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February 16, 2020

Sermon I Corinthians 13:13 . . .“Paul said:  The greatest of these is love”

“Paul said:  The greatest of these is love”

I Corinthians 13:13

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Several years ago, the Saturday Evening Post ran an article entitled, How Things Change!  A Husband’s Sequence of Reactions to His Wife’s Common Cold.

The first year:  “Sugar dumpling, I’m really worried about my baby girl!  You’ve got a bad sniffle, and there’s no telling about these things with all the strep going around.  I’m putting you in the hospital this afternoon for a checkup.  I know the food is lousy there, so I’ll bring something from Toni’s.  I’ve already got it arranged with the head nurse.”

The second year:  “Listen, darling, I don’t like the sound of that cough!  I’ve called Dr. Miller to rush right on over here.  Now you go to bed and get some rest.”

The third year:  “Maybe you better lie down, honey.  Nothing like a good rest when you feel bad.  Could I bring you something?  Is there any canned soup?”

The fourth year:  “Now look, dear, be sensible!  After you’ve fed the kids, washed the dishes, and finished the vacuuming, you better lie down.”

The fifth year:  “Why don’t you take a couple of aspirin?”

The sixth year:  “I wish you’d just gargle or something, instead of sitting around barking like a seal.”

And the seventh year:  “For Pete’s sake, stop sneezing!  You’ll give me pneumonia!”

In the words of actress and four-time-married, Joan Crawford, “Love is a fire.  But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you can never tell.”

We talk a lot about love.  We sing a lot about love.  Back in the 60’s, for example, the Beatles sang, All You Need is Love.  Elvis Presley sang, Can’t Help Falling in Love.  Air Supply sang, All Out of Love.  Captain and Tenille sang, Love Will Keep us Together.  Joy Division sang, Love Will Tear Us Apart.  And Jim Croce sang, I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.  

Even Golde from Fiddler on the Roof had something to say about love.  When her husband, Tevye, asked, “Do you love me?” she answered, “Do I love you?  For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, and milked the cow.  After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?”

But while so many have sung about it, written about it, and tried to figure it out, the apostle Paul had the very best thing to say about it in the words of I Corinthians 13.  Please turn in your Bible to page 1220 as I read the words of our text.

I Corinthians chapter 13, beginning at verse 1:  “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.  As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.  So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Now before we go any further, let’s put it into context.  

If you know anything about the book of I Corinthians, then you know it was written to a very troubled congregation.  In fact, if anything could go wrong at a church, it did go wrong in Corinth.  Later, Paul will even call this letter his “severe” and “sorrowful” letter.

For example, in chapter 3, he wrote:  “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.  And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.”  In chapter 5, he wrote:  “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.  And you are arrogant!”  And in chapter 11, he wrote:  “When you come together it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.  For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal.  One goes hungry, another gets drunk.  What!  Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?  Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?  What shall I say to you?  Shall I commend you in this?  No, I will not.”

But here in the words of chapter 13, in the midst of quite a lot of outright dirt comes a flower, what’s likely the greatest, strongest, and deepest thing that anyone has ever written about love, the “crown jewel” of Scripture.

Commentator G. Campbell Morgan wrote that examining this chapter is like dissecting a flower.  If you tear it apart too much, you lose the beauty.  And Alan Redpath said you can get a spiritual suntan from the warmth of this chapter.  It’s the Beatitudes set to music.

Before I say anything more, let me make one thing very clear.  When Paul wrote about love, he didn’t use, in his language, the word, “eros.”  That’s romantic love.  And he didn’t use the word, “philia.”  That’s affectionate love.  And neither did he use the word, “storge.”  That’s the love we have for our close family and friends.  Instead, he used the word, “agape.”

And that love is different, completely different, than all the rest.  It’s an unconditional love, not because anyone deserves it, but because you choose to give it.  It’s getting down at the supper table on your hands and knees, and washing your disciples’ feet.  It’s the willingness to lay down your life to save those who care nothing for you.  It’s the way God loves us, and the way God calls us to love one another.  As one writer put it, “It’s that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else.  But if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter that much.”

Also you should know that the Bible doesn’t really define love.  Instead, it describes it.  And neither is love some abstract, ethereal quality.  It’s something you do.

