Sunday, February 27, 2022

A Still More Excellent Way

 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.

When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.

But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Sermon for Quinquagesima Sunday                                   02/27/22

A Still More Excellent Way

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Our text this morning is a very popular passage of Scripture.  It speaks about love, and does so beautifully.  It is often used as a wedding Scripture by people who do not understand it, and who have no intention of following what it teaches. It just sounds good.  Well, this morning we are going to look at what it says –  and what it says is what St. Paul calls "A still more excellent way".  It is the way of Agape love.  Our theme, this morning, is "A Still More Excellent Way."

The first thing our text says, in the first three verses is, "without Love, I am nothing!"  None of the things I can do have any power or importance without love.  Hearing this, there is something within each of us that cries out, "Surely something I do counts, somehow."  But Paul says that without love, the sort of love that God has and shows toward us, none of it matters – it is useless and possibly even counter-productive.  Even the best we have and do and intend is nothing without a genuine, God-like love.

Paul starts with speaking in tongues – both those languages that can be understood by men and those languages that only angels understand.  Tongues alone mean nothing.  Without love, all the words we can say in any language in which we may say them are no more than an irritating gong or discordant cymbals.

"Surely," you say, "if I have the learned all of the doctrines, then I am at least part way there."  Paul says, "No."  He says that I am nothing even if I know everything, and even if God Himself speaks through me, if I do not have love.  You need Prophecy and Knowledge but they are not enough by themselves.  They are not even significant without love.

Faith!, you say.  If I have faith I am safe because we are saved by grace through faith.  But Paul says that even this is not enough!  Even if I have enough faith to move mountains by telling them to get up and move, I am nothing.  Faith is not genuine, saving faith without love.

So, what I say and what I know and what I believe is not enough.  Surely, if I add my actions, and they were consistent with faith and all, then I am secure!

Once again, the Apostle Paul writes that it profits me nothing.  Even if I give all of my possessions to help the poor, or suffer horribly for the faith – he says – deliver my body to be burned – It does no good.  I can still miss the mark.  I can still fail to be a genuine Christian.  Note that even with the evident and abundant gifts of the Holy Spirit, without love I have nothing and I am nothing.  I must have love.

Then, Paul takes over four verses to picture this love for us.  He does it positively and negatively – what love is like, and what love is not like.  This is a picture of how love looks in real life.

Let me take the negative first.  These are words used to describe what love is not like.  If you see these things in yourself or others, then what you are seeing is not love, nor is the one doing them acting on love.

Love is not jealous.  We don't envy one another from love.

Love does not brag.  And, following that thought, love is not arrogant.

Love does not acting unbecomingly.  What a broad and comprehensive term: "unbecomingly." It means to say that love is attractive, not ugly, not repulsive.

Love does not seek its own.  That means that love is not self-centered.  Putting number one first, often thought to be ‘only reasonable', is not part of love.  The one who does it is not acting in love when he or she does it.

Love is not provoked.  Following in the same sort of thought, love does not take into account a wrong suffered.  That means that love is forgiving.

And finally, love does not rejoice in unrighteousness.  We take no pleasure in sin or wrong of any kind.  It seems to me that this means that gossip cannot be part of love, or flow out of one who is acting in love.  It also seems that we could not find pleasure or entertainment in unrighteousness, if we are living in and from love.  That suggests that this kind of love limits our entertainment options a bit.

On the other hand, Paul tells us what love does look like.  In many ways, it is the mirror image of the negative.  For example, love is patient.  If love is not centered in self but it is focused on others, patience makes perfect sense.  It is willing to wait for the beloved to produce what it seeks, and to forgive its failures, when needed.

Love is kind.  I hope I don't need to comment here.

Love rejoices in the truth.  It rejoices in any and every truth, because the Beloved is the way, the Truth, and the life.

Love bears all things.  This requires patience and forgiveness – and stamina.

Love believes all things.  This does not mean that love is gullible, it means that love is trusting.  We tend to take people at their word, unless we have good reason to doubt it in each specific case.

