A More Excellent Way — Love, Part I

Title: A More Excellent Way — Love, Part I

Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Time: January 14th, 2007

We are now through the Christmas season and into the new year of 2007. Around the New Year people have a tradition of making resolutions of one kind or another. Now these can be over a variety of things: some people resolve to lose weight, some people resolve to get into shape, some people resolve to give up smoking, some people resolve to stop drinking, some people resolve to stop biting their nails, some people resolve to eat healthier food or stop eating so much sugar, and on and on. These are all good things to resolve and we’d be better off for doing them, but what spiritual resolution could we make this year that would really make a difference in our lives? Some people might resolve to read their Bible every day, some people might resolve to pray every day, some other people might resolve to go to church regularly, or tithe their income etc. But of all the spiritual resolutions we could make for the New Year 2007, how about this: love better. The Apostle Paul finishes a teaching on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, and when he gets done he says, “And now I will show you the most excellent way.” Or in other words, Paul says, “I just finished teaching you some very important spiritual truths, but now I’m going to teach you something even more important.” There are many spiritual resolutions we could make for the New Year 2007, but maybe the most important thing we could do is be more loving towards other people; we can all work on this, because nobody has got it all down perfectly yet. So with that in mind I’m starting a sermon series on the famous “love” chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. It’s 13 verses long, so it may take a few weeks to get through it, but there can be no better investment of our time and attention for the New Year 2007 than to master the teachings of Paul on love found here in the Bible. Before the Christmas season last year, I finished a sermon series on the Book of Romans where Paul laid out his famous teachings on justification by faith. There was a lot to think about in that teaching, much of which I’m still trying to digest, but now I thought I’d change gears from teaching Paul’s theology to Paul’s practical teachings on love, getting along with others, and relating to people in all kinds of situations. Traditionally, this verse is read at weddings, but the teachings here apply to all human relationships, not just the marriage relationship. We all need more loving families, more loving friendships, more loving relationships of all kinds, whether at work, church, with neighbors, or even with complete strangers. So I’m going to use the next few weeks to go verse-by-verse through Paul’s famous chapter on love in order that we might all become more loving people in the New Year 2007. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3(read), there are 3 important points Paul wants to make even before he defines what love actually is. Let’s see what he says.

First, without love, whatever I speak is just noise. 1 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.” It’s funny that Paul jumps right into talking about love before he even defines what love is, but he must think that everybody has enough basic understanding of what love is to grasp what he talking about. Love is one of those hard-to-define things that is easier to recognize than to define. Maybe that’s why Paul doesn’t give a short, dictionary definition about love but rather uses the whole chapter to define it verse-by-verse. In this first point, Paul talks about the highly developed gift of speech that only humans can have among all the creatures of God’s creation. During that time, there were orators who could sway large crowds with their words, maybe through poetry, maybe through the telling of a story, maybe through teaching, by whatever method, traveling speakers could move people through their highly developed gifts of speech. Today, we don’t live in an age of oration like in times past. Plus, our attention span is shorter making it harder for us to listen to any speaker over 20 or 30 minutes. But in times past, speakers could hold a crowd’s attention for hours through their highly developed speaking gifts. But even that, says Paul, who might have even had such gifts, even that isn’t what’s most important. The simple ability to love is greater than that. Paul also might be referring to the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, the ability to speak a language, known or unknown, through the power of the Holy Spirit. But according to Paul, even speaking in tongues isn’t what’s most important in the Christian life; love is more important than that. In fact, whether Paul is talking about oratory speaking or speaking in tongues, even these things come to nothing without love. They just turn out to be noise, clanging cymbals and gongs. We’ve noticed before that there are people we see and hear, maybe on television, maybe politicians or leaders, who speak eloquently but there’s something missing from their speech – compassion. They may even say the right things, make sound arguments, make perfectly good sense, but they lack something that can’t be put into words – they lack love. On the other hand, we can think of someone like the late Mother Theresa who wasn’t an eloquent speaker, but when she spoke in her broken English everyone knew she was speaking from her heart and she was speaking out of love for people. Let’s make it one of our resolutions this New Year of 2007 to try to speak with love, not just to make a point, not just to win the argument, but to show real love to people in how we communicate and interact with them. That’s what I think Paul is trying to say in this first point.

