A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13
Sunday, January 31, 2016 – Epiphany 4C
July 7, 1967 the Beatles released the single to their already popular hit, "All You Need Is Love." Written for a live television show which was broadcast in 26 countries and viewed by 350 million people, John Lennon wanted to send a message to the world. That message was simple: "Love is all anyone needs."
But what do you think? Were they right? Well, it depends. It depends on what you mean by love. "I love bacon." "I love my wife and kids." "I love the color blue." "I love God." But hopefully I mean something entirely different in each of the four ways I just used the word "love."
If John Lennon meant "a fuzzy feeling you get around someone else," that love just won't cut it. If he meant a self-sacrificing love that we have for each other and that we demonstrate in our actions, he would be closer to right, but still, as imperfect as that love of ours is, it won't cut it either. But, if John Lennon meant the love of Christ that he has for us sinners—a love so great that it took him to the cross to pay for our loveless actions—then he was right on. All any of us need is that love.
This morning we'll take a look at this Biblical concept of love—a love in action. We'll see how Jesus is revealed as love. He's revealed as love to us unloving sinners. He's revealed as love through us forgiven believers.
I. To Us Unloving Sinners
Out of Corinth, a city of commerce, culture and crudity, God called for himself a congregation of believers. And this congregation often reflected the wealthy and talented, but brawling city in which they lived. Though they were blessed with every spiritual gift (1:7) they weren't without their share of problems, even fighting over who had the greatest spiritual gifts. So, the apostle Paul set out to straighten things up. And he sat down to write.
In Chapter 12 of his first letter to these Corinthians, he took up the topic of spiritual gifts. With the analogy of the human body he reminded the Corinthians that they all needed each other no matter what their individual gifts were. They were a unit, a whole, many parts that all served the same body. He ends chapter 12 with these words…
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.
The Corinthians loved to boast about their gifts. But Paul reminded them where those gifts had come from. God had "appointed" them all no matter what their gift or position might be. And how they were abusing those gifts! To them, "different" meant "not as good as" when they were comparing the gifts of others with their own. It was an attitude that sought to use their gifts for their own glory, rather than for God's glory. It was an attitude Paul pointed out when he showed them how they ought to be acting…
Eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way. 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
If the Corinthians wanted to be great, they should have been using their gifts to love others. Boasting about their gifts to gain honor or glory for themselves, or using their gifts to serve themselves alone, was about as fitting to the church as a clanging symbol out of rhythm is to a symphony. If they knew everything there was to know, but in selfishness kept it to themselves, if they gave all they had away to the poor, but did it only so they would look or feel good, it was worthless. You see every act done for selfish reasons, is a sin. And for such selfish use of the gifts that God had given them they deserved to have those gifts stripped away. They deserved hell. But instead, they received God's love. They received it in Christ.
And friends, we're not really all that different from those Corinthians, are we? Look at all the blessings God has showered on us. Look at all the gifts he's given you. This room is not without its share of talents and abilities. You are all incredibly gifted by God—each in your own unique way!
But, how do we use those gifts? Too often we use them selfishly. We easily say, "I love God. I love Jesus for what he's done for me." But love—real love—is not just a luke-warm "I'm sort of glad he did what he did for me." No. It's an action. Listen to the way Paul defines love with action words.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
A pastor once suggested to me that these verses served as a great mirror. Hold them up to see how loving you've been. Take the word "love" and replace it with your name. "Rob is patient." No, not really. "Rob is kind." Sometimes, but not always to everyone. "Rob does not envy. He's happy with the gifts God's given." Well… no. "Rob does not boast, is not proud." Well, he's being humbled here pretty quickly. "Rob is not rude. Rob is not self-seeking." Failed, again and again. I think you get the picture, right? No need to go on. And I know that since each of you are a sinner too, you would all have the same trouble comparing how your life really is to what God wants your life to look like—perfectly loving toward everyone in every way.
You see, we, like the Corinthians, too often use the gifts God's given us to bring glory to ourselves, rather than to God. We use our gifts to love "me first," not others. We aren't always patient or kind. We do envy and boast. We are rude and certainly self-seeking. We get angry when we shouldn't and we keep track of who's hurt us and how much. We don't rejoice in the truth and love to hear God's Word. We do fail.
And for such selfish use of the gifts that God has given us, for such lovelessness, we deserve to have our gifts stripped away. We deserve hell. But, we don't get what we deserve. Instead, we receive God's love. We receive it in Christ. That same pastor who suggested I use these verses as a mirror, then suggested I also use them to see Christ. Read verses 4 to 8 again, this time replacing "love" with "Jesus." You'll see how much Jesus loves you.
Jesus is patient with us even when we reject him like those in Nazareth (cf. Luke 4:28-29). He is always kind giving us way more than we deserve. He was not self-seeking as we have been, but selfless, giving his life on a cross and suffering hell in our place. He keeps no record of our wrongs, but takes them away, assuring us of his forgiveness by giving us his very body and blood to eat and drink! And Jesus will continue to care for us and protect us because his love, unlike ours, will never fail. No matter what we do, no matter how bad we've been, he will always love us.
Now, by his love, we, who once delighted in evil, rejoice in the truth of Jesus, revealed in his perfect love for us. Now, we, who once used our gifts only for selfish gain, use our gifts to express our gratitude and love for God by loving others. Having had Jesus reveal himself as perfect love to us unloving sinners, we can't help but be his instruments of sharing that love as he reveals himself as perfect love to others through us forgiven believers…
II. Through Us Forgiven Believers
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
…where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."
Some of Corinthians boasted in what they thought were the better gifts—in having the ability to prophesy about the future, in the ability to speak in tongues, in languages they never learned, in having the most wisdom and knowledge. Others were envious of those who had these gifts when they didn't. But all of those gifts were incomplete without love.
There were no better gifts, no worse gifts, just different gifts. But none of them amounted to anything unless they were coupled with love. They were incomplete. And they would eventually become obsolete in heaven. But not love. Love would never be obsolete. And love completed the rest of the gifts. They could put away such childish, selfish use of their gifts and use them with maturity, in serving others.
You see, it didn't matter if they were a foot or an eye or a hand. It didn't matter if they were an armpit, a toenail, or ear hair in the body. Whatever gifts they had been given they could use to serve God out of love for him. They could use those gifts, no longer for personal gain, but out of thanks to Jesus for the perfect love he had shown to them, they could use their gifts to love each other. As the apostle John put it, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. …let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." (1 John 3:16,18)
In thanks to Jesus, for his perfect love, they could be patient, kind, content, humble, and polite. They could be selfless, calm, forgiving and honest. They could be trusting and hopeful. They could persevere unfailing to the end.
And the same is true of us. Recognizing how great is the love the Father has lavished on us! (1 John 3:1) and how perfect the love that Jesus has shown to us, laying down his very life for us, we can't help but reflect that love toward others.
And it doesn't matter what gifts you have—whether you can work miracles or you're a natural teacher or leader. It doesn't matter if you have gifts of administration or the ability to speak in other languages. It doesn't matter if your gifts are none of these. No matter what your ability or position, you have been appointed by God to be in this place at this time. And you've been given the gifts you have to serve others in love.
Recognizing Jesus' perfect love for us, we can't help but love others, not with some shallow emotion, but with loving actions and in truth. We will be patient, kind, content, humble, and polite. We will be selfless, calm, forgiving and honest. We will be trusting and hopeful. We will persevere unfailing to the end. "We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19) And through us, forgiven believers, Jesus will be revealed as perfect love to others.