The passage we look at this morning is one of the most familiar in the Bible. It is frequently heard at weddings because of its lofty sentiments about love. However, many times in these settings it is mishandled by those who define this love however they want. However, one of the worst abuses of this passage is mentioned in a book by Thomas Merton where he described the chaplain of an English boarding school giving a “sermon” on 1 Corinthians 13. Thomas Merton writes that his interpretation of the word “love,” or “charity” in the King James Version, was that it simply stood for all that we mean when we call a man a “gentleman.” Charity meant good-sportsmanship, the decent thing, wearing the right kind of clothes, using the proper spoon, not being a cad. He writes:
“There he stood, in-the plain pulpit, and raised his chin above all the rows of boys in black coats, and said: “One might go through this chapter of St. Paul and simply substitute the word ‘gentleman’ ‘for ‘charity’ wherever it occurs: ‘If I talk with the tongues of men and of angels, and be not a gentleman, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.... A gentleman is patient, is kind; a gentleman envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up.... A gentleman never falleth away...’”
Thomas Merton wrote, “The Apostles would have been rather surprised at the concept that Christ had-been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns and subjected to unutterable contempt and finally nailed to the Cross and left to bleed to death in order that we might all become gentlemen.”
Clearly this is not what Paul means when he uses the word “love.” But what then is Paul talking about in 1 Corinthians 13? This is not a generic term that can be used to describe any form of love, good feeling or action we wish. Paul is talking about a specific form of love and applies it very specifically to how the church is to function. Paul is talking about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 13. His point is simply this: If we have all the gifts and even if we are using them to the fullest, if we are not doing so with love, it is worth nothing at all. We too must use our gifts while being immersed in love. Let’s read 1 Corinthians 13.
I. Let’s first of all ask a very basic question: what is love?
It is certainly different than what the world usually considers when it thinks of the word love. To the world, love is having strong feelings, great passion or simple infatuation with someone. Love can be sexual desire or simply lusting after someone else. Love can also be a commitment or dedication to someone or something. But these are not the things that Paul has in mind.
Certainly these concepts of love existed in Paul’s day. In fact, the Greek language had distinct words which described such feelings. There is a Greek word for sexual love: eros as in erotic. And there is a Greek word for brotherly love: phileo, as in Philadelphia. But Paul doesn’t use these words.
Instead Paul uses a word rarely used up until to the time of the Christian church. The early Christians saw the love of Christ and they knew that the common words and meanings of the words for love were simply inadequate. The love of Christ for them and their resulting love for one another prompted them to dust off a little-used word, “agape,” to describe the profound kind of love they now had.
The best way to understand the kind of “agape” love that Paul is talking about is to look at God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ. God’s love for us is not based on our worthiness. In fact, our sin is repulsive to God; yet in spite of our sinfulness, God loves us. In fact, God’s love is so great that he sent Jesus, His only Son, to earth. God didn’t have to do this; Jesus didn’t have to come. But God saw us utterly lost in the misery of our sin and sent Jesus to help us. In fact, God’s love is so great that Jesus died in our place. We certainly didn’t deserve it, but God loved us so much that He did this or us anyway. This is the amazing “agape” love of God for us. It is a complete self-giving, self-sacrificing love for others when they don’t deserve it. It is a love that is acted out whether it is returned or not.
II. Paul gives the results of gifts used without love in verses 1-3.
Paul’s first point is that we must not use extraordinary gifts without love. Paul starts with the gift of tongues because that was the spiritual gift some of the Corinthians were convinced as being so important. Paul refers to the highest and most elaborate type of ecstatic speech can imagine. He is speaking of the best speaking in tongues on earth and the sounds of praise to God that the angels in heaven bring. However, if you don’t have love you are just a noisy gong or a clashing cymbal. You are just making a bunch of noise, but you have no real substance.
Verse 2 deals with the important gift of prophecy and knowledge. Prophecy is declaring God’s word and will to His people. As we have seen, in Paul’s estimation, this gift is second only to being an Apostle. What he is describing is the purest expression of this gift. He is able to know and understand the mind and will of God Himself. However, if one has this gift and doesn’t have love, he is nothing. Paul isn’t just saying that his message is tainted or wrong. The person himself is nothing.
Paul moves on to discuss the gift of faith. Faith is the ability to believe that God can do great and marvelous things. Paul describes an extraordinary faith here. This is a faith that can actually move mountains. But if this person of great faith doesn’t have love, he is nothing. He may be impressive in the eyes of man. But in the eyes of God, he is nothing; it is as if he didn’t exist
In verse 3, Paul mentions two gifts of extraordinary action: giving and martyrdom. This is a person who sells all he has so the poor can be fed. The result is that he has absolutely nothing left at all. Then there is the person who gives himself up in death. And not only dies, but dies a most horrible death. Such a person is willing to be burned alive for their faith. In human eyes, these are some of the noblest things a person could do. If these noblest things are not done out of love for God and love for others, it is as if they were not done at all in the eyes of God. I may be admired, appreciated and applauded by other people, but as far as God and eternity are concerned, I gain nothing.
III. We must use our gifts surrounded with love.
Paul gives a powerful description of what love is like in verses 4-8. A loving person will be patient. A loving person will be literally long-suffering. She will not lose her patience or her temper, whatever she may have to put up with. Love is kind. A loving person will always be kind even to those who have harmed him. Love is not envious; it does not boast and it is not proud. This means that when someone else does well, a loving person is happy for that person and not filled with envy. And when things go well for him, he doesn’t gloat or puff himself up as a result. Love is not rude or self-seeking and it is not easily angered. Love means that you will give up what you are entitled to so that others may benefit instead. Love is not easily provoked into anger.
Love does not keep any record of wrongs. We are to forgive as we have been forgiven in Christ. And that means we are to treat others as though the offense never occurred. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. When there is evil or the result of evil, we don’t relish it or celebrate it. Instead when there is goodness, we celebrate that. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. He will do and not do certain things because of the kind of person he is becoming, through the love of God. The things described are ordinary, even trite, but the most difficult habits to cultivate. Just reading through this and we begin to how demanding life is when it is surrounded and immersed in love. Paul’s point is that while the gifts are important, what is most important above all else is loving others in a similar way that God loves us.
Remember the old spelling rule “I before E except after C?” It was a handy little rule but if you learned that little rule, it probably didn’t take very long before you realized that there were exceptions – a LOT of exceptions, like neither and weigh and leisure. Studies have shown that using this rule mostly creates confusion and some have advised teachers to simply abandon the rule completely. Just learning how to spell specific words works better. In the previous verses, Paul has been teaching his readers how to love and it seems daunting. One author suggested summarizing how to love in this way: “ U before I.” If you intentionally focus on putting others, the “U” before yourself, the “I,” you will end up loving others. That is really what Paul is saying here: put others first and love them no matter what they do or who they are.
Moreover, the positive results of using our gifts in love are very clear. If we ask God to enable us to use our gifts and fill us with his love, it will make a big difference. Using our gifts in love can make a big difference in the little things we do every day. Our lives can be like thermochromic cloth. Its color is one color until warmed by one’s hand. The touch of a hand causes the special inks in the printing to react and the one color is transformed into another color. We can change people around us simple by the warmth of our love.
So in the coming weeks, let’s focus on using our gifts with love. Let’s remember God’s love for us and thank God for loving us in such a way. Let’s commit ourselves to sharing that love with others as we use our spiritual gifts.