Second, without love, all spiritual abilities, knowledge, and faith are nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:2, “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.” Paul is not belittling these things – spiritual abilities, knowledge, and faith – he probably had them all to a high degree. He’s just saying they aren’t enough to make a person complete. In fact, without love, a person can have all these things and more, but still be a nobody. What he’s trying to say is that love is essential, love is a non-negotiable, love is a necessity. He’s saying this because it’s easy to forget about love while pursuing other things. Look at the things he lists here. He just spent a whole chapter before teaching people how to develop their own spiritual gifts. Paul is teaching us to identify and use our spiritual abilities, but we shouldn’t forget about loving people in the process. It’s possible to get so wrapped up in pursuing something good that we forget about the best, which is love. Another example is knowledge. Paul encourages us to pursue knowledge; ignorance is never a benefit. But again, let’s not forget about what’s even more important than knowledge, love. Finally, he talks about faith. Certainly we are to pursue faith because it is the basis for our very Christian life. But again, according to Paul we can begin to pursue faith and the things of faith to the point that we neglect to love people. Now notice that Paul still hasn’t defined love, even though he’s talked about it again and again. Why is this? Why does he jump right into the teaching without defining his terms first? Maybe he’s trying to get us to hunger for a definition, maybe he’s wanting us to thirst for a definition, and so he’s holding it back to make us really listen when he starts giving it later. But we all have enough of a common understanding of love to know what Paul is talking about so far, because we’ve all seen or experienced people who are gifted, knowledgeable, even full of faith, that lacked in expressing love. We’ve all felt something was missing but maybe we couldn’t identify what it was. Paul is saying that love is not optional in the Christian life; it is essential. We shouldn’t think that we can develop our faith or our understanding or our abilities apart from love and be a complete person, because we can’t. The only way to become a complete person is to learn to love. Paul reminds us to never, ever get caught up in some pursuit that we neglect love, because if we do that, we’ll amount to nothing in the end. Way may have achievements and accomplishments, we may receive fame and recognition, we may obtain money and success, but we’ll be nothing without love; it’s that important.

Third, without love, sacrificing all comes to nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give all I posses to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Paul is saying even great sacrifice, even the highest sacrifice, the giving of one’s life, dying a martyr’s death, without love is nothing. Over and over again Paul is reminding us that without love, there is nothing. Imagine God without love. Imagine an all-powerful God, and all-knowing God, an all-present God, without love. He would be a monster or something worse, because without love none of these qualities work out for the good. Think of marriage. The husband can be totally committed to fulfilling all his responsibilities in the marriage, and so can the wife, but if they don’t express real love for one another, the marriage is only a hollow shell. Paul will go into the qualities and characteristics of love later in the chapter, but he’s making the point over and over again that love isn’t optional; it’s essential in our relationships. You may be the most dedicated Christian, totally committed to God in every way, even willing to die for the faith, but if you lack love, you’ll find that it all comes to nothing in the end. Doing the right things in life is important, but being the right person in life is even more important. Paul is trying to get us to think in terms of being the right person over doing the right things in life. In our day and age, it’s easy to lose sight of this as we pursue different goals and plans. Our age stresses doing things rather than being the right person. But for us as Christians, we must make sure in all our doing that we are being the right kind of person, that is, a loving person. Are you a loving person? You may think you are, but do other people think you are? Do you put achievement and success over relating rightly with people? I recently saw a movie showing the life of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. I mention her again, because she is one of the best examples of a life lived with love. She put the poor and dying people of India ahead of her own needs and lived and died among them in service to them. Now we all don’t have to be a Mother Theresa and move to India in order to work with the dying, but we can take her same attitude with us wherever we go, that attitude of selfless giving. She cared for people, she had a giving attitude toward people; she wasn’t solely concerned about her own wants and needs. What Paul is trying to say is that we can’t substitute love for other things. We can’t think that because we do this or that for the Lord this excuses us from loving. We can’t excuse ourselves by saying that some people are just gifted with love and other people with other things. No. We all must learn to love. We’ll be spending the next few weeks learning about what love is and how we can be a loving person. I hope we can all put into practice these truths.

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