1 Corinthians 13
February 15th/16th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Love is in the air. Love is all around. But mostly, love is on clearance at drug stores and supermarkets around the country today as managers try to move the last of their Valentine’s Day merchandise and make way for St. Patrick’s Day. The weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day are a natural time for us as Americans to contemplate the nature of love. Romantic comedies typically fill the broadcast schedule for most cable networks, and the movie theatres are usually good for a new release or two that promise a happily ever after. Although this year’s Valentine’s Day film de jour has a much darker and violent tone, it is still being billed as a love story, for this the season for romance. This is the season for love. And when most people want to know what God’s Word teaches about love, 1 Corinthians 13 is the first place they look.
The section of 1st Corinthians read today is often referred to as the great love chapter. It is so frequently read at weddings that we have come to naturally associate it with romantic love, but that is not really the case. Paul is writing about something bigger. Consider at the flow of the letter: In chapter 11 he writes about the division present in the Corinthian congregation and reminds them of the unity they have in the body and blood of Christ. He chastises them for their division. But in chapter 12 he reminds them that the unity they (and we) possess as the body of Christ is a unity in diversity, each person having a unique set of gifts and abilities that are united in service of the one body of Christ. The Christian life consists of embracing godly diversity without falling into sinful rivalry or divisiveness. In chapter 13 Paul holds forth love as the glue that holds this unity together. Godly unity in diversity requires this love. Without it, such diversity is destined to fall into rivalry and division. Paul describes this love in detail before concluding this section in chapter 14 with several concrete examples of how this love-bound unity in diversity demonstrates itself. But the great love chapter highlights godly love as the glue that holds the body of Christ together. This chapter gives us a more excellent way of approaching our life together as the body of Christ in this place.
Our world’s view of love and our Lord’s view of love are often so far apart that we wonder how the same word can be used to refer to such wildly different things. While 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t strictly about romantic love, there are helpful parallels that can be drawn between our world’s approach to romance and the approach we are often tempted to take in our relationship with God. Our world tends to confuse infatuation with love. I wonder sometimes how much our view of reality has been shaped by the time we spend watching movies or reading stories that end “happily ever after.” We absorb these stories so frequently that part of us begins to think of life in these terms, that the goal is to get to the credits, to the happily ever after. But in almost every single case the “happily ever after” is merely the beginning of the relationship. Happily ever after is the puppy-dog eyed, head-over-heels, immature infatuation that marks the beginning of a relationship instead of the mature, deeply rooted love that is only possible after a lifetime of companionship. Because the credits seem to always roll at the first kiss, this first kiss is seen as the fulfillment of the story, we begin to associate the energy and emotions of the first kiss with true love.
But reality is much different. In reality, the credits don’t roll at first kiss. In reality, the energy and excitement felt at the beginning of a relationship fade over time. And that is where love shows its true colors. Our culture has taught us to assume that when the excitement of the first kiss fades, that love has faded too. Paul disagrees. According to Paul, true love is patient, which would be better translated “longsuffering.” It remains even while emotions wax and wane. To put it another way, love takes time. It takes endurance. It is not simply an emotional flood that sweeps us away beyond our ability to control. It is a conscious choice of the will. It certainly affects the emotions in a profound way, but its foundation must lie somewhere else. Emotions are shallow. Our emotions are like the muck that accumulates in uncleaned gutters. The decayed leaves that accumulate there may have enough nutrients to support a sapling or some weeds, but a tree will never grow healthy and large there. That kind of growth requires actual soil, and it takes time. I remember having a debate in my English class when I was a high school senior. We were reading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, play that is supposed to be a comedy. In a Shakespearean comedy, things are supposed to end happily ever after. In this particular play, one of the couples who gets to live happily ever after consists of a woman who has long loved a particular man, and that man, who is under the spell of a love charm. It bothered me that what was supposed to be a happy ending involved one character who was not willfully sacrificing himself for the woman he was to marry, but was rather bewitched. It bothered me because true love is an act of the will that evidences itself in our actions. Love is not simply the emotion one feels on his or her wedding day. Love is the decision to live the rest of your life faithful to the vows made before God and family. Love is the decision to act in a certain way, to walk away from the flirtatious temptation of a coworker and remain bodily faithful to your spouse, to sacrifice your pride for the good of the marriage, even when doing so doesn’t make you feel particularly good. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is not your love that will sustain your marriage, it is your marriage that will sustain your love.” Godly love is sustained and strengthened by daily living in such a way that fosters and strengthens it.
