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Loving Well, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Loving Well
1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb is the home for an unusual museum. The Museum of Failed Relationships was founded by two Zagreb artists after the end of their four-year romantic relationship. The pair laughed about setting up a museum to showcase the many shared objects from their life together that now held complicated memories.

The joke snowballed, and the artists (collecting items from friends and visitors to their growing number of gallery shows) soon had over 1,000 items – each with a story – on their hands. “We might say it’s a love museum, just upside down,” says Drazen Grubisic, one of the founding pair. Their collection includes a shiny new axe (used to splinter the furniture of an ex-lover one item per day), pink fur-covered handcuffs (no description given or needed), and scarred and partially crushed lawn gnome (hurled at the car of a departing husband).

A kitschy wooden box (made from matchsticks) frames a little picture of a couple named Jelka and Valdo. Valdo made it for his wife Jelka on their wedding day. The description on the box reads:

After 18 years of marriage he left me for another woman; we officially divorced after our 25th wedding anniversary … [For our anniversary] I ordered a cake with the number 25 written on it and the pastry shop cut it in half. I sent him the half with the 25. Our sons celebrated our anniversary first with me and then with their father. He and his girlfriend were very shocked but they ate the cake anyway. The cake is gone and so is our marriage. I still have the box, two sons and a lot of memories …
While the items are personal, the feelings that come when love fails are universal. Each item is an intimate peek into how we strive for and often lose love. “Some [people who come to the museum] are laughing” Grubsic says. “But some … some are really thinking.”

Loving well seems so easy, but truthfully, it is hard to do. And that was a real problem for the church St. Paul planted in the ancient Greek city of Corinth. Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

Along with the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer, this is one of the most known, quoted, and beloved passages in the entire Bible. It represents St. Paul at his literary best. It almost seems irreverent to dig deeply into this passage, lest we destroy the beauty of what Paul is saying. But dig deeply into it we must. In fact, it is my hope and prayer that the beauty of this passage is intensified and deepened as we dig into it today.

Paul is making one thing absolutely clear here – love is the primary, the cardinal Christian virtue. It is the central virtue of the Christian faith, central to what it means to follow Jesus. And that is true for one very simple reason: God IS love. St. John tells us, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn. 4:7-8). And because Jesus IS God, Jesus IS love, love itself in the flesh. And as the body of Christ, WE are to embody love for the watching world to see. Love is above all, because God IS love, because Christ embodies love.

But to really understand what St. Paul is saying to the Christians in Corinth, we have to understand a little bit about the church in Corinth. The church in Corinth was the church everyone wanted to be a part of, and the church that every pastor longed to lead. Corinth was a pretty wealthy city. It was the place people wanted to live. Politically and economically influential, it was a regional hub of business and commerce. The Corinthian church had plenty of money and was in an enviable location. Countless and powerful spiritual gifts were present in the congregation. They had a legacy of celebrity pastors and teachers. Some of the most well-known Christian leaders in the region pastored and taught there after Paul moved on. Honestly, they lacked only one thing. Unfortunately, it was a big thing. They lacked love. And their lack of love led to a divided, fractured church that hurt people more than it helped. On the surface – and enviable position. Great facility, lots of money, great location, gifted congregation and gifted pastors. But below the surface, fractures and division.

And Paul wrote this letter to confront them. In 1:10, he tells them “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” And not only were they divided, they were proud of what they saw as their spiritual depth. In chapter 8 Paul tells them, “we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” And then he goes on to spell out the consequences of their pride in what they thought was their spiritual maturity and depths: “and so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:2, 11). They were spiritually destroying people in their arrogance and pride. They were showing favoritism to the rich and well-connected and more talented members of their congregation even in the way they served communion. And they celebrated certain spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues and prophecy and wisdom and knowledge above the less visible gifts like administration and service. They viewed those who possessed these “more desirable” gifts, as they saw them, as more powerful and more spiritual, and saw those who couldn’t pray in tongues, or heal, or prophesy, as weaker and less significant, and ultimately as less blessed by God.

