1 Corinthians 13

April 14, 2002


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

Like many of you, I filed my tax returns this past week (or are you waiting for tomorrow?). When I received the various completed forms back—and there were many of them—I quickly scanned until I came to the bottom line. I wished I hadn’t when I got there, but I did. I didn’t pay much attention to Schedules C, E, T, V and X, and all the other schedules that were there in this rather complicated form—I wanted to know the bottom line.

Do you want to know the bottom line—the bottom line about living the Christian faith? Paul tells us here in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13.

He tells us, first of all, about the supremacy of love (verses 1-3). Paul is speaking hypothetically—“If I…” he says on a number of occasions, and he uses rather extreme examples to prove his point:
1. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,” Paul begins. One would expect such an ability to be helpful to both Paul and others. I have often wished that I could speak Spanish, and not a single trip to the Middle East has passed me by without my regretting my inability to speak Arabic. Speaking in the tongues of mortals and or angels would, no doubt, have been extremely beneficial. Without love if I could do that, Paul says I’d be a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.
2. “If I have prophetic powers, understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have so much faith, that I could move mountains,” Paul continues. One could expect such gifts and abilities to come from very special people, the kind of people that the Corinthians clearly held in high esteem. If I could all of the things that all of you people put an incredible amount of emphasis on, but didn’t love, I am nothing.
3. “If I give away all of my possessions,” which you will recall is precisely what Jesus asked the rich man to do in Mark 10, “and if I am willing to endure extreme persecution,” Paul concludes. One would expect such commitments to produce certain rewards. But without love–I gain nothing.

Paul’s examples, to be sure, are extreme. They are clearly connected to important and prestigious gifts and abilities in the Corinthians’ minds. How would you complete the hypothetical statement? If I were to write a hundred books and gain an international reputation; if I were to climb the corporate ladder and give half of my earnings to the poor; if I were to be captain of the basketball team or land the leading role in the high school musical; if I were to…but didn’t love, I accomplish nothing, I gain nothing, I am nothing.

Paul talks secondly about the qualities of love (verses 4-7). He doesn’t come right out and define love—how can you? How can you adequately capture the wonder of love in a single definition? I was walking around the yard with my wife the other day, watching daffodils springing up everywhere. The Zerchers loved daffodils. We bought their house and it’s an interesting mystery every year to see where daffodils come up. They’re beautiful. So I looked in Webster’s dictionary— the unabridged dictionary, by the way—for a full definition of daffodil—“A daffodil is a plant of the genus Narcissus, (isn’t that wonderful?), it has a bulbous root (this is funny). The genus includes many species known also as daffadilly, daffodilly, daffowodilly.” I’d rather just look at the daffodil.

So, too, with Paul. “Let me not define love; let me just describe it,” he seems to say. He begins by painting a verbal picture by which he mentions seven things that love is and 8 things that love is not. Love is not envious; doesn’t get jealous about everything. Love isn’t boastful; it doesn’t have to tell everybody all it does. It’s not arrogant; it’s not rude; it doesn’t disregard the feelings and needs and concerns of others. It’s not self-seeking, insisting all the time on its own way. It’s not easily angered. It doesn’t keep a record of everybody’s wrongs—“you know when you did that to me two years ago.” Whatever such responses and attitudes and actions might be and wherever they might come from, they are not love. They don’t belong in Paul’s painting—they are an unwanted bristle that came out of the brush while the paint was still wet. They’re that nagging gnat that landed on the freshly painted door before it had a chance to dry. They don’t belong in the painting.

Instead, Paul, now holding a pallet, dips his brush into multiple colors, and proceeds. Love is patient, kind; love rejoices in the truth. Love protects; it bears all things; it trusts thinks the best of people. It hopes; it perseveres. It doesn’t give up easily. It doesn’t discard people. It doesn’t throw them onto the ash heap, any more than that we want to, in my own family, throw away Gus, the guy my son asked prayer for this week. He lived in our home, and now the warrant is out for his arrest. Love is special.

Paul talks lastly about the permanence of love in verses 8 through 13. Love, for Paul, is not only superior to everything else and wonderful in every way, it is unending. Paul refers here to three highly regarded gifts—prophecy, speaking in tongues, and knowledge—all three of these gifts enable people to know more about God and how he works in the world. But some day when we are eventually ushered into his very presence, such gifts will no longer be necessary and will be rendered inoperative. It’s like an adult abandoning childish ways that are no longer needed, or the difference between seeing the reflection of somebody in a mirror and seeing them face-to-face.

When we stand in the presence of God, all temporary things will fade away, but love will remain unchanged. Even faith will give way to clear vision, Paul tells us elsewhere (2 Cor. 5:7), and hope will be swallowed up in realization (Rom. 8:24ff).

But love is love. It’s permanent. It’s unending. It’s love.

I don’t know exactly what heaven will be like the biblical writers grasp for metaphors and tell us that heaven will have streets lined with gold. They’ve been trying to describe the most amazing place that they can imagine. I don’t know exactly what it will be like. But I have this overwhelming sense that love will knock us off our feet. It will be so thick and so heavy, so obvious. In the meantime, God has shed his love abroad on all of our hearts, and has asked us to practice life in heaven right here on earth. With our children. With our colleagues as ornery as they can be. With our spouses as stubborn as they can be. With our neighbors as insensitive as they can be. With our classmates as self-seeking as they might be. With people who are different from us. With the teenager who gets ridiculed in high school all the time and he doesn’t need it here in the church. With the person in your pew whose past week wreaks. With someone a few pews in front of you who doesn’t speak quite as well as you do. This God who is love has invited us to practice life in heaven while we’re here on earth.

Here’s the bottom line: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “if you have love one for the other (John 13:35).” Without love, we accomplish nothing, we gain nothing, we are nothing.