And yet this is so hard for us to do. We are constantly fighting the temptation to a prideful and egocentric view not only of love, but even of life in general. Our sinful nature wants to view other people in terms of what we can get from them instead of what we can give to them. But this is not how love works. Love does not insist on its own way, but it bears all things. And as much as we see the importance of this in marriage, the same can be said about our life in the body of Christ. Remember, 1 Corinthians 13 is primarily about the way Christians should act as the body of Christ. We can certainly use these words to help us understand the love that makes for a godly marriage, but their primary purpose is to mold us into loving relationships with other Christians. But thoughts of romance and love are helpful here because we so often approach the church as our culture approaches romance. As we are tempted to equate the excitement and energy of the first kiss with love, we are also tempted to equate the excitement of the mountain top or conversion experience with faith. But neither is true.
Our life in our Lord’s church takes as much willful dedication as a faithful marriage does. It takes the Holy Spirit living in us to recreate our wills and desires so that they are in line with God’s will. It takes time. It requires moving beyond the infatuation phase and into a deeper and more mature understanding of our Lord and his Word. It shows itself in the sacrifice of time when we make it a priority to be in the services of our Lord’s house, hearing God’s Word, praying with the faithful, feeding on the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. Even at those times where our excitement for the faith is particularly low, mature love shows itself in action – the action of participation. Love is not arrogant or rude. It does not ask what can this church do for me, but it asks what I can sacrifice for the betterment of the people of God in this place. It does not seek out the bare minimum that can be contributed before someone notices that I’m not pulling my own weight. It seeks to contribute to the betterment of all the people of God in this place, not only with gifts of time, but with financial offerings as well. Love looks out at this place and the community around us and sees a need to train up children in the way of God. But love takes action. Love is commitment to that action even when such action is difficult, monotonous, or mundane. Love is an act of the will, a conscious decision to act, live, and think in ways that are patient and kind, not irritable and resentful, even when we don’t really want to.
For this is how our Lord loved us. This love marks our lives only because Christ lives in us. He who loved the world by giving himself up for it now lives in you where he continues to sacrifice himself for the needs of your neighbor. He knows no other love, for self-sacrificial love is love as it was intended, love in its purest form. Self-giving love is the love that knows no end. Self-seeking love always comes to an end, for there will come a time when the other person will no longer satisfy the ever-growing demands we place upon them. Self-serving love acts like a swarm of locusts that devours everything in its path before moving on to the next stop. It always takes, never gives, until there is nothing left to take. Then it moves on to the next victim. But not self-giving love. Self-sacrificial love has no end, not even in eternity. As Paul wrote, faith, hope, and love are three great gifts from God, but love alone lasts forever. Faith will not last forever, but only as long as this creation. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. But those things will be seen one day. Faith trust the promises of God, that he will fulfill those promises one day. But once those promises are fulfilled, faith has served its purpose and is no longer necessary. So also hope. Hope by virtue of what it is waits for fulfillment. But that fulfillment will arrive when Christ returns and makes all things new. Faith and hope will reach their fulfillment and will come to an end one day.
But not love. Love knows no end because love is what we were created for. It was not good for Adam to be alone because if he was then there would be no one for him to love, no one for him to give himself to, no one for whom he could sacrifice his own wants and needs. Even within the eternal Trinity there is love, for the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds in love from both. Love knows no end. Heaven itself will be marked by this love. In eternity, our love for God and for each other will be perfect. Now, any experience of such love is like looking in a dimly lit mirror, or perhaps like looking at our reflection in a spoon. The reflection is there. You might be able to make out the contours, but it is distorted and fuzzy. Our ability to love with a pure and godly love is distorted and fuzzied by sin, but the gift of the new creation alive in us through the preaching of God’s Word still seeks to live in this love.
This is the love we strive for today. We know we can’t live in it perfectly, but we commit ourselves to it anyway, trusting in the forgiveness we have been given in the blood of Jesus. We are able to love in this way because he first loved us. He has redeemed us. He has renewed us. He has placed us in this congregation to live lives marked by his love. May our Lord continue to bless us as we strive for this love in our relationships today, and may he deliver us into the perfection of this love for all eternity.