Monday, February 27, 2017

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, for Quinquagesima (Fifty) Sunday, "The Greatest Gift is Love"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. [Welcome to all of our Grade School children and families this morning! It’s a blessing to have your voices joining us in praise to Jesus our Lord! ] Today is the last Sunday before the church starts its season of Lent, beginning this Ash Wednesday. If you’re not familiar with it, Lent is the more somber season of reflection on the cross of Jesus, and why He had to go to the cross to suffer for our sins. It’s a time to renew the call to confess our sins to Him, humble ourselves, and to seek His forgiveness, but also a time to marvel at the greatest story of God’s love for us. In the Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples are amazed and confused that He would have to suffer shamefully and die, in order to accomplish God’s plan. He told them this beforehand, but they couldn’t really grasp it till later. The season of Lent is also our preparation for Easter, when the mood changes from more subdued and reflective to overflowing joy at the celebration of Jesus’ victory over the grave! Both the sad and serious account of His death and the joyful celebration of the resurrection are essential to the story of Jesus’ love for us.
1 Corinthians 13 is our sermon text today, and it’s often called the Great Love Chapter, and is a favorite passage at weddings. It’s not hard to figure out why people love this chapter, because it’s such a lofty and beautiful description of love. But when we listen closely and reflect on it, some things become painfully apparent. Do we have this love? Try substituting the word “I” for love in verse 4-7. Does it fit? Do we dare say that “I do not insist on my own way, I am not irritable or resentful…etc?” Is the chapter a perfect description of our love? Not just when we might be at our best, but always? I have to admit right off, that my own love falls far short. Yes I aspire to this love, but I cannot claim that I even come close to reflecting that perfect love.
But try this instead. Try substituting the name “Jesus” for love. [Jesus] is patient and kind, [Jesus] does not envy or boast; [He] is not arrogant or rude. [Jesus] does not insist on [His] own way; [He] is not irritable or resentful; [He] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. [Jesus] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Does Jesus have this love? Yes, in full measure. Isn’t that just what He showed by perfect patience and suffering on the cross, with no bitter or angry words towards those who tormented Him—but only forgiveness and love? And this is just what the Bible tells us, “God is love.” But what becomes painfully obvious is the huge gap between God’s love, and ours. How to close that gap? How to get God’s love in our life?
The prayer in your bulletin reflects on the fact that God’s love isn’t something He can separate from Him. If we desire His love to live in us, He needs to live in us. And the amazing thing is that God wants to do this very thing in our lives. God doesn’t want love to just be a high and lofty abstraction that nobody actually lives or practices. He doesn’t want love to be something we just talk about in beautiful words, but never do. Rather He wants love to be flesh and blood, real, tangible, expressed in our daily lives. He wants it to take shape in real actions, living kindness, acts of service, humbly doing what is good, not for our own gain or praise, but because it is the good and right thing to do. Just as Jesus, in His own flesh and blood, came and loved the world so much that He gave Himself for us on the cross—to die that we could live. Jesus is the living flesh and blood actions of God’s love in the world; for us.
This chapter of the Bible is also surrounded by the talk of other spiritual gifts of God, but it elevates love as the essential gift—to borrow another Bible verse, love binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:14). So consider how much more important and greater the gift of love is. Verse two could read like a math problem: All prophetic powers + understanding all mysteries + all knowledge + all faith – love = what? Equals nothing! He describes how we could do great and noble things, have knowledge, have power, give away everything we have—but if it’s without love, it amounts to nothing! Subtract love from the equation and you are left with zero! That’s astonishing, because with our school minds and grading scales, we feel like there should be some credit, right? Partial credit? No! Paul says without love “I am nothing; I gain nothing.”
