I Corinthians 12:31–13:8

4th Sunday after Epiphany – 1/20/2021

Two weeks from tomorrow, it will be Valentine's Day, once observed to remember the fidelity and genuine love of the martyr St. Valentine for God and others. To be sure, the occasion remains a day of love, but with a whole different look. It is now marked by expressions of romantic love: roses, chocolates, and Hallmark cards.

This morning, this text from I Corinthians contains the best description of Christian love ever written. It is not a love letter. It is a beautiful appeal to love and to love with love more extraordinary than anything this world can imagine, a love more valuable to the world than anything else you or I have or can give.

Now, that is saying something. God has graciously given us a true treasure trove of gifts. In our baptism into Christ, He has forgiven us all our sins, exalted us as co-heirs with Christ, and even put His own Spirit on deposit in us. Through the mouths and pens of His chosen prophets and apostles, God has also given us the precious gift of His holy word, that word that is the very witness, the testimony, of Jesus, the Savior of sinners. As recipients of this saving word, we are gifted to be God's witnesses of truth and life. On top of this, God has also graciously given us all sorts of physical and spiritual abilities, monetary resources, and abundant opportunities to witness the Gospel in our community and the world.

We have been richly blessed. It is tempting to think that if love is in short supply sometimes, it's no big deal. However, the Holy Apostle of the Lord, St. Paul, is clearly saying it is a huge deal! He insists that as marvelous and essential as all these gifts are to each of us personally and the church, they are nothing without love!

Consider this, fellas: What would that woman in your life consider necessary—that you give her lots of attention, spoil her with candy and flowers, and give her that beautifully worded expression of love via Hallmark this coming Valentine's Day—or that you demonstrate your love for her all year long in the ways you treat her, talk to her, and do things with her? I think we all know how she would respond. Chocolates and special attention are lovely, but how do these once-a-year tokens of our affection stack up against making her feel loved all year? Without a year-long commitment to love, our Valentine's gifts seem superficial, self-serving, and hollow gestures!

So it is within the church. Without a genuine love that seeks to use all that God has given us for the sake of others, all our actions and doings, as flashy and as noisy as they might be, will still be as hollow as a big, base drum.

The Apostle Paul's original audience was the Christian church at Corinth. No community of Christians anywhere enjoyed more blessings than they did. They had everything: wealth, good preachers, and spiritual gifts galore. In his opening remarks, Paul states, "I always thank God for you because of His grace given you in Christ Jesus." For in Him, you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and all your knowledge—because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. As a result, you have no spiritual gift.

Few, if any, other congregations of souls at that time or since have ever been so blessed with all these spiritual gifts, especially those of a more spectacularly miraculous nature. "To one is given through the Spirit the message of knowledge; to another faith; to another gift of healing; to another miraculous power; to another prophecy; to another distinguishing between spirits; to another speaking in different kinds of tongues; and to still another tongue's interpretation."

We might be inclined to say, "Wow, this must have truly been a "happening congregation"—so alive in the Spirit—so well equipped to make disciples of Jesus Christ!" We would be wrong. All these gracious gifts of the Spirit, and yet, there was still something conspicuously and tragically absent. You guessed it. There was no love. They rejoiced in their gifts, to be sure, but they were using their talents only to benefit themselves.

Paul spends most of his letter scolding this spiritually rich congregation. In chapters 1–4, he rebukes them for splintering into factions. In chapters 5 and 6 for tolerating gross sins in their midst; in chapters 8–10 for accepting the eating of meat sacrificed to idols regardless of the damage this was causing to their brothers' and sisters' consciences and faith; in Chapter 11, for their discrimination against who could partake of the Lord's Supper based on wealth; and in chapters 12–14 for their insistence on determining who was superior among Christians based on the types of gifts they possessed.

Consequently, in chapter 13, Paul aimed to show them "a more excellent way." That more excellent, or superb, way involves a love beyond all loves, a love that looks at all one possesses as gifts to utilize for the loving benefit of others, especially that of their fellow members in the Body of Christ.

He wants them and us to understand this love is not just lovely; it is required in the Body of Christ. Without love, all our gifts mean nothing and fail to fulfill the purpose for which God graciously gave them to us in the first place.

Paul delineates the necessity of this love by using a literary device known as hyperbole. He offers three exaggerated illustrations of having gifts without love. He postulates: "If I speak in the tongues of men and (even) of angels, but have not to love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." And if I have prophetic powers, understand all mysteries and knowledge, and have all faith to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. "If I give away all I have, and even if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not loved, I gain nothing."

Many of the gifted among the Corinthians had begun to elevate the ability to speak in tongues above all the others. It was almost as if they viewed the ability to speak in tongues as the best evidence that God favored them. Accordingly, those so gifted began to look down their noses at others who did not have this miraculous ability to speak a foreign language they had never learned before. And to show how blessed they were by God, those who could speak in tongues would start blabbering away in the middle of the assembly whenever they felt like it, apparently trying to outdo each other. But no one could understand what they said. So what good was it to others?

