Spiritual Maturity: Love
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 31, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 13: 1-13
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have 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 do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
This passage is probably the most often used text in the Bible. It may be the most recognizable, certainly of the letters of Paul. You hear it at weddings, often, even funerals. I have a ton of poetry books, and ones that include Biblical poetry seem to always include this one as well, as a poem. And deservedly so, It is one of the most beautiful phrases, seeking to define and describe what love is and just how important love is, saying that it is the ingredient that makes all of the rest worthwhile. This passage stands on its own most of the time, with its four memorable movements. The first being: If you have this, this and this, and don’t have love, then you have nothing. . . nothing, then the second movement is the love is patient, love is kind, and the rest, and then you have the famous line when I was a child I spoke as a child, but then since I’ve given up childish things, and the last Faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. I can’t hear that phrase anymore without thinking about Alan Jackson and the song he wrote in response to 911, where he sings:
I know Jesus and I talk to God,
And I remember this from when I was young,
Faith, Hope, and Love are some good things he gave us,
But the greatest is love. . .
Beautiful right, and perfect for what was needed in the wake of that awful day. When you had other singers singing revenge carols, like courtesy of the Red, White and Blue, it was so perfect to hear about faith, and hope, and love. It is indelibly written in my mind every time I hear that song sung, or hear this text read. This morning I want to walk through these four movements, and think about them in the context of the rest of Paul’s letter because as familiar as they are on their own, we rarely think about them in their original time and place.
We talked two weeks ago about 1 Corinthians 11, two chapters ago, and if it weren’t for the snowmaggedon of last week, we would have looked at chapter 12 then. Remember in 11, Paul is talking about the gifts of the spirit, how there are many gifts, but they all come from the same source. The Holy Spirit is the activator of all good things with respect to the church. He’s saying these things because divisions have grown in the Corinthian church. It is falling apart at the seams. You have factions, you have resentment, you have envy, you have people who believe different things, you have people baptized and introduced into the faith by different people, you have former Jews, you have former gentiles, many of which are Greek and Roman Pagans, some are Roman citizens, some are not. They are all coming from different cultures where there are different rules, traditions, customs, etc., and now they have to come together as one body of Christ, and they are having trouble doing so.
He reminds them of the primacy of the Holy Spirit as the glue binding the church together, reminding them all that they all are taking the same risks in being marked as Christians in the world they live in. The risks are significant, persecution and death are more than just a possibility, and they all take these risks together. He reminds them that they could not do so without the Holy Spirit, that none of them could, and that should give them something to at least respect about each other, if not inspire to more. So he says that the Holy Spirit works in many different ways, and so you can’t assume that the way it is working in you is the same as in someone else, respecting that the spirit is working in them, in the other, is the key.
He goes on then to say that each gift is important, like a body with all of its organs. He goes through the parts of the body, looking at how they could not exist without the others, and each has a unique job to do, a unique role to play. And We’ve all heard that before. . . we are the body of Christ, each of us with a different part to play, but what I wanted to make sure I pointed out before going on was the transition from that argument that makes up most of chapter 12, to this one in chapter 13. . . the last line of chapter 12 is an introduction of sorts to this final argument. . . you see because they are all connected. Paul writes. . . “and I will show you a still more excellent way. . . “ In other words, here I am, I’m arguing the same point again, but I want you to see it this time in yet another way, this other way, and this is the best way yet.
Then he goes into this bit about love, as a new way to see this body and parts metaphor. So the first argument is about the Primacy of the Holy Spirit in giving gifts, then how all the gifts are important, and now you can have all the gifts you want, but without love, you have nothing. My favorite is of course the first one. . . he uses such a great image. He’s talking about speaking in tongues, either of angels or men, he says, and if you do that and have no love, then all you are is a noising gong and a clashing cymbal. . . in other words its like, no one wants to listen to you. . . . reminds me of my mentor, Dr. Bob’s favorite witticism about people not caring how much you know, until they know how much you care. . . but Paul goes farther, not only is talking the voice of angels, but also all the wisdom in the world. . . and lastly he brings up two of the most important parts of Jesus’ life as a definition of love, two of Jesus’ own words that are also reflected in Jesus’ actions. . . giving away all of your possessions, of course we remember Jesus saying, give all you have and follow me. . . and the last is giving up your very body as a sacrifice, giving up your body to be burned. . . one of the ideas I’ve said so often, standing right here, that giving up of yourself is a necessary ingredient in love. . . but here he is saying that the action alone is not enough, but that it must be paired with love. How many times have you heard me say, things like Love has no better soul than this, to lay your life down for your friend, or that Jesus does this very thing, because of God’s love. . . would it even be possible to perform such sacrifice of self without love. . . Paul’s use of it here would suggest so. Interesting. . . that there is a depth, that there is a heart, that there is perhaps more to the definition of what love is than even the most noble of all actions, like self sacrifice, but that there is motive, and something internal, something beyond internal, like perhaps spiritual. . . and like Paul can hear my mind, hear my questions, perhaps it is the very questions the Corinthians are asking. . . if love is not that, if love is not the act of giving up of your complete self, then what is love?