Their church was marked by rivalry and competition rather than a sense of unity and being one body. They were quick to boast about their own gifts, and to seek places of honor and authority. But they didn’t know how to love. In fact, their behavior, as spiritual as it seemed, speaking in tongues, seeing people healed, was far from love. Look at Vv. 1-3.

Without love, the exercise of any spiritual gift is useless. In fact, this passage is first and foremost about how our spiritual gifts are to be expressed in the body of Christ. Paul in chapters 12 and 14 is talking specifically about the exercise of our spiritual gifts. So what happened in chapter 13, the passage we’re looking at today? Did Paul get up and go to the bathroom and come back to his letter having momentarily forgotten what he was talking about? Did he put this passage here, intending it to be completely unrelated to what he has just said and is about to say? No! Of course not! No, his point is actually quite clear. “Even if I’m a gifted speaker, or can pray in tongues, or can prophesy, or have a supernatural knowledge, or a faith to literally tell this mountain to move, and it moves – in other words, no matter how people might be wowed by my spiritual gifts, if I exercise those gifts without love, it doesn’t amount to anything.

I mean, look down at V. 3. Now, burning Christians at the stake wasn’t really happening much, if at all, when Paul wrote these words. That isn’t what he is referring to. The word translated as burn can actually mean “bonded,” as in to become a bond servant. So what he’s talking about is someone who sells themselves into slavery, makes themselves a bondservant, not in order to pay off a debt but to give the money to the poor, even if I do that, and don’t have love, it amounts to nothing. Love is the context in which every spiritual gift is to be exercised. They were exercising their gifts, but they weren’t building people up. They were tearing them down.

You see, we often think that spiritual gifts only operate in the lives of those who are doing well spiritually, in their walk with Christ, so to speak. In other words, we think that spiritual gifts only operate in the lives of those who are “worthy.” Did you catch the subtle error there? Only in the lives of the worthy. The problem with that is that no one is worthy. There isn’t a person in this room whose walk with Christ is perfect, or who is without sin. Spiritual gifts are a gift of grace. And they are given not for the benefit of the person who has them, but for those for whom they are used. They aren’t given to you for you. They’re given to you for others. So yes, this was a divided, arrogant, often harmful church that looked really good on the outside and within which the gifts of the Holy Spirit operated in powerful ways. God using me has nothing to do with my worthiness. It isn’t about me at all. It is about God and his glory. God gives gifts to his people to use for the benefit of others, not because you and I are super spiritual or especially mature or worthy, but because the church needs them. And without love, the gifts are worthless. Without love, even the most powerful spiritual gifts, and the most sacrificial service amount to nothing. As Jamie uses her gifts, and Randy uses his, and Lenda uses hers, and Becky uses hers, and Cheryl and Joann, who is only a year or two younger than Lois, by the way (we have some long-lived people in this church) use their gifts, if love isn’t the atmosphere in which they’re used and the driving force behind them, it amounts to nothing. But when they’re immersed in and surrounded by love, the church’s ministry flourishes and people are transformed.

So what exactly IS love? Look at Vv. 4-7. Interesting, isn’t it, that this description of love is targeted directly at the ways in which the Corinthian church was struggling to love. In fact, a lack of love was their big problem. They had the money and the location, even powerful spiritual gifts. What they lacked was love, and it was destroying their ministry, even as they seemed to thrive.

But are there other contexts, outside of the church, into which this definition of love can speak? Of course! Marriages and families and neighborhoods and friendships – this definition of love applies to them all. And Paul is absolutely clear that of all the virtues, love is preeminent. So what IS love, anyway?

Love is, in essence, the fruit of the spirit lived out every day of our lives. Flip over to Galatians 5:22-23. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Now go back to 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. These things aren’t spiritual gifts, they’re spiritual fruit. Still the product of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life and mine, but more in a character of life sense than an “ability to be used” sense. Love is the first fruit mentioned, and the rest are the practical outworking of love in our lives. They’re what love looks like.

