Best of all! A sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 for 3 February 2013

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Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 3 February 2013: Year C, The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

SERMON
Text: 1 Corinthians 12.31-13.13

Best of all!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today I want to talk about ‘love’, which is a word we use quite a lot in Church. And it’s a word we use quite a lot outside of Church as well. And the confusions comes because it’s a word which has a lot of different meanings. Hearing the words ‘love’ sung in a hymn in Church probably won’t cause any offence. But the word ‘love’ in the words of a pop song is quite often just a euphemism for sexual intercourse. If we talk about love, we need to know what kind of love we are talking about.

1 Corinthians 13 illustrates the problem well. You may well have heard this passage read at a wedding. And why would we not want to give this sort of advice to a lovestruck couple?

Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail. (1 Corinthians 13.4-7 GNB)

All good advice for a happy marriage.

I quoted there from the Good News Bible. Perhaps when some of you were married, you heard those words in the King James version. So the bit I just quoted reads in 17th Century English:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (1 Corinthians 13.4-7 KJV)

I don’t want to talk about which sounds better, or is easier to understand. I just want you to note that the King James’ translators did not even mention the word ‘love’ in this passage. Instead they use the word ‘charity’. This must puzzle a lot of people. We are talking here about- and, in a weddding service, to- two young people who are ‘in love’ with one another. We don’t say that they are ‘in charity’ with each other. It’s hard to see what romantic love, or married life, has to do with what we now call ‘charity’- good causes we might give money to or volunteer for. So what is going on here?

There are two levels of confusion. Firstly, the word ‘charity’ simply had a different meaning 400 years ago when King James had the Bible translated. For words do change their meanings. Back then there was nothing quite like today’s ‘charity sector’- organisations separate from the state that did good works through people voluntarily giving money or time. And secondly, of course, King James’ scholars were translating from another language. They had a word in Greek which they found was best rendered in the English of their day as ‘charity’. We wouldn’t use that word today perhaps, because our language has changed (and we also know more about ancient Greek!).

So the thing you need to know when you read about love in a modern translation of the New Testament into English is that ancient Greek had more than more word for ‘love’. There’s a classic book by the Christian apologist CS Lewis called The Four Loves’ in which he explains that, although we have only one word ‘love’ in English, it’s a word which encompasses at least four different meanings. You might say you love strawberries, or Strictly Come Dancing, or even Ross County Football Club. But clearly that means something different from saying you love your wife or husband. Ladies, you might say that you love George Clooney without us thinking you are about to fly to Hollywood to commit adultery. In our personal lives, you can love someone as a friend. But most of us have also known that passionate love which is directed towards one particular person, and which might end up with you both standing at the front of a church listening to a Minister reading from First Corinthians. When you hear Paul’s words, to you think he’s on about erotic love, or friendship or something in between? It’s certainly not about how you feel about Ross County. A shared passion for Ross County might be good in a marriage; but if only one party takes it to extremes, there might be trouble ahead!

But when Paul wrote his words about love in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, he was not writing about family life. It’s just one part of a longer letter to the Church he had founded at Corinth. Last week we read the previous chapter; and today I had read for us the last couple of sentences of that chapter, chapter 12, in order that you would hear today’s reading of chapter 13 in context. The previous chapter is also quite famous. In it, Paul is writing about how we are to understand the gifts of different members of the Church. He tells the Corinthians that their different gifts are from the one Spirit of God. And he uses an imaginative image to describe the Church, as being like the human body: one body, with many parts, and all of the necessary and useful. Just because the foot is not a hand, it can’t say it’s not part of the body; and the eye can’t say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’. so you’re not excluded from the Church because you’re not somebody else; and none of us is to exclude other people from the Church because they are different from us. As Paul concludes, ‘All of you are part of Christ’s body, and each one is a part of it’ (v.27). He goes on to list some of the functions which people have in the Church- apostles, teachers, even miracle-workers. And he finishes the chapter with the words we began our reading today: ‘Set your hearts, then, on the more important gifts. Best of all, however, is the following way’. The gifts which he describes as ‘greater’ are the ones which make possible the virtue he’s about to describe- Christian love.

Paul had had to write all this to the Corinthians because they were in conflict. There were those who had particular gifts, or special offices in the Church, who had become rather proud of themselves and their special place in the Church. Paul undercuts such ecclesiastical pride with his metaphor of the body- each person is important. And now he drops a bomb into the Corinthian’s false ways of thinking about the nature of the Church. The Corinthians had folks who spoke in strange tongues during worship, and believed that that was inspired by God. Paul doesn’t deny that perhaps this phenomenon is a sign that the person has the Spirit of God at work within them; and in chapter 12 tells the Corinthians that the gift of tongues is only one of various important gifts to the Church. But then at the beginning of chapter 13 he writes

I may be able to speak the languages of human beings and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell.

