Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Sermon: What's love got to do with it? (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

When we come to 1 Corinthians 13, we’re on familiar ground or so we think. It’s a Bible passage that we’ve probably heard lots of times before. It’s read at weddings. It’s read at funerals - among them that of Princess Diana. And once we hear the opening words, ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels...’ we know that we’re in the love chapter. You may have a particular memory or some emotional resonance as we revisit Paul’s words.

But just as a paratrooper has to find his bearings when he parachutes into even familiar territory, so we need to work out where we are in this letter of Paul to the Corinthians. We haven’t worked our way through it, instead we’ve landed in the middle of the letter. To understand our chapter, we need to see it in the context of the letter.

If you’ve ever read through 1 Corinthians, you’ll know that the church in Corinth was in a mess. And I don’t mean that their meeting place was a bit dusty or a bit through-other. The church was in a mess, with divisions, and quarrelling - about which leader was the best, and who the different factions were following. They were big on boasting, and thought that they were super spiritual. Yet there were problems with taking one another to court and ignoring (and celebrating) sexual immorality within the church. Their communion services were chaotic; and they were seriously split on the issue of spiritual gifts.

It’s into this church context that Paul writes his letter, answering some of their questions and trying to sort out some of the false teaching and dodgy practices that were going on. It’s not that Paul was writing and then thought to himself - oh, I’ve got to chapter 13, I’d better write something to give a warm fuzzy feeling when it’s read out at weddings. In fact, he’s not even thinking about the love between a man and a woman in marriage.

Chapter 13 comes in between chapters 12 and 14. I know that’s not new - 13 always comes between 12 and 14. But chapter 13 is like the burger in the bap as Paul addresses the issue of spiritual gifts. You see, the Corinthians were caught up in the desire to have the showy, spectacular, upfront spiritual gifts - speaking in tongues and prophecy - so that everyone else would look at them and honour them. The Corinthians were all about ‘look at me!’
Paul writes about love here because love is the thing that has been lacking in the Corinthian church. When this chapter was read out for the very first time, they weren’t getting warm fuzzies. They were hearing the rebuke of the apostle Paul, calling them to return to the way of love, rather than the way of selfish showy spiritual gifts.

On A Question of Sport they have the round: what happens next? They show a clip and you have to guess what happens next. As the chapter is begun, how do you think the Corinthians would have filled in the blank? ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels...’ well done? I wish I was like you? Way to go, everyone else should respect you?

‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.’ ding ding ding ding ding ding. There’s a lot of noise, but no love. Well maybe he’ll think better of those with prophetic powers, or faith to move mountains? All worthless. All pointless. Give away everything (in order to look good) - you’ll gain nothing.

Even these first verses this evening are a bit of a shock to us, aren’t they? We might not rate speaking in tongues, but put in there the thing that you value; the thing that you think most important; the unique contribution that you do in this church family. And Paul says that that thing, that gift, no matter how important, if it doesn’t come from a heart of love, is pointless. It might look good on the surface, but the motivation is what is key.

Paul is calling them, and us, to get back to love. It is, as he says at the very end of chapter 12. ‘a still more excellent way’. As the chapter goes on, there’s another way of filling in the blanks. Love is... but am I patient and kind? We realise how far short we fall. We realise that we aren’t like this. Yet the good news is that Paul is pointing us to a portrait of love. He’s showing us what we could be like by pointing us to the one who was like this. The One who is patient and kind, the One who is love.

Each week, as we consider what love is like, we’ll see what Jesus is like. You see, Jesus was asked what love for neighbour is all about. The lawyer had asked the question - what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Between them, they agree that the summary of the whole Law is this: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s it - do this and you’ll live.

The lawyer thinks he’s in with a chance of doing this. After all, if you only have to love God and love your neighbour, and if your neighbour is only the people who live on either side of you, and you get on reasonably well with Mr and Mrs Smith in 24 and Mr and Mrs Jones in 28, then you might just be able to work your own way into heaven. So he risks the question, ‘desiring to justify himself’ (29) ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Who is it I have to love? How far do I need to go?

Jesus tells the famous story about the man going along from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. But he’s in luck. A priest is coming along the road. Surely he’ll help him? But no, the priest hurries on. Next, along comes a Levite. He also helps in the temple, he’s also religious, perhaps he’ll help. But no, the Levite hurries on. The priest and the Levite were both out for themselves, not worrying about one of their own in need.

Along comes a Samaritan. He’s different, in all sorts of ways. He is the enemy. He’s hated. But he’s also different, because he has compassion on the man. Binds up his wounds. Pours on oil and wine. Brings him to an inn. Cares for him. Pays for all he’ll need to get back to health.

So which of the three was a neighbour to the man? It’s not a hard question, but the answer may well have stuck in the lawyer’s throat. We have a picture of love, of mercy and compassion. The man put others ahead of himself, loved and cared for him, and put himself out to help.

This is the standard of love we’re called to - to love God with everything we are and have; and to love our neighbour to the same extent that we love ourselves. Do it and live? It doesn’t take long before we realise it’s impossible. We simply don’t love others or God the way we love ourselves and put ourselves first.

But the Lord Jesus has come along, entered our world, and demonstrated his love to us. He perfectly loved God and loved us, as he gave all he had to care for us, to bind our wounds (by being wounded himself), and bring us, not to an inn, but to his own home forever.

His love should change our love. We can’t live for ourselves alone any more. The church cannot be a place where we bang our own clanging cymbals and point to ourselves. Instead, we’re called to belong and to build up. What’s love got to do with it? Everything, because without love, we are nothing. As we see Jesus’ love, so may we grow in love for him, and for one another. Amen.

This sermon was preached as the first in the series 'A Portrait of Love' on Ash Wednesday 5th March 2014 in Aghavea Parish Church.

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