Just imagine, however, the potential for excellent good such an ability could have in speaking the Gospel to foreigners. Like the apostles on the day of Pentecost, who were each given the gift of speaking in tongues, you could proclaim the Savior to people in their native language. But that blessing was not being witnessed in the congregation at Corinth. Instead, that sinful, selfish desire to be better than everyone else in every one of us made these gifted people show off their ability without any concern about whether anyone else was benefiting from their gift. And you can bet no one was. Their incessant babbling drove people away, assuming they were crazy loons!

That is still the case among the so-called "charismatic" groups today. They insist that if you can speak in tongues, then that is a sure sign that you have genuinely been baptized by the Spirit or born again. Of course, they then insist that if a person can't speak in tongues, they are, at best, a second-class Christian, and at worst, no Christian! Instead of building up others, they are tearing them down.

Later in chapter 14, Paul points out the utter fallacy and blatant lack of love this attitude about speaking in tongues exhibits. Besides telling these tongue speakers that they have a childish attitude and should desire rather than have the gift of prophecy by which they could benefit people by preaching God's Word in an understandable way to them, Paul rather bluntly tells them that when they enter the worship assembly, they should speak only one at a time and then only if they have an interpreter, and if not then they should sit down and shut up!

Why could Paul speak so boldly and critically to these gifted people? Because, as he says, if the gift of tongues is used merely to elevate and benefit oneself and not others, it doesn't matter what human language you speak or even if you speak in the tongues of the holy angels themselves, your speaking is nothing but an irritating, noisy, clanging gong or crashing cymbal. And who wants to listen to that? It is just so much noise. Such a self-centered use of one's gift demonstrates a total lack of love that is not fitting for those who follow the Lord of Love, Jesus Christ.

Similarly, even the gift of prophecy, which Paul later elevates as the gift that can have the most significant benefit for others because it proclaims God's Word to people, still is nothing if it is merely used to elevate oneself in the eyes of others. "Look at me!" Aren't I a great preacher? God has given me the knowledge to understand all these things, including mysteries that everyone else is unaware of. "Don't you wish you were me?"

What could leave a more sour taste in our mouths than to listen to someone preach to us with an attitude like that? We would be so turned off that we wouldn't listen to their message. Even if they preached the correct Gospel, it would be buried by their bravado! What good would such a prophet be to the church? See how essential love is even for the prophet of God! As one theologian stated, "Without (love), even the most extraordinary spiritual gift is worthless" (Lockwood, p. 455).

And talk about being of no value. What if God graciously blessed you and me with all the world's goods, but we only saw them as something to spend on our pleasures, contributing little to the needs of others or God's kingdom work through our church? Do we benefit no one? Is this love? At the same time, even if you and I give generously in the offering plate but only to get a reasonable tax deduction, merely to impress others, or even to try to earn favor with God, such giving stinks to high heaven and profits nothing! Only giving motivated by a genuine love for God and our brothers and sisters in Christ is a sweet fragrance in God's nostrils and will be blessed by God to be a blessing.

Imagine if God, who has all wealth and ability, did not use them to benefit anyone except Himself! We would know of no benefit whatsoever. His grace would elude us. We would know only His wrath. We would still be lost in our sins.

But God's love is beyond all hyperbole! His love moves Him to use all He has for your benefit and mine. No human being I know of has the passion for genuinely giving away everything he has, even his own body and life, for the sake of others. But our God does. The cross of Jesus exemplifies complete sacrificial love! In that love, in the flesh of Jesus, God has even atoned for our failures to use our gifts in love. He has already paid the price for our lack of love. How's that for a Valentine for you?

On the cross of Jesus, we see the character of true love—God's love for us and the love we are to have for one another in the Body of Christ."Love as I have loved you," Jesus says.

And lest we still need to get the message of the character of this love, or if we begin to confuse it with the world's concept of love, Paul spells it out for us. We read: "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude." It does not insist on its 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, and endures all things. "Love never ends." That is a love beyond all hyperbole!

What a blessing all those gifts given to the Corinthians would have been to that congregation if they had only been guided and utilized with this kind of love! Imagine what a blessing you and I could be to this congregation and our community if we were motivated by the same devotion to exercise and use our gifts. Would we even recognize the place?

So essential is this love that Paul makes the almost unbelievable remark: "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." Is love greater than faith? Doesn't faith save us? Yes, but Paul is not speaking about our trust in God's promise to keep us through Jesus Christ. He is talking about that extraordinary gift of faith that can move a mountain. It is that faith that inspires others to believe. But, according to Paul, love is more significant than faith. Why? Because as one theologian has worded it, "God is not called 'faith' or 'hope' absolutely; He is called 'love.' "Love alone makes us like God." (Bengel). The apostle John says this: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God" (I Jn. 4:7).

God has loved us in Christ to be the world's faithful Valentine!

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