A sermon on 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 by Nathan Nettleton, 28 January 2007
God is love, and so love is the only real measure of spiritual maturity or accomplishment.
I met the other day with the little sub-committee that is finalising the details of our new church leadership policy before the congregational meeting next month. As many of you will know, this policy will see our present church council replaced by a new Pastoral Council with less responsibility for administrative tasks and more responsibility for spiritual leadership, vision and direction. One of the things this change means is that members of the Council will no longer be chosen because of their ability to perform a particular administrative task, but because they are the sort of people who can lead us in becoming the people God is calling us to be. So one of the things the sub-committee is wrestling with is how to describe the sort of qualities we need on the Council.
In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul talks a lot about spiritual leadership and spiritual gifts. Last Sunday we heard a long extract in which he was talking about how every member of the church has a gift and every member and their gift are important. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you', nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you,'" and all that. And despite his emphasis on the importance of all the gifts, he ended that discussion with a kind of hierarchy of the significance of various gifts, and encourages us to strive for the "greater" gifts. Just after that came a little sentence that is very very important, but frequently overlooked. We overlook it because it ties last week's reading and this week's reading together, but we so often hear them separately that we miss the link. This week's extract is, of course, extremely well known. If Paul's publisher were to put out a volume of "Paul's Greatest Hits", 1 Corinthians 13 would choose itself. Unfortunately, though, we most often hear it in contexts that obscure its message. It is number one on the wedding hit parade, and in that context, "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love,"comes to mean "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have a special person who is the love of my life." Paul's hymn to love gets morphed into just another ode to the joys of having that special someone to hold. And that is very definitely NOT what it is about. It is not opposing that; it's just got stuff-all to do with it.
So to get our heads around what Paul is actually saying, we need to go back half a verse, and find that little lost sentence that ties this week's extract to last week's. The previous chapter had begun with Paul saying, "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed." Then there was all the stuff about how everyone is given a different gifts from the same Spirit for the benefit of the whole body, and the stuff about the importance of everyone and their various gifts. Then there was the list of important gifts, and the encouragement to strive for them. And then comes our little lost link: "And I will show you a still more excellent way." Doesn't sound like much on its own, but hear it as it ties the two parts together: "Strive for the greater gifts, by all means, but I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. ... Love is patient; love is kind; ... Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends", unlike all those gifts which will all come to an end.
A still more excellent way. Can you hear what he is saying? We mostly tend to think about what gifts we and others have. We note that this person is gifted in this, and another person is gifted in that. We often get trapped into doing it comparatively, often at our own expense. That person is so much more gifted in this area than I am. If only I had the sort of gifts that person has; then I might be of some use to God and the church. In thinking about who might be the right sort of person to serve on our Pastoral Council, we can easily start weighing up their gifts. "This person runs a successful business, they'd be good. That person is a confident public speaker, we should choose them." But, says Paul, I will show you a still more excellent way. And to a large extent, what he is saying is that gifts don't matter very much when it comes to assessing your spiritual maturity. Everybody has gifts, they all matter, and they don't really tell you anything important about the person. It's the same as saying you can't tell anything about the merits of a person by tallying up the value of the Christmas presents they received. Gifts are gifts, and they don't make you who you are.
But love is different. To be a person who loves is not a gift that can be given you. It is something that is cultivated and grown in you. Love comes from the core of your being, and the extent of your love reveals who you really are. God is love. That is the most significant one word summary of the nature of God in the Bible; God is love. And so the more like God any person becomes, the more that love will be their obvious defining characteristic. Receiving the gift of tongues or the gift of reckless faith does not make you more like God. It is love that reveals what is God-like in you. And so after all his concern that we not be uninformed about spiritual gifts, the Apostle Paul now launches into this great hymn to love and relegates the spiritual gifts to a very much secondary significance.
If I am a wonderfully gifted preacher, or writer or poet, whose words move and inspire people and are quoted and perhaps even awarded, but I am not someone who loves, I am a noisy gong or a blast of static. All my words will count for nothing, and even if the church makes the mistake of putting me up on a pedestal, God will weep over my failure to do the one thing that really matters: to love. To love God and to love others; to love even those who set themselves up as my enemies.
And if I have prophetic powers and knowledge; if I can see to the heart of things and offer a devastating critique of the way the values of our society and the actions of government and industry are marginalising the needy and destroying the social and ecological fabric of the planet; and even if my prophetic critique inspires a grassroots movement of change and really turns things around, if I do not love, really love, love not just those who I find attractive and fun but those who are hard to love, then all my accomplishments amount to nothing. And even if the church hails me as the greatest prophet of my generation and puts me on its A-list speaking circuit, God will be weeping over my failure to become the one thing that really mattered: a person of love.
And if I cultivate the most impressive range of socially and politically conscious virtues; if I have a grey water bucket in my shower and a 'Make Poverty History' band on each wrist; if I voluntarily live on the equivalent of the dole and give the rest of my income to worthy causes; if I sponsor twenty African children and serve meals at the homeless shelter every week; if I only eat organically grown food and regularly ring my local MP to lobby on behalf of asylum seekers and I've been arrested several times for symbolic action protests at military facilities; if I do all these things consistently for years, but do not simultaneously grow in my ability to generously love even those who do none of these things and even those who think I'm wrong and that such things shouldn't be done; if I become more and more pure but not more and more extravagantly loving, then I have remained part of the problem and contributed almost nothing to the solution.
And if I am faithfully at church every week, even when it means missing the tennis final, and I set up the chairs, and make soup, and weed the garden, and attend a home group, and pray the daily prayers, and help out at the workshops, and volunteer for absolutely everything, if I become resentful of those who don't pull their weight, instead of growing in my capacity to love them and delight in serving them even when they take advantage of me, then all my diligence is wasted and I have missed the point. I have missed the still more excellent way. I have invested in that which will pass away and not in that which is forever.
Love is the only name of the game. Love is not in a hurry. Love wants what is best for the other person. Love does not begrudge them their successes, or glory in being better than them. Love is not pushy or demanding or belittling. Love is willing to step aside and let others do it their way. Love is not always getting its nose out of joint or getting bitter over the attention shown to others. Love hangs in there through thick and thin. Love is always ready to give people the benefit of the doubt and take a chance on them. Love keeps believing that the best is yet to come. Love cannot be snuffed out, no matter what you hit it with.
God is love, and in the end, only love matters. Now we know very little, but when we come to know ourselves as fully known, as known by God, known in the depths of our being, then we will know ourselves known by love, we will know ourselves loved, we will know love. Then we will love in all its fullness, and love never ends. All these other things will pass away. But love is what we have come to know in Christ Jesus; love is what we have been shown of God. God is love, and those who belong to God are transformed in the image of that love. And nothing else matters. Everything else will fall away, and love alone remains.