So Paul gives his famous description of love. Patient, kind, not jealous, not boastful, not rude, does not insist on its own way, not irritable, or resentful, not rejoicing ever in wrong, but instead always in the right, bears all things, believes, all things, hopes and endures, all things, and in such it never ends, but instead is eternal. . . That is love. And what a tall order. It is quite a list of virtue. . . I’ve been teaching the Middle Ages in class, and we looked at some of the famous lists. . . most famously, “The Seven Deadly Sins”. . . that is the most well known, but they also had virtues paired with them. . . that they called the “The Seven Contrary Virtues” Stuff like Pride is the sin, and its contrary virtue is humilty, sloth’s is diligence, gluttony is temperance. . . you see all of those make sense, but then we got to envy, and this was eye opening the contrary virtue to envy is kindness. . . do you see why? Envy is focused on the self, whereas kindness is focused on the other. Is this the ingredient that love must have? is self sacrifice, and giving away all of your possessions possible for yourself and not for the other? Only in a Christian Salvation context. . . the idea of earning eternal life, for yourself, and not being concerned with the other at all. . . how slippery is that slope? The slide Paul says is worth nothing. That’s kind, but aren’t the rest of Paul’s list equally focused on the other. . . patience. . certainly, not boasting, why do we boast. . . to make ourselves seem better, more important, feel better, again ourselves, insisting on own way. . . yeah, giving up control to the other, even if that other is God, seeing salvation not as a system you can manipulate but a love relationship to live in, under, and to embody fully. It is huge, huge, unending deal, one where the end doesn’t exist, so enduring, bearing, is a necessary part of love. It is never over, never enough.
Which gets me to the “childish things” movement here. . . this isn’t the first time in this letter that Paul has mentioned childhood, infancy, and maturity with respect to spiritual development. He does that earlier too, saying how the Corinthians are in the infancy of their faith. So again there is the context, and this idea of love then would suggest that love is the goal of spiritual maturity, what it means to be spiritually mature. . . that this then would be the real goal of the Christian life, to become better at loving, through the activation of the Holy Spirit. I get this. . . you just have spend an evening in my house after dinner, seeing the relationship of Coralee and Clara to get a glimpse of the fact that development of how to love takes time. The will is there, the idea is there, but it is in its infancy stage. The girls now must clean up their toys nightly. I used to do, so I’m kinda happy about this new development, you see it even affects adults too, so I shouldn’t give them too much of a hard time. And there are two major locations of toy mess: the living room behind the couch, where they have a play area, and in their bedrooms. One of these two areas is always significantly less messed up than the other, and they settled on a pattern where one does one and the other does the other, and they seek to stick the other with the larger load. . . tears are shed, races are run, it is a huge deal, and the idea of helping when you are finished is far from even plausible. . . basically go through the list of what Paul describes love as, and cross them all off. . . they struggle with this. . . . its a game, it is a competition, it is a fight, it is not in any way love. . . but they are learning and we hope they will mature. Paul says there is always hope. Basically what it all boils down to, is that both of them want to be done, to have done enough, to go on to the next thing, which is typically bath, to be validated in what they have done, praised, rewarded, etc. . . . the work is checked off, and they can move on. . . but this concept of done is the one thing that love does not have. There is no such thing as done, no such thing as enough. . . and Paul is clear on it. Living the life of love is not one of validation, but of grace.
The notion of being done, of validation is what I think after this week of studying is the childish thing we are to give up. We are never done, ever. . . there is always more. . . the self is self contained, but the other is infinite. You can please yourself and be satisfied, but when it comes to the other there is no limit, there is no end, there is no done. Love is infinite in that way. I was talking to someone earlier on in the week and they were celebrating a message that was preached that spoke to them that validated them. . . and they knew it was the word. . . now I knew that message took many many liberties with the Bible story, and pointed that out, but they didn’t want to hear it, they had heard the message, agreed with it, and so the questions were over, the search was done, they had found enough. .. . see how it can work with the mental side of things too. We all want to rest and be done, but it just doesn’t work that way. . . though Christianity has been built on such patterns since the beginning. With all of these ideas in mind I wrote this poem on Friday: I put in in the bulletin too.
I gave it the title Christendom
Whose Bible bids us cease our search? Not one
That I’ve e’er read. Instead it calls us each
To ask, to seek, to knock, in tense ne’er done.
The child succumbs when forceful parents teach
A safe secure path, free from conflicting views,
And walks along that road awhile, and sings
Sweet songs of ign’rant bliss. The chance to choose
May just be the giving up of childish things,
But can the heirs of Constantine e'er let go
The chains that bound success so long? Can Spirit
Be trusted? Can one’s own discernment be free to grow?
These are the questions, institutions fear.
Don’t blame the book when th' same ol' fears of men,
Send us to seek our safe ol' chains again.
Our search is never done, our mission is never done, love is never done. . . which brings me to the close of Paul’s passage here, his final words. . . faith, hope, and love, abide, and the greatest of these is love. . . what do you think that means? I’d love to hear your thoughts at some point. . . until then I’ll just say. . . Amen.