Isaiah 43:1-7, I Corinthians 13
August 31, 2014
I’ve been thinking this week about I Corinthians 13. That’s a very familiar passage, isn’t it? It’s one that I’ve read, or I’ve heard read, at just about every wedding I’ve ever been to. And that’s good! Because it is about the best scripture there is for such an occasion, as well as being one of the best things ever written about the subject of love.
But I was thinking, as often as this passage is used at weddings, maybe we should think about it a little more on Sunday mornings. And the more I thought about that, the more I thought how great this chapter is, and how important it is for us and for the life of the Church, the more I thought, “Let’s do it!” So, here we go!
Well, the first thing I want to say about this chapter is how different it is from the rest of Paul’s letter. It’s so different that some scholars have suggested that it may even have been put here, in the body of this letter, by some mistake. Perhaps something got placed out of order in the original manuscript. Perhaps a page or a portion of some other scroll somehow got stuck in the middle of the pages of I Corinthians. Perhaps an editor somewhere got this chapter out of order. Such things are possible when you’re talking about ancient manuscripts. But in this case, I don’t think so.
The thing is, that the majority of this letter is written by Paul to help clarify some things about the faith, and to address some problems and some controversies they were experiencing in this young congregation in Corinth. So there are a lot of explanations in this book. There are a lot of “exhortations” – even a number of reprimands! And of course, some of these things we know about. But others we can only figure out from the answers Paul gives. As I’ve often said, reading these New Testament letters is like listening to someone talking on the phone. You don’t hear the person on the other end. You can only figure out what they’re saying by how the person on your end is responding.
So here we have all these explanations and all this practical advice. And then, in the middle of all that, we have this wonderful discourse, this inspirational piece about the meaning of love. And not only do I think this is not out of place, I think it is perfectly appropriate right here at this place, in this letter! Because I can picture Paul working feverishly, trying to address all these concerns, carefully wording his answers and his challenges. But then I can see him pausing, putting down his pen, thinking a little bit, and then writing, “Look, all the answers I’m giving you, all solutions I’m suggesting to your problems, are not worth the paper they’re written on – they’re not going to work! – if you don’t understand this one important thing!” “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…”
You see, this passage is not just for weddings! It’s just as important for our lives together in God’s kingdom! It’s important for our families. It’s important for our friendships. It’s important for the life and conduct of the Church! Because what Paul is really saying here is that we can have perfect doctrine and theology, we can have the greatest understanding of the world, we can know everything there is to know about the faith and about interacting with others in a congregation, but if we have not love, it is all nothing!!
Do you see how important this really is? I completely agree with Paul! And I hope you do, too! And with that in mind, let’s think about the love he was writing about.
First of all, let me say love is one of the most misunderstood words in our language! If you look at this chapter, you’ll find that nothing Paul says here has to do with feelings. That’s because love is not a feeling! Yes, love has wonderful feelings associated with it! But contrary to the popular understanding, love is not a feeling! Otherwise, when Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” it would have made no sense. Think about that. Did he mean that we were to develop some kind of warm feelings for “enemies?” No. Because that’s not what he was saying.
You see, Boston was right – sort of! Do you remember the ‘70’s band Boston? My kids and I saw them in concert when I was with them in KC. One of their big hit songs was “More than a feeling.” Now of course what they meant was that it was “more than just a regular feeling.” It’s more of a feeling than we ever imagined it to be! But even that is not what we’re talking about here. Because, at it’s essence, love is not a feeling! Again, love has wonderful feelings associated with it, and sometimes they are “more than a feeling!” But the true nature of love is a choice of actions toward another person. Let me say that again. Love is a choice of actions toward another person. As Paul tells us here, it is the choice to be patient and kind with one another. And notice it’s not a matter of “I’m not a patient or a kind person.” It’s the choice to be so! It is the choice not to be jealous or boastful, not to be arrogant or rude. It is the choice not to insist on one’s own way, not to be irritable or resentful, not to “rejoice in the wrong but to rejoice in the right.” Or, in our modern parlance, it is the choice not to say, “I told you so!”
Do you see? You can choose to treat someone like that, with respect, even though you may not agree with them, even though they may be your “enemy” in some way! You may not like someone, you may not have been treated very well by someone, but that doesn’t let you “off the hook” on loving them! You can still choose to treat them with respect, and you are called by God to do so!
Now, how many think that’s easy? (Hands?) How many think it gets easier the more we practice doing it? It does that, though that practice can be tough. But it is what we are called to do. Look what Jesus said about it. “If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?” Big deal! “Even the tax collectors do that!” “And if you are kind only to your brethren, (and your sisteren) what more are you doing than anyone else.” So what! “Do not even the Gentiles do the same!” (Matthew 5:46-48) And isn’t it interesting how Jesus used, as examples of this very thing, those who were considered “legitimate” for the people to “hate!” He was a master at using irony and hyperbole to get at what was in people’s hearts!
So, as we begin to wrap this up today, I’d like us to think about these choices Paul is asking us to make. Here in verses four through seven, he’s giving us specific, practical choices of how we are to act toward others – friends, enemies… even family!! (Oooh no! Not family!!!) Here again is what Paul writes, “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Once again, those are all choice based things, aren’t they? So, how about it? How do you measure up? I’ve heard it said once that we should take that passage and substitute our name where we see the word “love.” In other words, read it “Bob (or whatever your name is) is patient and kind. Bob is not jealous or boastful. Bob is not arrogant or rude. Etc…” Do you get it? Did you ever hear that before? You can simplify that by substituting the word “I.” “I am patient and kind. I am not jealous or boastful. Etc…” Maybe you’ve tried that before.
Well, I’d like to suggest something slightly different for today. I’d like to suggest a way for this to be proactive in the way we use this passage. “Pro-action” is making choices ahead of time to do something. So, I’d like to suggest you take this passage and substitute “I” for “love,” but in the future tense. So it would read like this:
“I will be patient and kind. I will not be jealous or boastful. I will not be arrogant or rude. I will not insist on my own way. I will not be irritable or resentful. I will not rejoice at wrong, but I will rejoice in the right. I will bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.”
Do you get that? Wouldn’t that be a helpful way to think about this choice of Love? Would it be helpful if you had those words to look at every day as a reminder of how you “will choose to treat” other people? [Ok, then! Here you are!] (Just do me a favor and don’t take this all the way to the end and say, “The greatest of these is me!”)
So take these home. Put them on your refrigerators. Look at them every day. Make the choice to make those choices throughout the day, and then maybe, at the end of the day, see how you did. Remember that you are being transformed into the image of Christ. That’s a hard thing! But this is one practical way of seeing that happen! If you want to be like God, love the way God loves!
Eternal God, we know you love us with a love we cannot begin to imagine. You choose to love us, even when we don’t deserve it. Help us to do the same. Help us to grow in our ability to love the way you love. Help us to see the true joy in that kind of living. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, and through the power of your Holy Spirit living within us. Amen!