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A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.

February 3, 2013

1 Corinthians 13

Mark Twain used to say, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts I do understand.”

No less than the Apostle Peter admits (2 Peter 3:16) that he struggled to understand some of the writings of the Apostle Paul.  But I’m guessing both Peter and Mark Twain perfectly understood what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, and therein lay the problem!  Because what Paul says in this famous passage is that if we don’t have love for others, nothing else we do matters. 

Now most of us have heard 1 Corinthians 13 recited so many times at weddings that we long ago forgot how shocking it really is.  Paul didn’t write this passage for wedding ceremonies.  He addressed it to a church mired in toxic conflict because new Christians in the church cared a lot more about polishing their own reputations than addressing the common good of the church. 

If you were with us last week you may remember that the Corinthians argued over all manner of things, including spiritual gifts.  Some prophesied, some healed, some taught with exceptional wisdom, and some spoke in supernatural tongues.  All were acting like they were God’s gift to the church, none more than the tongue speakers who strutted about like proud peacocks because they were confident they spoke the very language of heaven. 

More than likely, these obnoxious new Christians expected their church- founder to be very impressed.  Instead, Paul was outraged.  And he wanted to be crystal clear that these impressive gifts and ministries did not amount to a hill of beans because the Corinthians did not have love.

By the way, Paul knows whereof he speaks because he’s more gifted than most.

A few years ago I had two breakthroughs when it came to understanding 1 Corinthians 13.  My first breakthrough was recognizing that the first three verses of I Corinthian 13 are all about Paul.  If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 

Not everybody agrees Paul was a spellbinding speaker.  But everybody knows his writing was out of this world.  Paul wrote the majority of the New Testament, and twenty centuries later millions of people still read his stuff like it was inspired, written by the hands of angels!

Furthermore, Paul had prophetic powers, and theological insight, and a depth of faith that has been unrivaled for 2000 years.  Paul lived on meager earnings from tent-making so he could be generous with others.  And ultimately he “handed over his body” and died for his convictions.

Line up all the Christians who have lived over the last two millennia and Paul, despite his flaws, would be at the head of the line.  And yet Paul acknowledges, If I do not have love…I am nothing… (and) I gain nothing. 

Friends, do you understand what this means?  No matter how successful we are in the world’s eyes, or how accomplished our church is in our eyes, if who we are and what we do is not driven by our love for God and other people, it does not matter! 

I’m with Mark Twain when it comes to 1 Corinthians 13.  I understand it…and that’s the problem!  I have spent so much time trying to succeed or at least looking like I’m succeeding according to American standards.  Meanwhile, Paul is saying that if I succeed in everything else but love, I am a failure by kingdom standards.  And if I fail at everything except loving people, I have succeeded where it really counts.  That’s very upsetting!    

I had my second breakthrough with 1 Corinthians 13 when I understood that the middle section is all about Jesus.  Beginning with verse 4, if you substitute “Jesus” for the word love, it reads this way:  Jesus is patient; Jesus is kind; Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Jesus does not insist on his own way: Jesus is not irritable or resentful; Jesus does not rejoice in wrong-doing, but rejoices in the truth.  Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Jesus never ends.   

The greatest piece of literature about love in ever written never defines love, nor does it explain what love would do in every situation.  But the implication is clear.  If you as a Christ-follower are trying to figure out what love is, look at Jesus.  And if you are asking what love would do, ask what Jesus would do because they are one in the same.

So, for example, if we ask ourselves, “Does love mean we should minister to our disadvantaged brothers and sisters in the Dominican Republic, or help people who could never afford a home build one, or provide shelter for the homeless?”  our next question is, “What would Jesus do?”  And I’m guessing we would all agree if Jesus were in our place he’d reach out to our struggling friends in the DR. And if he were in our church he would host NC leaders of Habitat for Humanity for a planning meeting as we did last Wednesday morning; and later that same day he would host supporters of Samaritan’s Ministry as they launched a fund-raising campaign; and later than same night he would welcome the homeless of our community into our own gymnasium.  Despite the crazy weather, Wednesday was a great day at FBC!

But let’s not get too carried away.  When we insert Jesus’ name into I Corinthians 13 it becomes clear that loving people the way Paul describes is beyond what we can manage on our own.  That’s why Paul identifies love as the first and foremost fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Most of us have tried to love others on our own strength and learned the hard way it doesn’t work. 

What does work is meditating on God’s love for us and deepening our relationship with God to the point that God’s love simply flows through us as we interact with other people.  In fact, if are not finding ourselves increasingly drawn to serve the common good and love the people around us, we need to take a hard look at the condition of our souls.   

David Benner puts it this way:  “Love is the acid test of spirituality.  If Christian conversion is authentic, we are in the process of becoming more loving. If we are not becoming more loving, something is seriously wrong.”

If I do not have love, nothing else matters and something is seriously wrong with my soul.  I just wish it weren’t so clear!

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