Excellent Love

1 Corinthians 13

12 September 2010

Woodley Baptist Church

First morning service


I'm going to break with tradition and begin with the meditation this morning. It's based on something I wrote for our homegroup last year, and I should warn you that I've taken some artistic licence. I'll pause for a while at the end. Feel free to close your eyes: but no falling asleep; it's not allowed in my sermons!

Corinth Baptist Church — my church after I'd fled from Jerusalem — well, I thought it was thriving. There was so much activity: loads of life and spirit, and always full on a Sunday morning.

So you can imagine that Paul's letter came as a bit of a shock. I mean, for twelve whole chapters he just took us apart. He put his finger on divisions, quarrelling, jealousy and strife. He identified boasting, judgementalism and arrogance. He accused us of terrible kinds of sexual immorality. He condemned the lawsuits. He said we are careless of one other, lacking generosity and lacking church discipline. He accused us of tolerating inequality, of humiliating one another, of immaturity and disorder in worship. Twelve whole chapters of it. Page after page after page.

What is wrong with us???

But that was nothing: when chapter thirteen finally came, it was quite a slap in the face, I must tell you.

It's all about love, he said. Without love, all your lively worship is worthless. Without love, all your spiritual gifts are pointless. Without love, all your impressive activity is useless.

Like I say: a real slap in the face. This is love, he said:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own 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, endures all things. Love never ends.ref

This is love, he said. Nothing matters more than this. This is love, and you're not doing it!

As it was read, I couldn't help but remember Jesus as I'd seen him back in Judea. So patient and kind with those who came to him in weakness. Never an irritable word; never a proud word. He forgave all those who hurt him. He put up with so much, but lived with so little. He hated evil, but nothing thrilled him like the truth.

For him love was never only a feeling — of course he sometimes cried from love — but his love was mainly tough. Tough love, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. That's the love that took him to the cross, I suppose: to die for me. I didn't deserve that.

Lord: so many difficult people in our church; so hard to love them. Please make me like Jesus; please help me to love the unlovable.


I wanted to start with that because it puts chapter 13 into context for us, doesn't it? It may be a fine chapter for weddings and posters and even funerals, but that's not why Paul wrote it. Paul wrote this magnificent chapter to show a church, dysfunctional in many ways, how to be church more excellently. Do we long to be an excellent church? Do we long to be Christ glorifying in all that we do? Yes, do we? Then we need to hear 1 Corinthians chapter 13.

The chapter breaks very easily into three parts, starting with love essential in verses 1 to 3.

Love Essential

The church at Corinth was blessed with some high profile spiritual gifts but, Paul says, that means nothing unless they are underpinned by and motivated by love.

Now, I don't think that our main problem is over indulgence in spectacular spiritual gifts, but the same principle applies.

Look at verse 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.ref Without being underpinned and motivated by love, even the most spectacular acts of speaking are just noise. They are pointless; an annoyance.

And the argument from the greater to the lesser is easy: what about how we speak to one another?

When we get together over coffee later, what are you going to talk about? More importantly, why and how are you going to speak?

Unless what you say springs from love — if it's gossip, or hurtful, or boastful, or selfish, or judgemental, or just plain trivial — then please, do us all a favour and shut up! Loveless talk is just noise, and our world is noisy enough without us adding to it.

In verse 2 Paul turns to spectacular gifts of prophecy and knowledge and faith. And again, without being rooted and expressed in love they are useless.

When Penny and I were planning our wedding service with our vicar, I had chosen the passage on love in 1 John chapter 4 for a reading and he asked me why. I said then that it seemed to me that the Christian life was not so much a struggle with doctrine as a struggle with love. Maybe it wasn't the romantic answer that Penny was hoping for, but after 14 and a half years I still find it to be true.

I spend hours most days filling my head with Bible and doctrine and theology — but the real struggle in my Christian life is with love, and often I feel like just a beginner. I have to remember constantly that, for all my study, if I have not love I am nothing.

Paul's third example is a surprise. Sometimes we actually define love as making a sacrifice when we don't really want to. "I don't like you, but I have to love you so I'll try to be nice to you" . "It's the church's gift day, so I feel I ought to write a cheque" . Are these love? Love cannot simply be reduced to resolute self-sacrifice, even the sacrifice of our lives: If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothingref.

Love is essential. Unless love underpins and motivates everything we do together, then the whole thing is utterly pointless. It is love that fills up our gifts and actions with meaning and purpose.

So two questions. First, what is this love which is so essential? Second, why is it so essential to all we do? The next two paragraphs answer these questions in turn.

Love Expressed

The extremely famous verses 4 to 7 show us love expressed.

The point is that love is expressed in relationship. You cannot live isolated from people and experience love. Love is expressed as we meet together, as we talk together, as we work together. All its qualities are defined in relationship with other people.

