ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE – 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
I used to know a man who I considered to be the most talented minister of religion I’d ever met. He was a brilliant preacher, both in the content of his sermons and his ability to communicate. He was an outstanding leader who, if he’d gone into business, would have become one of those multi-million-dollar salary CEOs. He was highly intelligent and could debate with the best. Sometimes he would demonstrate great generosity. But he could also be one of the most insensitive people I’ve ever knownand seemed totally unaware of it.
For many years he was the head of a large Christian organization, and once, so I was told, came out of his office to find a new employee, on his first day there, dressed in casual clothes rather than a business suit.
Rather than having a quiet word with the young man’s supervisor, he very publicly delivered a withering rebuke to the young man for not meeting the required dress standards; then, like a headmaster with a boy caught smoking behind the toilets, ordered him to ‘follow me.’
He marched him to the lifts and took him down to the city streets below, where he ushered him into a men’s wear shop, chose a dark suit, with matching shirt and tie, and ordered him to try it on. When it met with his approval, he himself purchased it and ordered the young employee to follow him back to work. There he paraded the young man before the other staff, then returned to his own office, convinced that he had just given his staff an example of leadership and Christian generosity.
The young employee, however, totally humiliated, slunk back to his desk, not knowing if he should feel grateful or angry, while the other staff members just rolled their eyes and cringed. They’d seen it all before. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with their leader’s generosity; it was the way he did it and why he did it.
I think this illustrates what the Apostle Paul was trying to say in what is often considered one of the best-known chapters in the Bible; that great description of Christian love: 1Corinthians chapter 13. No other passage in the Bible uncovers the weaknesses and pretensionsof much that we do for God quite as powerfully as this one. If there’s one theme that runs right through this chapter it’s that Christian love is not just about what you do, but how you do it.
In English we only have one word for love, but the Greeks had four: philia, the love of friendship; storge, family love; eros,romantic love; and agape, which was the lovethat God has for people. This last one – agape- is the word most often used in the New Testament. It wasn’t commonly used, but the writers of the New Testament books realized that the love of God, seen in Jesus, needed a word that implied far more than the other words for love. So, they picked this one – agape.
But what’s so special about it? The first three words for love – philia, storge and eros -all describe a love that originates in our emotions. But agape describes a love that starts in the mind as an act of the will - something we chooseto do, rather than something that springs from natural affection. And like God, we do it as an act of grace, with no hidden motives.
And the point that Paul is making in this passage here is thatwhatever we may do for God and whatever we may accomplish for God, is actually worthlessif it is not motivated by this type of love.
In the first three verses of the chapter, Paul dismisses much of their preaching, praying and ecstatic speaking, which they were so proud of,as nothing more than an irritating noise – a clanging gong or clashing cymbal. He says that their pride in their impressive gifts for ministry is empty, because they don’t impress God. And, as for those acts of self-sacrifice; he says they are often motivated not by the interests of others but by self-interest – to put on a show and become a hero.
The only thing that gives any real value to these things is that selfless and magnanimous agape love that reflects the love of God.
If love like this is so fundamental for our life and ministry, we need to understand more clearly what it truly is. The next four verses sum it up.
‘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.’
If you examine this passage carefully you see that Paul uses verbs rather than nouns to describe this love; and the verbs are all in the present continuous tense. What this implies is that agape love is not so much in what you doas in how you do it and keep on doing it.
The things he lists here may all sound very ordinary, but they are probably the most difficult habits to cultivate. Actually, they perfectly describe the character of Jesus himself, as becomes clear when you read the passage again and substitute the name Jesus for the word love.
There are fifteen characteristics that Paul uses to describe this God-like love, including that it does not give in to jealousy, showing-offor resentment of other people’s success and recognition. Whereas we so often become consumed by these things, Jesus never seemed at all interested in them. He left his reputation in the hands of God.
It’s hard to think of someone – especially someone in public life – whose character is like this. Abraham Lincoln was one of them. Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote about this. He said that no one treated Abraham Lincoln with more contempt than a lawyer named Edwin Stanton. Stanton called him "a low cunning clown", and "the original gorilla" and said that people shouldn’t go to Africa to capture a gorilla when they could find one in Springfield, Illinois.
But Lincoln never retaliated. In fact, he made Stanton his minister for war because he considered him the best man for the job, and always treated him with courtesy. But years later, in the little room where Lincoln’s body was taken after his assassination, Stanton looked down on Lincoln's silent face, and said: "There lies the greatest leader of men the world has ever seen." – a man who refused to let resentment or jealousy cloud his actions.
Love is no braggart and is not inflated with its own importance. That’s how Jesus was. That’s how he calls us to be.
One of the most searching of these characteristics of agape love is in verses 5 and 6: ‘Love keeps no record of wrongs… does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.’ The Message puts this way ‘Love doesn’t … revel when others grovel.’
There’s a perverse streak in human nature – including ours – which actually enjoys evil, particularly when we see it in other people. We can easily find ourselves falling into the trap of finding pleasure in seeing others fail and fall. It is the very opposite of love, which wants to see others stand and grow, which is saddened when they fail, which honestly rejoices when others rejoice and weeps when they weep.
And one thing it certainly does not do is gossip, particularly that most insidious form of gossip when we pretend we are merely sharing a need for prayer. 1stPeter says: ‘Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.’ ie: it keeps quiet about things.
Finally, in verses 8 to 13, he speaks of the endlessness of love. He stresses its absolute permanency and completeness. When all the things in which we glory have passed away love will still stand. As things are, what we see are mere reflections of ultimate reality, as in the polished metal mirrors of the day, which, at best, only gave an vague reflection.
Paul is saying that in this life we see only the reflections of God and are left with much that is mystery. We see that reflection in the wonders of nature, and we see it most of all in Jesus Christ. But even then, our understanding is still like that of a child.
The Corinthian Christians, like so many believers today, thought that the most important things in the life of faith were: knowledge, speaking God’s word with power and praying with the ecstasy of angels.
But Paul says No! The only things that really matter, and the only things we’ll take with us when we depart this life will be:faith, hope and love. And of these, the greatest is love – that God-like agape love that is not the natural product of our emotions but comes from a Spirit inspired decision to live and act as Jesus lived and acted.
It’s love – this God-like agape love - that leads us on to the day when the veil, at last, will be drawn aside and we shall see face to face and know even as we are known; because God is love.