The Greatest is Love – 1 Corinthians 13

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game – It’s easy.
There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made.
No one you can save that can’t be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time – It’s easy.
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown.
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. – It’s easy.
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
Of course John Lennon and Paul McCartney were not the first people to recognize just how important love is. They could easily have taken their inspiration from what the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians chapter 13.
This is true in the whole of life, and especially true in our own individual Christian lives and in the life of the church. Love is what matters.
Arguments about spiritual gifts don’t really matter. 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. 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.
None of the other things the Corinthians were arguing about really mattered either. Forms of worship don’t really matter. Which group you belong to and which church leader you are following don’t really matter. Love is what matters! Even the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom would be completely worthless if it was not an expression of love.3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Christians and churches today really need to listen to what the Bible is saying here. There are so many things which Christians think are important. Our Sunday Services: our hymns and our prayers and even our sermons. Without love they are nothing. All our activities: our Toddlers and our Drop In and our Café. Without love they are nothing. The task of evangelizing the world and the battles for social justice in so many areas. Without love they are nothing. Even the big issues that Churches have been arguing about in recent months: women bishops and same sex marriages. Whether we reach the right answers or the wrong answers – without love we are wasting our time. But let’s be clear about what kind of love we are talking about here.
When they wrote, “All you need is love,” Lennon and McCartney were primarily thinking about romantic love. That is what most of their fans were thinking about. But the apostle Paul has a very different kind of love in mind – a much more wonderful form of love, God’s kind of love.
So often when people say they love something, they simply mean they like it very much. Often people use the word love to talk about their passive response to something or to some person. When starry-eyed lovers say they love each other, they simply mean that they like each other very much. “I love you,” sometimes means no more than, “You please me, you excite me, you make me happy.”
But God’s kind of love is not some passive response but always something very active. Love isn’t something we feel but something we do!
The Christians in Corinth were treating each other appallingly, arguing and splitting into factions yet at the same time tolerating all kinds of outrageous sins. They were using spiritual gifts with pride to score points over each other. So Paul spells out to them what God’s kind of love is like.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Sometimes love is expressed in actions which bring blessing to the other person. Patience and kindness. Rejoicing with the truth. Protecting. Trusting, Remaining hopeful and never giving up.
And at the same time love is sometimes expressed by NOT doing something or saying something which would be unloving. God’s kind of love is about NOT being jealous, not boasting or being proud. Not being rude or self seeking. Not getting angry. Deliberately forgetting the wrongs other people have done to us and not being happy when bad things happen to others. This is what God’s kind of love is like. These are the ways God loves us. And these are the ways God calls Christians to love other people as well.
There’s a paradox when we talk about God’s kind of love. Because on the one hand we are commanded to show God’s kind of love to other Christians and also show God’s kind of love to our neighbours. But on the other hand God’s kind of love is impossible for fallen human beings. Because of all our sin we are too selfish and greedy and self-centred and proud to love with the kind of love God has for us. So the command to love is a command we find impossible to obey in our own strength.
The good news is that God gives us the strength to love other people with His kind of love. Romans 5:5 tells us, God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. God gives us strength to love through His Holy Spirit living inside us. The fruit the Holy Spirit produces in our lives is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. (Galatians 5:22). So a vital part of the Holy Spirit’s work is to produce God’s kind of love in our lives. 1 John 4:19 tells us, “We love because God first loved us.”
There will be times when our love runs out. When people or situations stretch our patience and our kindness to breaking point. When we feel we have absolutely no love left to give. When that happens, it is good to remember that as well as commanding us to keep on loving, God will also give us the strength we need to keep on loving with His kind of love. 2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us, 7 For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.
So when our love runs out, we should always turn to God and ask Him to give us the strength to love some more.
We have often used 1 Corinthians 13 as a basis for meditation and reflection on our own experiences of loving others. We won’t do that this evening although you may well wish to do so in your own times of devotion tonight or some time this week. But to remind us of what God’s kind of love is like let me just read how Eugene Peterson translates this passage in THE MESSAGE.
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Love Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Love Doesn’t force itself on others,
Love Isn’t always “me first,”
Love Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Love Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Love Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Love Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Love Puts up with anything,
Love Trusts God always,
Love Always looks for the best,
Love Never looks back,
Love keeps going to the end.
Love never dies!

This is God’s kind of love. And the reason that love matters more than anything else is simply because
God’s kind of love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. God’s kind of love never fails. God’s kind of love never runs out!
The Corinthians were arguing about spiritual gifts. But spiritual gifts only have a place in this world, in this life. We won’t need spiritual gifts in heaven!
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.
We only need spiritual gifts now because we aren’t in God’s presence yet. But one day we will be with God in glory. We will see him face to face. Things which are of value to us now won’t be needed any more.
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
So many of the things people chase after in this life will cease to exist into eternity. So many of the things which seem to be so important now will be of no significance in heaven. Money, possessions, success, status, position, popularity, prestige. These things will all be irrelevant in heaven. Even the little scraps of knowledge and experience we have accumulated in this life will be unnecessary when we see face to face and know fully even as we are fully known. As the Message puts it, “We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us,”
As Christians we put so much time and effort into so many things. Our services. Our activities. Our outreach. Our buildings. So many pieces of paper! None of these things will be in heaven with us. The only things from this life which will continue into eternity will be relationships. Our relationships with other people and supremely our relationship with God.
On my Sabbatical in Uganda I was led to a marvellous book by Tim Stafford called “The Friendship Gap”. He points out that in our busy Western lives we put work before relationships. In contrast, the African way is to put relationships before work. In Africa family and friendships matter more than “getting the job done”. Over the following six weeks I saw so many examples of that. I began to learn that in Africa, or in England, or anywhere where God is at work, the people matter more than the particular pieces of service. None of our buildings or sermons or projects or leaflets or reports or emails will last into eternity. Only our relationships with people will! That’s why love is the most important thing,
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Only our faith, our hope and our love will go with us into glory. And the greatest of these is love! Love never dies. Love lasts forever.

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