Then he goes on to talk gifts which we often still value in the Church. A silver-tongued preacher is surely a great gift to the Church; and faith is surely a great gift of God? Maybe. But Paul says,

I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountains- but if I have no love, I am nothing.

What if I give up everything for Jesus. What if I take Jesus’ advice to the rich young man, and give away all my property? What if I stayed faithful even to martyrdom?

I may give away everything I have, and even give up my body to be burned- but if I have no love, this does me no good.

This is such a familiar passage, that we need to stop and take in just how emphatically negative Paul is being here. Without love, we might sing like angels, but we may as well sound like a clanging bell. Without love, the greatest preacher, the cleverest scholar of the faith, the person whose faith could move mountains- is nothing. Without love, the most radical discipleship, giving up everything for Jesus, will do you no good. These were qualities, these were gifts of the Spirit, which the Corinthians prized- and we still do today. Jesus said if we have faith we can move mountains, he called on the rich young man to give everything away, he said we should take up our cross to follow him. All well and good, says Paul- but Jesus also talked a lot about love. Jesus told his disciples to love one another. He even said that we should love our enemies. Sometimes people accuse Paul of adding on to the teaching of Jesus, even misunderstanding Jesus. But when it came to understanding the moral teachings of Jesus, Paul I think understood the heart of that very well. For did not Jesus sum up his morality by saying that the greatest commandments in the Hebrew Bible were that we should love God and love our neighbour? For Jesus, love is the key. Paul, I think, understood that.

And so Paul reminds the argumentative Christian community of Corinth that whatever they do, they’ve to do it in love. Now, you can’t ask an institution- like a Church congregation- to love. Love is a virtue- it’s something which individuals have to learn to practice. And so Paul in this passage pins down for us what’s expected of us. Love is the principle which is guide how we relate to one another. Listen again to these verses which tell us what love is:

Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail.

Now these are fine words, and it might be nice to hear them sometimes- perhaps at a wedding ceremony. But they were written for a particular situation, in a letter which an exasperated Paul wrote a congregation in conflict with itself. Read them again, and you can begin to guess the kinds of situations Paul had in mind. So: perhaps you get annoyed with other people in the Church? Maybe they are slow to share your vision of what the Church should become. Well, if practice love, you will be patient with them and kind to those people. Maybe you see that someone has an important role in the Church that you would like to have?- but if you practice love, who can’t be jealous! Or maybe you think your gifts are really special, or that you fill a more important role than other people in the Church? But love doesn’t allow you to be conceited or proud. And so it goes on… if you are showing love, you won’t be ill-mannered or selfish or irritable in your relations with other people. You won’t count other people’s wrongs; you’ll avoid evil and seek the truth; and you won’t ever give up on someone, not even the most annoying person in the congregation.

Paul says of love that ‘its faith, hope, and patience never fail’. And here is the key to love for Christians. It’s not a burden which is imposed upon us; it springs from our faith and our hope. Our faith is that in Jesus Christ, God showed incredible love to the world. The first letter of John, at chapter 4 and verse 14 is one of my favourites in the entire Bible; it says, ‘We love because God first loved us’. This is telling us not that loving others is not a burden, but a possibility because of what God in Christ has done for us. God loved me first; if we can plumb the depths of that statement, understand what it means for us personally, then we can begin to live lives of love which reflect our hope and our faith in the God who first loved us.

And then we are on our way- as individuals, and as a Christian congregation- towards what we might call a Christian maturity. Love is what is really eternal, says Paul; everything else, even faith and knowledge and preaching, is all temporary. It is not true that great preaching will build up the Church, or that a successful Church will have a huge range of programmes serving the community run by a highly-comitted force of volunteers who give up everything for it. A truly Christian Church is not even one which gets all its doctrine correct in every detail. When we think that, says Paul, we are thinking like children. But, ‘now that I have grown up, I have no more use for childish ways’. Or we are seeing things in a very hazy distorted mirror, only partially. He calls on the Corinthians to grow up, to try to see things as God sees things. When we do so, we understand that what is really important in the Christian life are faith, hope and love: ‘and the greatest of these is love’.

Ascription of Praise
To the only God,
who alone is all-wise,
be glory through Jesus Christ for ever! Amen!

Romans 16.27

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo