I Corinthians 13: Love Never Grows Old

given on Sunday, February 15, 2009

Are you done yawning yet?  I know you had to think, here we go again; but I just could not get away from the topic this weekend.  Here we have had Valentine’s Day and tomorrow is Presidents’ Day so many have been given an extra long weekend to revive their spirits.  The month is filled with all types of attention—heart health, Black History, and I am sure I have forgotten some.  Therefore, I apologize for giving you one more sermon on I Corinthians 13.
Now, with that said, how does that verse that is typically read at weddings really fit into our daily lives whether we are married or not, whether we celebrate Valentine’s or not?  I propose that we step away from all the clichés and look at the circumstances of Paul’s ministry to Corinth and compare them to today’s circumstances.
Corinth was a community that was wrapped up in commerce, especially shipping.  The community was a hub of activity and many nationalities walked the streets.  The Jewish community was just one culture that was co-existing in this metropolitan world.  At the same time, the social climate was filled with all types of behaviors.  The behaviors of the people were far from ethical and the challenges to follow the Jewish customs and the new Christian laws were difficult to manage.
In my understanding, the community in Corinth was very similar to our metropolitan communities today.  There was danger in just walking the streets.  There was an attitude of promiscuity.  The ethics of our Christian lifestyle are challenged each and every day whether in our homes, in our neighborhoods, or on the job.  We can be swept away by the daily onslaught of unethical, immoral, or apathetic behaviors that we become numb and do not manage to maintain our personal Christian lifestyle.
Paul saw this happening in Corinth and his letter to them was to scold the young Christians and to provide them the encouragement, the lessons to strengthen them in their beliefs and their lifestyle.  With that understanding of the setting, why did Paul write Chapter 13?
We are accustomed to reading this in the context of a wedding.  The UM Hymnal has a response for the marriage ceremony that reads:  And two shall become one in love, for we are members of Christ’s body.  But as our hymnal points out, this can also be read in the context of the Greatest Commandment:  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Reading chapter 13 with the Greatest Commandment as the frame, the words read differently. Let’s go back to the scripture and look at those first three verses:
1 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. 2If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. 3-7If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Reading these words in the context of Jesus’ commandment can remind each one of us that God is love.  Love is the Holy Spirit that fills us up and leads us into action.  Jesus is the embodiment of Love demonstrating to each one of us how to live our lives with Love serving as our operating systems.
The concern that I think many of us have is how in the world do we live out this concept of love in a world so full of corruption, mental and physical challenges, and non-believers.  The guidelines are right there in I Corinthians 13:
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,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

Paul wrote down these guidelines talking to a community living in almost the same type of community we now live in.  He knew they needed straight talk and that if he did not give them something concrete to work on, they would not manage.  By looking at these same words today, we, too, can find the concrete guidelines on how to love one another each day, if not each hour of our lives.  Love becomes a lifestyle, it is not something reserved simply within the confines of a marriage. (Of course if we use this definition of love in our marriages, I am sure the divorce rate would drastically drop.)
Today the hymns we have sung are not that familiar, but the words are built on the very same principles outlined in I Corinthians 13.  We opened with “Jesus Loves Me,” probably the first song we learned in our Sunday School.  We teach our young people to love, but do we demonstrate love.  At school, we witness student after student who have lost the meaning of love.  For them “love” may have been demonstrated by parents who have yelled, screamed, hit, ignored, or abused the children in ways that have destroyed trust.  The students come to school and teachers try to reach out in love, but students have no idea how in the world to respond.  The broken trust has built into them defense mechanisms that destroy relationships with their peers, with the teachers, and beyond—right down to the shoplifters, the drug users, and the cop-haters.
We are challenged to revive Love.  We are challenged to demonstrate love to the young people within our communities in hopes that we can teach them that love can be the best operating system they can have to live a life which is happy and rewarding.  The cycle of a loveless culture needs to be stopped; Love needs to be redefined.  Love does not mean simply a sex act.  Look at the words of the hymn number 111, “How Can We Love”:
How can we name a Love that wakens heart and mind,
indwelling all that we know or think or do or seek or find?
Within our daily world, in every human face,
Love’s echoes sound and God is found, hid in the commonplace.

If we awoke to life built on a rock of care
that asked no great reward but firm, assured, was simiply there,
We can, with parents’ names, describe. And thus adore,
Love unconfined, a father kind, a mother strong and sure.

Those two verses outline almost the same ideas except that they describe a picture of life where Love is the basis of how we view the world and the people around us.  Love here is looking at the world as God looks at it.  Listen or look at these words again:
When people share a task, and strength and skills unite
in projects old or new, to make or do with shared delight,
our Friend and Partner’s will is better understood,
that all should share, create, and care, and know that life is good.

In my mind, the application of Love really is not that difficult.  I know that the outcome is worth the effort.  The final verse completes the picture:
So in a hundred names, each day we all can meet
a presence, sensed and shown at work, at home, or in the street.
Yet every name we see, shines in a brighter sun:
In Christ alone is Love full grown and life and hope begun.

Still we get up each morning, go to work or school, and by the end of the day we are worn down.  My question is did you use your Love operating system?  Did you walk in those doors with Love operating first and foremost?  Did Love protect you?  If you did not greet the morning looking at the world through God’s eyes, you probably left Love turned off.
The final verses of the chapter emphasizes the importance of Love over any other quality:
8-10Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.
11When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.
12We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then; see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!
13But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
No other words are necessary.  The scriptures speak to us as much today as they did when Paul first wrote that letter to the Corinthian church.  Why do we ignore them?  Why do we not teach them to our children?  Why do we fail to implement the basic skills outlined in these verses?  Maybe the answer is that they are too familiar.  Maybe we have heard the references to the “Love Chapter” and think they are referring to marriage only.  Maybe we just shrug the words off as not something that applies to our lives today.  No matter what reason we have for sliding over these words, let us look back at them and make a decision to put them into practice.
Today, let’s love one another.  Let us put our hope and trust into the very Love that God gives each one of us and use it.  When we feel challenged by life’s challenges or by the attitude of someone who is tired, disrespectful, mean, or whatever, let’s turn those frowns upside down, put on a smile and let love take over.  Let us remember that despite all, lover never fails.
Dear Loving Father,
We are sorry that your words have not moved us to action.  We have heard them before, but today help us to understand the power of love.  We know we are safe here in this sanctuary, but when we leave we need to know that love never fails.  Love becomes our shield as we move about in this world, but help us use love as our way of making a change.  Thank you, Father, for loving us so much that you gave us your son so that we may receive your love now and forever.            –Amen

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