Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 31, 2016

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Commentary

For this 4th Sunday after Epiphany, the lectionary returns for a 3rd time in a row to Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, particularly this section focused on the divisions in that church created by their abuse of spiritual gifts. Having emphasized that all the gifts come from the same Spirit for the common good and that these wildly diverse Christians are part of the one Body of Christ, Paul increases the intensity of his appeal for unity with this introduction to his famous hymn to love: “And now I will show you a more excellent way.” What follows is, indeed, excellent. I agree with Leon Morris, who concludes his comments on I Corinthians 13 with these words: “The commentator cannot finish writing on this chapter without a sense that clumsy hands have touched a thing of exquisite beauty and holiness.”

With my clumsy hands, I’m going to turn this exquisite gem in a variety of ways. Emily Dickinson said, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” I’m going to suggest five different slants or angles you might take when you preach this text. I suggest you pick the angle that best fits the needs of your church at this time in its history.

If your church is struggling with the same kind of divisions as the church in Corinth, you might preach on I Corinthians 13 in exactly the way Paul intended it. After an entire chapter on gifts given by the Spirit, Paul turns to something more important, namely, the fruit of love produced by that same Spirit. Some commentators make the mistake of calling love another gift, but it manifestly is not a gift. It is the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). That’s important because Paul says that not everyone has the same gifts, and that’s OK. Indeed, it is the will of the Triune God that gifts are disparately distributed. But it is also the will of the Triune God that every Christian manifest all the fruit of the Spirit.

Love is more important than prophecy or knowledge or tongues, says Paul. Indeed, you can be immensely gifted, but if you don’t use your gifts in love, you and your gifts will amount to nothing in promoting the growth of the church and the coming of the Kingdom. In verses 1-3 Paul uses hyperbole to emphasize the excellence of love. “If I speak [not only] in the tongues of men and [even of] angels, but have not love, I’m just a noisemaker.” If I have such a prophetic gift that I “understand [not just some, but] all mysteries and all [again, note the universal] knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.” And so he continues to the extreme of martyrdom; “if I surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Now it must be said that those last words of verse 3 are very difficult to translate, but the idea seems clear. No matter what you do in the church, no matter what gift you use in ministry, no matter how much of yourself you devote to God, if you don’t do it in love, it amounts to nothing at all. Love is the more excellent way than gifts and service and, even, sacrifice. So stop arguing about gifts and ministry, and love each other. That’s one way to preach this text, as a powerful call to unity based in love.

Or you can focus on the nature of this love to which Paul calls the church. I would emphasize those last two words, “the church.” Paul did not write I Corinthians 13 for weddings, though it does apply there nicely. I’ve used it there, and so have you. But it is not addressed to a husband and a wife; it is addressed to the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ that is not acting in a loving fashion. Accordingly, Paul is not talking about eros, the kind of romantic, even sexual love that is uppermost in the minds of a young bride and groom. Nor is he talking about philos, the kind of sentimental, warm-hearted family love that flows around the Thanksgiving table and the Christmas tree. He is talking about agape, the kind of sacrificial love that led God to send his only begotten Son so that sinners who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Paul isn’t calling members of Christ’s Body to feel passionately about each other or even to like each other. He is calling us to act in a self-sacrificing way toward people who aren’t nice to us and whom we may not like one bit.

All of the lovely poetry in verses 4-7 is designed to show a divided church how agape love looks and acts. I emphasize “show,” as opposed to “tell.” Paul doesn’t give a definition with a few words; he paints a picture with a full pallet of words (16 in all). It is a verbal picture, that is, a picture that focuses on verbs. That is, Paul tells us what love does, not how it feels.

If you decide to approach the text from this angle, be sure to exegete these 16 descriptive words very carefully. They mean more and sometimes other than we think. “Love is patient,” for example, does not mean that love waits for things to turn out; it means that love is patient with people who have hurt you. The Greek is macrothumei, which has to do with being slow to avenge injury. Love is forbearing with those who have offended you. And not just patient, but even kind. Love doesn’t just put up with hurtful people; it is actually kind to them.

Or take the rest of verse 4, “love does not envy, or boast, and it is not proud.” The words are so evocative. Envy is resenting what another has or is, while boasting is crowing about what you have or are. And “proud” is phusioutai in the Greek, a word that refers to blowing or puffing or inflating. Love is not puffed up with itself. Lovers are not blowhards. Love does not walk around with an inflated sense of its own worth.

I could go on and on about the importance of parsing these words carefully, but let me close with one more example. In verse 5, “love is not easily angered.” Paul doesn’t say that love never gets angry. There is a place for righteous anger in the face of gross injustice. Love should get angry where sin ruins God’s creation, particularly the pinnacle of that creation, the human race. How often does the Bible say that our loving God is angry with the depredations of sin? But love is not easily angered; it isn’t irritable or touchy or explosive, ready to fight or argue at the drop of a word. With careful work, there is much fertile soil here in which a preacher can plant the seed of real agape. Too often the church acts just like the world, and this text gives us a plethora of powerful words to call Christians back to their true selves, namely, people in whom the Spirit is producing the fruit of love.

