God’s Greatest Gift, Modeled For You

1Corinthians 13

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / December 21, 2003


            Each winter, for the last few years, Allie and I have driven to Florida. And, each year, we make adjustments, attempting to find the best route to take. We know that the I-95 is the shortest, but it is not always the best route. Typically, the I-75 route has less construction and better weather. So, each year, by looking at our CAA ‘trip-tick’, and by watching the weather channel in advance of our trip, we attempt to determine the best way to get to South Florida.


            It is likely that some of you have done the same in your travels. Nobody likes to be inefficient. I think only cab drivers would look for the longest, and most time-consuming, way to get from A to B. Most of us, I suspect, want to do things in the best way possible.


            As the apostle Paul concludes chapter 12, he tells the Corinthians to “desire the greater gifts”, but then he also says, “and yet I show you a more excellent way” (12:31). Paul had previously explained the purpose of spiritual gifts, how they were given by God to be used for the benefit of the church (12:7). And now, in chapter 13, Paul wants them to consider the manner, he wants them to consider the best way to exercise their spiritual gifts.


            I recognize that 1Corinthians 13 is an eminently familiar chapter of Scripture, yet, so often we read this chapter, or hear it read, detached from the context of the rest of Paul’s letter. Are the words of 1Corinthians 13 appropriate to be read at a wedding? Sure they are. These are noble words; these are helpful words of counsel. What we must understand, however, is that these words were given by Paul to be applied to a local church.


            It may be that these words help a husband to love his wife. These words may help a sister to get along better with her brother. Yet, we must bear in mind that Paul intends a much narrower application for his instruction; Paul wants love to be the binding force within the local church.


            First, we must say something about the word love, which comes from the Greek, agape. You may be aware that, previous to the New Testament, the word agape was not in common use. It is fitting that this Greek word would be employed to demonstrate that God’s love transcends the ordinary meaning of love. And, the King James translation, which is an excellent translation, does not help us here by choosing “charity” as the translation of agape. Although there is a charitable aspect to agape love, it is much more than that.


            In my mind, the best characterization of agape that I have come across is from New Testament scholar, Leon Morris, who writes, “It is a love lavished on others without a thought of whether they are worthy to receive it or not. It proceeds rather from the nature of the lover, than from any merit in the beloved.”


            This definition distinguishes agape love from what we would normally regard as love. Friends, let’s be honest, we are prone to love those who are loveable. And, in one sense, that is quite normal and acceptable. We would not want a woman to accept a marriage proposal as a charitable gesture to the man who proposes. It is appropriate that a man and a woman would expect to gain something from a marriage relationship. It is appropriate that the man look for merit in his would-be wife, and that the woman look for merit in her would-be husband, before they decide to marry.


            And while this approach to love is appropriate for those looking to marry, it is not how Paul frames the Christian approach to love in the context of the local church. For the Christian, love is to be lavished on others without a thought of whether they are worthy to receive it or not.


            Now, with the understanding that agape love differs from our normal understanding of the word love, we need to recognize how necessary it is for the Christian to possess, and practice this agape love.


            Paul begins the chapter by suggesting that without love, we offend others. He writes, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (13:1).


            In the 1st Century, gongs and cymbals were used by many of the pagan religions. The gong was a giant piece of copper and the cymbal was a single-toned instrument incapable of producing a melody. These instruments were employed by pagan religions, not because they sounded nice, but rather, because of the boisterous monotone they could produce.


            Paul’s message is that we might have a plethora of prominent spiritual gifts, but if we lack this one thing—if we lack love—our conduct will be offensive to others like the noise of a gong and cymbal.


            Without love, we offend others, is Paul’s first point. Paul’s second point is that, without love we are nothing. Paul writes, “if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2).


            Bryn MacPhail might be commended for preaching a decent sermon, he may be commended for his grasp of systematic theology, he may be competent with a computer, and he may be a skilled administrator, but if he lacks love, then he is not a good minister. Even worse, Paul says, if I “do not have love, I am nothing.


            You may have served, or may be presently serving, this congregation in various ways. You may be an usher, you may teach Church School, you may be a member of the choir, you may be on Session or on a Session committee, but if you do not have agape love, there is a problem. If we lack the willingness to love every member of this church, we have a problem.  (If I) do not love”, Paul says, “I am nothing.


Our spiritual resume may be rich. We may have many responsibilities within this church, but if we are lacking in our ability to love, we are lacking a most important thing.


And, not only are we missing something we should have when we are lacking in love, but we are also missing what we could have if our manner was saturated with love. Paul writes, “If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (13:3). The implication here is that there is a reward to be had, but without love we will not receive a reward.


Beloved, we want our ‘good deeds’ to count for something and, above all, we want God to be pleased. The author of Hebrews calls God the “rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). The apostle John, recording the words of Jesus, writes, “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12).


The Lord Jesus Christ intends on rewarding our service, but Paul warns, “(If I) do not have love, it profits me nothing” to do these things.


The apostle spends the duration of the chapter describing this love we must have: “Love is patient, love is kind, (love) is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, love does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; (love) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all thing, endures all things.” (13:4-7).


It is interesting that, in describing love, Paul uses verbs and, in doing so, he teaches us that a loving person behaves in a certain way. And the verbs Paul uses are all in the present tense, denoting actions and attitudes, which should be habitual and ongoing.


Now, let’s ask ourselves the question: Does this passage describe the way we love others? Could we substitute the word ‘love’ with our own name? I sure couldn’t. Bryn MacPhail isn’t very patient. I suppose I’m kind sometimes, depending on the person and the circumstances. But kind always, and to every person? Not a chance. Is Bryn ever provoked? I’m afraid I am. And I’m afraid I don’t easily forget when I’ve been wronged.


On the one hand I confess that I do not love as I ought to love, but on the other hand I realize that I must still strive for this kind of love—agape love. Because without this love, I am offensive, without this love I am nothing, without this love I forfeit my reward.


What am I to do? What are you to do? Take note of this:  These 4 verses describe perfectly our Lord Jesus Christ. You can very easily substitute the word ‘love’ with ‘Jesus’. If we want the term love defined, if we want to know what agape means, we need look no further than the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible says that “God is love” (1Jn. 4:16). What this means then is that the birth of Jesus is not simply the Incarnation of the Son of God, but the birth of Jesus is also the Incarnation of love.


The key then, to loving one another is inescapably bound to our union with Christ. Our ability to love, our ability to agape, as we should is tied to whether or not we are following Jesus.


And not only is our ability to love founded in Christ, but also, our obligation to love, is founded in Christ. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1Jn. 4:11). And, if we love Christ, we must also love His church and people.


This is Paul’s message to the Corinthians and, this morning, this is my message to you. If ever there was a time of the year to emphasize love, it is now. And, if ever there were a group of people that needed to love one another, it is those who belong to the church of Jesus Christ.


May we sing, not only with our voices, but also with our lives, “the wonders of His love”. Amen.