I suppose you all may be wondering if I had to get a special dispensation from the Commissariat of Public Bible Reading in order to be allowed to read 1 Corinthians 13 at an event that is NOT a wedding. The answer to that question is, “No, I did not.” I’m one of those stiff-necked Presbyterians who cares nothing for ecclesial authorities other that presbyteries and general assemblies. And honestly, I’ve reached such a state of grumpy old age that I’m not sure I care all that much about presbyteries and general assemblies. Though. . . I’d appreciate it if you’d keep that to yourselves. I wouldn’t really want word of my grumpy rebelliousness to get back to any official presbytery types. My life is complicated enough as it is.
What was I talking about? Oh, yes – 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s be clear right up front. First Corinthians 13 is not really about weddings or even about marriage. It is, though most certainly about love, and it is about mission and ministry.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that folks have a general tendency to think of this “love” passage here in 1 Corinthians as being warm and fuzzy and sweet. And the reason folks tend to think that is because we almost only ever hear this passage read in the context of weddings, when we are already predisposed to feel warm, fuzzy, sweet sentiments.
But if you can manage, as I am trying to do here, to wrench this passage out of the wedding context, where, honestly it doesn’t really belong. And if you simply read the words of that Paul writes here in the context in which they rightly belong, you will soon realize that what Paul actually does have to say here is quite bracing and really kind of confrontational.
First Corinthians 13, comes, obviously right after 1 Corinthians 12. (You could figure that out, right?) And what is 1 Corinthians 12 about? It’s about the body of Christ – it’s about the Church. It’s also about the gifts of the Spirit. That is, it’s about the mission and ministry of the Church. Can we say it’s about the programs and activities of the Church? I think so.
Ministry and Mission of the Church
Anyway, I think we can say that in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul writes about the Church’s ministry and mission in the world — about outreach and evangelism, about making disciples and building them up to maturity, about caring for people in need, about a whole variety of ministry activities that the Spirit of God equips the people to do. In other words, 1 Corinthians 12 is about the active work of the Church in the world.
From what we can learn about the Corinthian church from 1 & 2 Corinthians and from what Luke tells us in Acts, the church in Corinth was big and very active. The gifts of the Spirit were very evident among them. They were a growing, busy church operation, a place with programs and ministries of all sorts. Clearly, Paul wanted to make sure that they kept close to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in all of those ministry activities and mission programs, and so he gives them and us this rich, deep, and inspiring chapter – 1 Corinthians 12 – on the nature of the Church and of the ministry gifts of the Spirit.
Imagine it. As the letter was first read to those busy, active Corinthians church members, there they were enthralled by these details on how to grow your ministry using the gifts of the Spirit, furiously taking notes in their iPad -2000s. “This,” they say to each other, “this is the really good stuff.”
Then, after all that good, practical ministry stuff, Paul writes, “Yes, but now, I’m going to show you a better way, a much better way.” [Wright] What?!
“If I have all of that – active Spirit-empower and led programming – but don’t have love, it’s all worthless, empty.”
“How’s your church doing?”
You know, if you’re out and about, and you run into a friend who’s active in some other church, and you ask them, “How are things going at your church these days?” – I’m not talking so much about in these Covid-times – I just mean in general, ask an active church person how things are going at their church, they are likely to tell you about how many or how few young folks are coming out. Or they’ll tell you about how many or how few new members they’ve received. Or they’ll tell you how well or how poorly folks are supporting the budget. Or they’ll tell you how well or how poorly the pastor is managing things.
You know what you will sadly almost never hear? About how focused and driven their church is by love. You might hear about how “friendly” their church is. And let me just say that in my experience almost everyone says their church is friendly. But that is mainly because their church is full of their friends who are, of course, friendly to them. But I can tell you for sure that not all churches that call themselves friendly and welcoming are, in fact, friendly and welcoming.
But back to my point, friendly and welcoming – good as that is – is not the same thing as love. In fact, let me suggest that it’s possible to be friendly in a way that is almost exactly the opposite of love. Sometimes our friendliness and welcome for visitors is motivated not by a genuine love for them but by the desire to add to our church’s membership. Building your church’s membership has nothing much to do with love and a lot to do with ambition. We’ll come back to the topic of ambition in a few minutes.
What Is Love?
So then, what is love? This is a very important question. Jesus tells us that the heart of the law is love – loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Paul tells us that without love, nothing we do is worth anything. So, I think we’d better make it our highest business to know what love is, because Jesus and all of scripture insists that love is the heart of the matter.