So he says, beginning in verse 1:  “It doesn’t matter if you can speak in languages that men or only angels speak--you’re nothing but noise.  It doesn’t matter if you have all knowledge and wisdom and faith.  It doesn’t even matter if you sell everything you have and give it to the poor.  If you don’t have love, you’re nothing.  Absolutely nothing.”

Let me put it like this--what do you get when you add 10 + 15?  You get 25.  Now suppose we multiply 10 x 15.  The answer is 150.

Now let’s take a really big number.  Suppose you multiply 1,000 times 1,000,000.  The answer is, one billion.  What comes after a billion?  A trillion.  What comes a trillion?  A quadrillion.  And what comes after a quadrillion?  A quintillion (that’s a one followed by eighteen zeroes).  That’s a big number!

So now what do you get if you multiply 25 quintillion times zero?  You get zero.  Now let’s do it the way children do it.  What do you get if you multiply the biggest number in the world, infinity, by zero?  You get zero.

It doesn’t matter what you start with.  If you multiply anything by zero, the answer will always be zero.

And that’s exactly what Paul means to say here in the words of I Corinthians chapter 13.  Life without love is zero.  You can pile up all the good deeds, all the education, all the spiritual gifts, and all the noble works you could ever imagine.  You can be smart, beautiful, wealthy, educated, multi-lingual, rich, famous, and as strong as strong can be.  But without love, it all equals zero.

Let me bring it a little closer to home.  Husbands, you can provide a beautiful home for your wife.  You can be the most handsome man on the planet.  You can work your fingers to the bone to support your family.  You can buy her the perfect present every Valentine’s Day.  You can watch every movie on the Hallmark channel, and cry at all the appropriate times.  But if you do everything simply out of obligation and duty, you’re just wasting your time.

And wives, you can cook a perfect meal for your husband every night.  You can raise smart, obedient children, and be the most beautiful fashion model alive.  But if you’re selfish and don’t love your man from your heart, it all doesn’t mean a thing.

Listen to another translation:  “If I speak with great eloquence, conviction, and beauty, but do so without love, my words are little more than a loud, banging tambourine.  I could speak for God and understand all mysteries and every kind of knowledge.  I may even have the deepest faith, strong enough to move mountains.  But if I don’t love, I’m nothing at all.  I could give away everything I own, and even sacrifice my body in the flames.  But if I don’t love, I’ve gained nothing.  Love suffers long.  It’s never jealous, and never boasts.  It doesn’t put on airs, and never loses its temper.  It never feels glad when others are wrong, but rejoices in what’s right and true.  It believes the best, never despairs, and remains steadfast to the end.  And even though everything else on earth may fail, love will never fail.  Prophesying will come to an end.  Someday we won’t need to speak in foreign languages anymore.  Here, our knowledge is incomplete, and so is our prophesying.  But in heaven, where all is perfect, all that’s incomplete will disappear.  In my childhood, I spoke like a child.  I thought and reasoned like a child.  But when I grew up, I didn’t act childish anymore.  And though everything we see is but a dim reflection in a metal mirror, there we’ll see face to face.  Here, my knowledge is incomplete.  There, I shall know as fully as I am fully known.  So then there are three things that will abide forever--faith, hope, and love.  But of the three, love is the greatest.”

And how is all this possible?  There’s only one reason, one Person.  In fact, in I Corinthians 13, it’s as if Paul is painting a portrait of love, and the One sitting for the portrait is Jesus.  For though we are so arrogant and rude, jealous and boastful, irritable and resentful, Jesus is patient and kind, and rejoices in the truth.  He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  And someday we’ll see Him face to face.

Some two hundred years ago, back in the early 1800s, Congressman and three-time Secretary of State Daniel Webster was dating his wife-to-be, a woman named Grace Fletcher.  And as he held some skeins of thread for her, he said, “Grace, we’ve spent all this time untying knots.  Let’s see if we can tie a knot that will not untie for a lifetime.”  So they stopped what they were doing, and tied a knot that would have been almost impossible to untie.  And Grace accepted his proposal.

Years later, their children found a box of their belongings that was marked, “Precious Documents.”  And in that box, they found letters Daniel and Grace had once written to each other, and they found a tiny knot that had never been untied.

As Paul once wrote to the Corinthians:  “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”


We thank You, dear Father, for the gifts that You so freely give.  Help us to love, for You have first loved us, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen


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