Love hopes all things.  That means that love works through faith.  We always look for the best, if we are acting on love.  Parents who love their children always look for the best, even when they have a long history of getting much less.  They look for what they hope for.

Love endures all things.  Love is not easy to destroy.  Affection and physical attraction are fragile things, but love is enduring and durable.  That is because affection and physical attraction focus on the one loving, and true agape love focuses on the one loved.

Finally, Paul sums all of these qualities up, sort of, and says, Love never fails.  Love never fails?  But who could be like this?  Who could love like this?

The answer is that Paul is not writing about us, first and foremost.  He is writing about God's love!  He is writing about real love not the sin corrupted, pathetic and pale copy of love that we prattle about in our love songs and write about in our love stories and get all warm and squishy about in the movies.  God is telling us about His love for us, and the love that He would have us live out for one another in Jesus Christ.  We each have it in us, because God gives it to us – pours His own on us, and installs it within us along with His Holy Spirit when He makes us His own!  This is the still more excellent way, of which Paul writes.

Paul then seems to break away from this love talk to talk about other things, like how we perceive reality.  When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.  It is only an appearance that the topic has changed.  He is still talking about love and us and the still more excellent way.  He is challenging the readers – and you and I this morning – to think like grown-ups, to see clearly, and to face the truth.  And what is the truth about this agape love?

The first truth is that agape love is an act of will, not primarily emotion.  Your emotions will be involved, but they are incidental.  This is a love of the intellect and will.  It is a love which sees the beloved in all their glory and all their shame, honestly.  Such agape love then sees the need of the one who is loved and intelligently plans to meet that need, or those needs if they are multiple.  Then, the one who loves with this agape love puts that plan into action without regard for circumstances – or personal risk or cost, for the sake of the other, the beloved!

The love Paul was writing about is not simply "just like God's love for us," it is the love which God has for us and which He has poured out on us!  The only way we can have this love for others is if God pours His love into us until it runs over and flows out of us.  He loved us.  He saw our need in sin, and planned to do the impossible, because that is what we needed.

He planned to punish sin, and thereby remain just and holy, and still rescue us from the guilt and punishment of our sins.  He sent His Son to be One of us, God in human flesh and fully human while still fully God.  They said it couldn't be done.  They said nobody could do it.  It is a logical impossibility.  But God tells us in Isaiah 55, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts."  God found a way to do what many, even many of those who call themselves Christians, said was impossible – still say is impossible.

God sent His Son to be born of a woman, and to keep the Law of God perfectly, and then Jesus died for us, taking the wrath of God against our sins on Himself, and dying the death we have earned, so that He could forgive us and give to all who believe eternal life with Him.  That is the love about which Paul writes.  Without this love we are nothing but death even as we live.  Without this love flowing through us, we are nothing no matter what we do.

Agape is essential and it is eternal.  We need it from God, and God has given us His love.  If we are God's, this love must be part of us for God is love.  We cannot be anything or do anything that is significant or lasting or valuable without this love.  A true Christian is filled with this love and lives out this love – not as an emotion, but as a Spirit given, and Spirit worked act of both the intellect and of the will.  Being a Christian is therefore a deliberate, not a natural, "doing what comes naturally" kind of thing.

Word and Sacrament play into our living out of this love very powerfully because -- God is the Source and the Power behind this love for us, and behind this love in us, and behind this love from us.  He works in us through the Word and Sacraments, and only through the Word and Sacraments, so if we want this love for us or in us, we must come faithfully to the Word and Sacraments – the visible signs of the love of God.

And having received from the riches of God's love, we must be like Him.  We must act like Him, with patience, forgiveness, and endurance.  We must act with others, our neighbors, in mind, with them as the objects of our love.  That is clear when Jesus commands His disciples to love one another.  But when I say "we must love", I do not mean "must" as though it is a law, a rule to be followed.  I mean that this love within us is so powerful and pervasive that it will transform those in whose hearts and souls it rests.

The message this morning of this lovely and popular passage of Scripture is that still more excellent way of love, Real, Christian love.  Anything else is a deception.  Jesus said all of this more simply, and just as beautifully in John 13:35, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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