Another angle on this text might focus on the mysterious language of verses 8-13. In demonstrating that love is more important than any gift, he begins with a simple statement, “love never fails.” That is followed by the claim that the gifts will fail, whether they are the spectacular gifts so prized by some of Corinthians (tongues) or the “ordinary” gifts emphasized by Paul (prophecy). There will be no need for tongues or prophecy or special knowledge in that day when we meet God face to face. There will always be a need for love, and even faith (in the sense of trust) and hope (in the sense of faith leaning forward into God’s good future in the new heaven and the new earth). That is pretty clear, but then things get mysterious.

You could preach an interesting sermon on verses 9-12, where Paul focuses on the imperfection of what we have and know and see. Even though they come from the very Spirit of Christ, the gifts we have been given do not give us perfect knowledge. Even with the gift of knowledge, we only know in part. Even though God has given us the gift of prophecy, we are always only partly right about God and his will.

Then to drive home the limitations of even the most gifted person, Paul uses two examples—a child and a mirror. We are all like children, especially these battling Corinthians (cf. 14:20). Children think they know everything. Witness my brilliant 10 year old grandson, who has memorized almost every basketball statistic possible. But even the most intellectually gifted child is still a child. And, implies Paul, so are all of you. So stop your childish know-it-all arguing.

What you think you see so clearly is really just an indistinct reflection of the real thing, the kind of image you see when you glance into the imperfect polished metal mirrors for which Corinth was famous. What you see reflected in that mirror is not the real thing in all its beauty. One day we will see face to face and we will know as completely as we are now known. For now, it is important for the unity of the church that all Christians confess the limitations of our knowledge. We think like children, we see indistinctly, so we know only in part.

This is not a call to agnosticism. It is a call to humility. More than that, it is a call to let love dominate our interactions in the church– not our version of the truth, not our carefully constructed doctrinal formulations, not our rock solid certainty that we are right, but agape. Again, let’s not go overboard here and fall into the trap of saying that we don’t really know anything about God. Let’s instead live in love, as we see it write large in the love of God that sent his Son.

That leads us to the fourth slant on this text. You could preach verses 4-7 as a portrait of Christ. Just before he left his disciples for the cross, Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) We don’t know what Jesus looked like physically, but we do know what he looked like spiritually. He was love incarnate, and the characteristics of love in these verses will help you paint a vivid spiritual portrait of Christ. I would suggest finding episodes in the life of Jesus that illustrate each of the sixteen words Paul uses to describe agapic love. You probably don’t want a sermon with 16 points; I was once reduced to a near coma by a 12 point sermon. Perhaps a better approach would be a series on the love of Christ as portrayed in these verses. Such a sermon/series might help Christians to love Jesus more.

Or, finally, you could preach an Epiphany sermon on this text. How does Christ manifest his glory in a dark and skeptical world? It is through the church. But what is it about the church that best shows the reality of the Risen Jesus? Some think it is the church’s relevance to the needs of the day, while others emphasize the church’s purity, either in holy rigor or in correct doctrine. The Corinthians wanted to focus on spiritual gifts and the ministry that used those gifts. But as important as relevance and purity and ministry are, Paul says there is a “more excellent way” to make Christ known. It is the way of love. Without love, relevance and purity and ministry might make the world a better place, but those things won’t lead anyone to the love of Christ.

A number of years ago, I was privileged to travel to Cuba to visit a tiny sister denomination, the Christian Reformed Church of Cuba. Under Castro’s nose, this little band of Christians was thriving. In fact, they had just built a beautiful new church building. As Rev. Erilio Martinez showed us through this yellow stucco, white tiled edifice, we asked if this building would attract people to Christ. He said, “No. It might get them here once or twice. But they won’t come to Christ because of this building.” I asked if the preaching of Christ would do it. He said, “No, even that won’t do it. They won’t believe us unless we show them love.”

Then I thought of the way this little group of poor Christians loved their community. They had an outsized impact on their town, because they fed the poor, gave medicine to the clinic, visited the sick, helped educate the children, and did countless small acts of kindness to non-Christians. How can we show Christ to the world? “They won’t believe us, unless we show them love.” A church loving the world the way Christ loved the church—that is the clearest Epiphany of Christ today. Perhaps that’s why Paul opens I Corinthians 13 with these words, “I will show you a more excellent way.”

Illustration Idea

I met my wife in my first semester of college. By the time summer rolled around, we were deeply in love. But I had to go back home to Denver where I had a summer job waiting for me. She had to stay in Grand Rapids for her job. We would be apart for 3 long months. To help me remember her, she gave me an 8 by 10 color portrait of her. Whenever I would waver in my love or begin to forget what she looked like, I would look at that picture, remember how beautiful she was in every way, and fall back in love. That portrait saw me through a long and lonely summer. Many people carry pictures of their children or grandchildren to help them keep their loved ones in mind and heart. So we Christians need to keep a portrait of Christ before the eyes of our faith. A sermon on I Corinthians 13 that focuses on the beauty of Christ’s love might be just the thing your church needs to keep their “first love” and remain faithful.


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