And then those remarkable words about what love is, and what it isn’t. Love won’t  achieve its goals by self-seeking, insisting on its own way. Just consider what that means. It’s not love to manipulate others to get what you want, even if it’s done with smiles and flattery. It’s not love to take what you want or to serve your own desires. Love, if it is not self-seeking, must truly be seeking after the good of the person whom we love. Without a promise of something in return. A generous, self-giving desire for the good of someone else. This is the kind of love that isn’t irritable or resentful, that doesn’t chalk up every bad thing done and keep the scorecard as a weapon of bitterness and resentfulness. This is the kind of love that bears and endures all things. A love that bears with injuries without contemplating retaliation or revenge. A love that breaks down the walls of hate by showing honest and sincere intentions, and that builds up love by the genuine acts of good.  
If we do not see this kind of love in evidence in our own lives and relationships, not just husband to wife but parents to children and brother to sister and friend to neighbor, and yes, even Jesus’ reminder of friend to our enemies…If we don’t see that kind of love in evidence, can we at least recognize how desperately we need it? If not, I fear we are too cynical or jaded about our own selfishness or the treatment we have received others. But the point of this chapter is not that love is some fiction or fantasy, but that this is the real shape and form of God’s own love. And that love is in evidence in the teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And His love is a living love that He is still giving, whenever He gives us the very gift of Himself. To begin to see His love in evidence in our lives, in this way, is to be in living fellowship with Him.
Scripture gives us this other beautiful description of love: “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins…We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:10,19). The first-love of God is Jesus sacrificing Himself for our sins. We won’t start to truly love the way that God does until we receive His first love. He teaches us that self-sacrificing, self-giving love, that starts to transform and shape our lives. His Spirit takes hold in our lives so that we begin to be aware of the times and ways that we act or think in ways that are not love, and to confess these as sins that only He can take away.
If we are believers in Christ, and have earnestly been seeking His love in our lives, but find ourselves discouraged by our lack of progress, or frustrated by our failures, we won’t find the answer by navel-gazing, and looking to ourselves. Rather, the only answer is to continually fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. When our eyes are on Him, He will continue to transform us into His image. What we see in this life, as the last verses of the reading describe, is only something partial. We see now in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Life with its troubles, and we with our sins, are like a dirty mirror that gives an imperfect picture, a cloudy reflection. But Jesus has in store for us the perfection which will come, and the time when we shall see Him face to face. All will then be clear, all will then be clean. There we shall know fully what we have only understood in part. We will know God perfectly as He already knows us now.
It is a great privilege and amazing blessing to be known and loved by God. Even with the imperfect example of our love for our children, we know how deeply we love them, even at times when they don’t seem to see or realize it. Sometimes they may fight against our love. But in love we still pursue what is good for them. How much more, how much greater is it to be known by and loved by God, who doesn’t suffer from any of the imperfections of love that we do, but who loves us fully and perfectly for our own good. He pursues what is good for us at any cost—even the greatest cost of dying on the cross for our sins. The greatest story of love is truly the story of God sending Jesus to save us lost children, and to give us the gift of His eternal love. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. 1 Corinthians 13 is known as “The Great Love Chapter” as it beautifully describes love. Read 1 Corinthians 12:31, which introduces this chapter. With what honorable title(s) does he name the gift of love?
  2. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-2, what do we amount to if we are lacking love, but possess other great gifts? Why is that?
  3. Review the positive descriptions of love and the negative descriptions (what it is not) in verses 4-7. How does this force us to take an uncomfortable “look in the mirror” at ourselves? Do we often find our love matching this description, or falling into the descriptions of what love is not?
  4. How do we normally define “love”, in everyday life? Do we think primarily about what we want or how we feel? Notice how anything like those descriptions are missing here. 
  5. What causes our “love” to fall short? By contrast, the love described here is not self-seeking. Whose love does this love best describe? John 3:16; 15:13-14; Romans 5:8-10. How was Jesus’ love a perfect love?
  6. Read 1 John 4:10, 19. Who initiated love? How does that love have its effect in us? If we are to have the love described in 1 Corinthians 13, who must we be joined to?
  7. Why is love different from the other spiritual gifts, in that it will endure forever? Why is love the greatest of the spiritual gifts of God?
8.      Read Luke 18:31-33. When Jesus died on the cross, He endured incredible abuse and hatred. And yet how did He perfectly show love even as His enemies mistreated Him?

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