So, love is patient and kind: which are, along with love itself, two of the fruit of the Spirit. Patience and kindness are other-person centred. Do patience and kindness characterise your interactions with others?

Put negatively, [love] does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angeredref.

Envy and boasting — these focus on what we do or don't have. Envy says "I want what you've got"; boasting says "look what I've got!". Both are fundamentally self-oriented; they are relationship killers.

Likewise, pride, rudeness, quick temperedness: these are all self-centred. They are all attitudes that spring from putting ourselves ahead of others.

What about this one at the end of verse 5? [Love] keeps no record of wrongsref.

Think for a moment: who has wronged you in the church? Who has upset you, or hurt you, or slighted you, or exasperated you? Who are you wary of? Who would you prefer to avoid in future? Come on, what names spring to mind?

I guess for many of us there will be a little list, or perhaps a long one. And there is the evidence, exhibit A, that we just haven't grasped love.

Love does not keep a record of wrongs! We strive, don't we, to "forgive and forget" . But so often what this means is, forgive, and then forget that we have forgiven. Love keeps no record of wrongs.

But love is not soft. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truthref. Sometimes the category of love is used to whitewash sin. We overlook sin in our congregations because to confront it would be considered "unloving". Well, you can't read 1 Corinthians and come away with that impression. Paul condemns sin again, and again and again: and this too is love.

Ultimately, the goal of love is to build up the church. Paul mentioned this back in chapter 8, Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.ref, and he returns to the theme in chapter 14, where six times he talks about building up the church.

So, all these ways love is expressed have a goal. They are all part of building up the church, the body of Christ. Love is expressed in relationship.

If it's true that love is expressed in relationship, then, to grow in love, we need to relate a lot, don't we. This church will not become excellent in love if we just meet for an hour a week, and go our separate ways. Love is expressed in relationship.

There are lots of opportunities for us to met together in relationship, not least the small groups that meet around the area. If you haven't yet joined a small group, can I please urge you to do so? It's not too late.

Can I also put in a plea here for church monthly meetings? I am aware that they seem to be a bit out of favour at the moment and many people are rather down on them. But, if you are a church member, I really, really recommend them.

The point is that church meetings will find you out! Are you patient? Are you kind? Are you easily angered? Are you more interested in self than others? Are you rude? Are you keeping a record of wrongs? Church meetings will find you out; they will test your love. I love church meetings! It is when we work together, when we butt heads with one-another, that's when we really learn to love.

Love expressed: love is expressed in relationship.

Love Eternal

Our third heading is love eternal, verses 8 to 13. These come back to the question, why does love matter so much?

Of all the things we do in church life, it is love that gives us a glimpse of heaven, because God is the source of love, he is love, he defines love.

In three different ways in these verses Paul emphasises that church life here and now is imperfect, it is provisional.

He tells us that all the spectacular gifts — tongues, prophecies, knowledge — are only temporary. They are only a stop-gap. He then likens this phase in the church's life to childhood: squabbling over these things is childish. And third, we need spiritual gifts only because we have a dim view of glory. The Corinthians were known for making good quality bronze mirrors, but experiencing reflected glory is no substitute for seeing him face to face.

And one day we will see him face to face; one day we will know God fully! And the only transcendent quality, the only thing that will remain of what we do today will be love.

Meanwhile, all our gifts, all our activities are designed to be channels by which his love flows into this world. We are like pipes and plumbing and taps which draw on Christ's infinite eternal reservoir of love, through which eternity flows into our world.

It is reassuring to note that love underpins our church's vision statement, which is "United in knowing Jesus and making him known" .

Love for one another is a fundamental part of knowing Jesus: 1 John 4 verse 8, Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is loveref.

Because love is connected with eternal reality, it cannot be counterfeited. Everything else we do as a church can be mimicked, it can be faked. But love like this is only available from God. If we love like this, it shows that we truly know Jesus.

And love for one another is a fundamental part of making him known: John chapter 13 verse 35, By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one anotherref.

Of course we are going to fail in love. The love described in this chapter is so alien to us, so against the grain of our human nature. There's no point me standing here and simply exhorting you "Love more! Love more!" That's just hot air and will soon disperse.

Paul reminds us that love springs from eternity. If we want to love, we must come to the eternal one, the One who is love and cast ourselves on him. We need to beg him, "make me more like Jesus!" And he will.


So, let's hear the challenge of 1 Corinthians chapter 13 this morning. And let's make sure we each hear it for ourselves.

Nobody can disagree with a statement like "the church ought to be more loving" — we can nod our heads and go away completely unchanged. It's like the government saying "we must bring down the national debt" . It seems like a really good idea until our tax demand arrives, until our services are cut.

So it is with love: the message here is not so much "the church needs to love more" : the message is you need to love more, and I need to love more.

What are you going to do this week, this morning to grow in love?