happens in February. And that is Valentine’s Day. Now we hear and see everywhere the beautiful word, “love.” Love is in the air! Love is everywhere! Go into any greeting card store and you will see row upon row of cards with hearts on them and the word “love” on every one. February is the Love Month.

But then, so is June–or any month when a lot of weddings take place. Love is the theme in so many weddings. Soloists will sing about love. Preachers will preach about love. And if there’s one Bible passage the couple will invariably request as one of the readings, it is 1 Corinthians 13. Yes, 1 Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter! Love is described, love is extolled. And most importantly, love just sounds nice at a wedding. These words in the Love Chapter are heard as kind of like soft and inoffensive Muzak in an elevator: pleasant background noise that you don’t have to pay too much attention to. The couple isn’t listening, the bridal party isn’t listening–after all, they haven’t been in church since they were kids, so a Bible reading is just something you put up with when you have a wedding. And the people in the pews are just thinking about how beautiful the bride looks, and how cute the flower girl is, and “How long is this service going to last so we can get to the reception?”.

I exaggerate of course. But the point I’m making is that lots of people have heard 1 Corinthians 13, especially at weddings, but maybe they haven’t thought too deeply about it. They haven’t understood that this chapter is not primarily about weddings or marriage. Now of course real, self-giving love is tremendously important in a marriage, but this chapter is not directly about that. What 1 Corinthians 13 is primarily about is our life within the church. That’s what we’re going to discover now, under the theme, “The Love Chapter: Way More than a Wedding Text.”

When we understand the context of 1 Corinthians 13, we will see that it is way more than a wedding text; it is a text about life within the church. And the particular church in question is the church at Corinth in the middle of the first century. St. Paul the apostle is writing to the Corinthians to address and correct the problems this messed-up congregation was having. And there were a bunch. This was a church beset with factionalism. There were different groups and cliques that had developed in that church, and they didn’t get along. Also, the city of Corinth was kind of a notorious “sin city,” and many of the church members had come out of that immoral surrounding culture–but maybe not entirely. Too many were still living like the pagan world around them. Another problem: Many of the church members were not thinking about how the way they were living was having a negative impact on the faith of their fellow Christians. They were only thinking about themselves. Then there was the problem of pride. Church members were becoming puffed up by how they thought they were more spiritual and more important than their fellow church members. This was a messed-up congregation. And that is the context that leads now into 1 Corinthians 13. And at the root of all the problems at Corinth was what Paul puts his finger on in chapter 13. And that is, a lack of love.

But even though this church had all those problems, Paul doesn’t give up on the Corinthians and write them off. Because God doesn’t. God wants us to repent of our sins of lovelessness. God wants to forgive us and restore us and help us to live in a new way. In the way of love, the way in which God himself has loved us. And so Paul introduces the Love Chapter by saying, “I will show you a still more excellent way.”

Yes, there is a still more excellent way for us to live. There’s always room for us to grow as Christians. No matter how long we have been in the church, we can still grow. God is always calling us to a more excellent way. And here it is, the way of love.

We can look at the Love Chapter in three sections, really. The first part of the chapter stresses the necessity of love. The second part describes the character of love. And third, there is the permanence of love. So first, the necessity 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.”

The Corinthians prided themselves on how important they were in the congregation. They looked down upon the lesser members of the congregation. The Corinthians were puffed up with the spiritual gifts God had given them, as though they were more special and more spiritual than others. But Paul here is saying that that is nothing, a big fat nothing, if not accompanied by love. Our activity in the church, our importance in the church, the offices we hold, all that we do or give for the church–all this counts for nothing, if not done in love.

Second, the character of love. Paul describes it like this: “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.” Notice how Paul describes the character of love both in terms of what it is and what it is not. And he contrasts these positive and negative terms side by side to give us a clearer picture.

“Love is patient and kind.” Isn’t this how God is with us? Our God is patient with us. He is longsuffering. He puts up with a lot. The Lord was longsuffering with Old Testament Israel, in spite of their grumbling. Jesus was patient with his disciples. So often they just didn’t get it. They would argue about who was the greatest, even as their master was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. God is patient with you, isn’t he? I’m amazed that God still has a place for me, even though I have tuned out his voice over and over again. Love is patient and kind, because God is patient and kind. And we are his baptized children, meant to live that way too.

“Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.” Now here is what love is not. It’s not full of itself. Love is not haughty, treating others as inferiors or not worth my time. Jesus taught his disciples to look upon the little ones, to receive them as you would receive him.

Love “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” Love says: “It’s not all about me. I can yield to others out of love. The world does not revolve around me and what I want.” Love overlooks a lot of slights. Love doesn’t mind when others do well or are praised.

Love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” So often in our world today we see people condoning, and now even celebrating, what God declares to be sin, wrongdoing. Abortion, homosexuality, easy divorce, cohabitation–these are among the sins that our nation is accepting these days. And Christians are becoming numb to these things. We’re told that we are being “unloving” or “judgmental” if we criticize or speak out. But nothing could be further from the truth. Love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” How like Christ this is! Jesus embodies true love. Think of all he endured! For your sake he bore the shame and the suffering–he bore the very cross for you! “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Christ the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, his wayward sheep. And then he took it up again, in victorious resurrection! By his death and resurrection, you are forgiven, you are absolved, you have the sure hope of everlasting life.

And you have a new character. You are a new person in Christ. In Holy Baptism, you were given the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Holy Communion, we are strengthened in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. Every day we put to death the old self-centered Adam, and we put on the new man in Christ, the new person we are, who has received love and who is able to love. “We love, because he first loved us.”

How do we love one another in the church? The more excellent way of love does not keep a record of wrongs. We do not keep score. We do not hold on to grudges. Instead, we forgive. We go to the brother or sister we have a problem with, and we work it out. How do we love in the church? We do not gossip. We do not tear down the brother or sister behind their back. Instead, we speak well of one another and protect and defend the other person’s reputation. How do we love in the church? We take action. We take initiative. We put love into action, helping one another in practical ways. Love is more than a mushy, squishy feeling, all warm and fuzzy, but never doing anything. No, love acts at the point of our neighbor’s need.

God, in Christ, is all of these things to us. We learn love from how God has loved us. We are his children, reflecting his character. We are his people, receiving his help.

Now Paul wraps up the Love Chapter with a forward look to the permanence 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. 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.”

Faith is important. Faith is trust in God’s promises, trust in God’s goodness, regardless of our circumstances. Faith can say, with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” And for now, we walk by faith and not by sight. Likewise, hope is important. Hope is the forward look of faith, looking ahead to what God has in store for us. We don’t see it yet, but one day we will. On that day, hope will give way to sight, and we will see God face to face. So faith and hope are important for this life, but they will no longer be necessary in the age to come.

But one thing will endure. One thing is permanent. One thing is eternal. And that is love. You and I will abide in God’s love for eternity. And our fellowship of love, our life together in the church triumphant, will last forever.

At the outset, I said that the Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, was really not about weddings. Well, maybe now I have to revise that. For love will indeed be the theme in the wedding feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which will have no end.

Published in: on February 2, 2019 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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