Love is patient with others and kind to others, even when they aren’t kind to us. How do you and I respond to others when they aren’t kind or acting in loving ways toward us? Our default mode is to treat them the way they’ve treated us, or worse. Jesus calls us to love, to be patient and kind, seeking the best for others, not for ourselves.

You see, love as defined by Paul and embodied by Jesus, isn’t transactional, you do this for me and I’ll do that for you. It isn’t about me at all. Love is focused on the other person and what they need. When you are loving well, you aren’t arrogant or boastful or full of pride. You’re simply doing what needs to be done for the other person. Love doesn’t call attention to itself at all. It is focused on the other person. When I am loving well, I am not insisting on my rights, I am seeking the good of others. When I am loving well, I am not EASILY angered. Doesn’t mean I never get angry. Sometimes love requires anger. But I don’t fly off the handle over nothing. When I am loving well, I am not easily triggered by anger, feeling like my rights are being trampled or I’m not getting my way. When I am loving well, I am not humiliating or shaming others rudely. I am not keeping score, and I refuse to celebrate the humiliation or failure of others. I refuse to gossip.

In a nutshell, love is focused on the other person, and is patient and kind, not dependent on their actions or behavior. And ultimately, there is absolutely nothing that love cannot face.

Now, this doesn’t mean that love is permissive of everything. This doesn’t mean that an abused spouse just sits there and takes it until they’re killed, or that someone is allowed to bully and shame others. You see, ultimately, love happens in the midst of a loving community, where I am loving you and you are loving me, and we are mutually meeting one another’s needs in appropriate ways. Genuine love has some universal components that are always present, but it also has some boundaries on how it is appropriately expressed.

There are times when someone is so broken that they cannot be in healthy relationships with other people. We live in a world where love breaks down, or where people, due to brokenness and sin, don’t understand what love really is. Some have never had a healthy example of love in their lives. So an abused spouse needs to be protected from the abuser. Sometimes we have to call out manipulative behavior like gaslighting and emotional abuse. We do that to lovingly protect the vulnerable and the victims. There have been times when, as a therapist, I have had to ask someone not to attend a support group because their actions were so toxic they were hurting the group. Some people are so broken that they cannot relate to others, and we need to erect fences and walls to protect the vulnerable. But even that is done in love, hoping that God will work in the manipulator’s life, the abuser’s life, to bring hope and healing through being held accountable for their actions.

And even when we have to erect a fence or a wall to keep a truly dangerous person away, we do so without hatred and bitterness.

Now, look down at Vv. 8-13. There will come a day when dramatic and powerful spiritual gifts will no longer be needed, and they will end. This will happen when Christ returns. But love? Love will live on. When all else has passed away, faith, hope, and love will remain. And the greatest of these three, the above all virtue, is love.

I love the picture of an elderly couple walking down the street holding hands. They’ve experienced a lifetime together, and it hasn’t always been easy. There were days, even seasons of life, when they wanted to quit, to give up, to turn away from one another. But they didn’t. They pushed through. They loved when loving was hard. It took commitment and a steely will when the emotions and feelings of being “in love” weren’t there. Through it all, they kept loving. They didn’t ignore their issues, they worked through them, often willing to compromise for the good of the other. They found common ground when it didn’t seem like there was any. The same can be true in the church.

Today, we live in a world of throw away relationships. When the marriage no longer suits us or gives us what we want, we throw it away. When the friendship no longer gives us what we want, we move on to other friends. When we experience tension in the church, we run away to another church, or we run away from the church altogether. Yes, there ARE times when, for the safety of those involved, some relationships need to end, to be cut off. Love doesn’t tolerate abuse. But we throw too many relationships away today when we need to learn to work through the things that separate us and divide us, in our marriages, in our families, and yes, in our churches. You see, a church that will not love is no church at all. No matter how good it looks on the outside. Let us pray.