Now, if I were going to preach a series of sermons instead of just one sermon, we’d work through a whole set of biblical passages and work out a broad biblical foundation for a definition of what scripture writers mean by “love”. Or we could all stay and work through it tonight over the next several hours. . . . No, let’s don’t do that! Let’s do a sort of short version, shall we?
In Romans 5:8, Paul offers a picture of love – Jesus. “But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The focus is on the needs of the other and then on the self-giving of the Lover who serves the one in need.
John the Apostle in the passage I read a little while ago, sings the same song. In 1 John 4:10 – “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The needs of the other, then the self-giving of the lover who serves the one in need.
Most of you are already thinking of other passages of scripture that fill out this foundation of Christian love. And you could shout them out, if we were Pentecostals. But we’re Presbyterians, and we don’t shout in church. But think of them anyway, and let them build your understanding of love from the Bible.
I’m going to give you a definition of love that I work with, one that grows from these passages of scripture. Love is a genuine commitment to actively seek the holistic well-being of the other. [REPEAT]
Let’s look at each of the parts of that definition. First, notice that I call love a “commitment” not an emotion or feeling. Fondness is not love. Fondness is fondness. Emotions can help us live out this commitment. Of course, emotions can also get in the way of our living out this commitment. Try loving someone you dislike, and you immediately find that your emotions will get in the way of love. And yet, we are called to love our enemies, those whom we dislike.
A commitment is a determination to do a thing regardless of how we feel about it. Love can very often mean living in a certain way even though we very definitely do not feel like doing that.
Also, love is not merely good intentions. Love is active. Love doesn’t merely mean well; love does well. James and John are both very insistent about that. Both are clear. If you see someone in need and do nothing, there is no love there. It is empty, a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Love is concerned with serving the well-being of the other. This is what the Bible means by “redemption.” God is redeeming this sin-sick and fallen world, which means he is re-establishing the utter well-being of all his people. Listen to how redemption is described in Revelation 21:4 – “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [this fallen order] [will have] passed away.”
Insofar as we can do it in this still fallen old order of things, that is what we are to seek to do in the life of the other. That is the aim – that’s the goal that love drives us to accomplish in the life of others – to accomplish their well-being as much as we are able.
And that is holistic. We are not just called to love souls. We are called to love whole human beings. God created whole human beings. We are to love them in every aspect of their being. Loving them means seeking their spiritual well-being – yes, to be sure. We bring them the gospel; we bring them new life in Christ. And we bring them food when they hunger, clothing when they are naked, friendship when they are outcast, justice when they are abused and oppressed. We love whole human beings, because God loves whole human beings.
Which human beings are we to love? All of them, period. We are to love our brothers and sisters. We are to love our friends. We are to love the stranger in the street. We are to love . . . our enemies. There are no exceptions.
We are called to seek the well-being of our enemies and those who persecute us, because that’s what Jesus did. If you don’t like that, take it up with Lord Jesus. Your beef is with him. If you can change his mind, let me know. In the meantime, we need to get on with loving everyone.
Love In Church Ministry
Okay, we’re here for the installation of a pastor to serve a local congregation. So let’s finish up here by coming back to 1 Corinthians 13. As I pointed out, 1 Corinthians 12 was all about church ministry – programs and activities, if you like, doing ministry in the local church. Then he says, but “let me show you a better way, a much better way.”
Love! Love! You can do all that fancy ministry – preaching, teaching, healing, miracles, even – but if there is no love, it is empty. It does not accomplish what God cares about in the way God cares about it.
We don’t – we must not start with programs and activities and ministries, and then try to add love to them as icing. Love is the starting point. Love is the soil out of which the ministries and programs and activities must grow.
The genuine commitment to the well-being of the people around us is where we start. Programs and ministries and activities have to grow out of our genuine commitment to seek the well-being of the people around us. What can we do to increase the well-being of those people over there and these people over here?
Ambition in Church Life
So much, so very much of what we do in our churches is about making our churches great. Paul doesn’t want anything to do with that. It’s just so much empty noise.
Pause a minute and think about this. So much, so embarrassingly much of what we do as churches grows not out of this love I’ve been talking about but rather out of ambition – ambition for our church. We do ministries because we want our churches to get bigger and have more members, because we want to have more young people, because we want to have finer buildings, because we want our church to be well-thought of in the community. None of that is about love really.
Listen! Forget about making this church great. This church and my church and that big church down the street – they will all pass away and be forgotten someday. These organizations we call local churches are not eternal.
Do everything for love, nothing but love. Do it for the well-being of the people around you. Live the redemption of God in this place. Nothing is greater – nothing is more excellent than God’s love made real and visible in the lives of his people. Make that your aim in everything.