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Serving in Love
1 Cor 13 is a very popular bible passage for weddings, becasue of what it says about love. However, what this chapter says about love is not for the purpose of preparing a couple for married life, but to teach the church how to really love each other as we use our spiritual gifts.
Spiritual Gifts without Love? (1 Cor 13:1-3)
1 Cor 13 begins by warning us of the danger of exercising spiritual gifts without love. The church at Corinth was in danger of being torn apart because of Spiritual Gifts, over disagreements about the use of the more spectacular spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of speaking in tongues. Those that had the gift were insisting that this gift was the sure marker of the spiritual ones in the congregation, and they insisted that it was necessary for them to exercise their impressive spiritual gifts at church. On the other hand, those who did not have the gift were seeking to forbid the use of the gift entirely, and even questioning whether it came from God at all. The debates and disputes between charismatics and non-charismatics that have torn apart the modern church go all the way back to the first century!
And Paul’s answer to both camps is to say that they both need to understand what love is all about. In 1 Cor 12, Paul has been telling them that the church is the body of Christ, where all the parts of the body have different functions and yet all the part are essential to the body as a whole. Paul finished that chapter by encouraging them all to desire eagerly the ‘greater gifts’. But what does Paul mean by the greater gifts – are the greater gifts the more spectacular ones? No, because Paul goes straight on to say “And now I will show you the most excellent way”, and then gives us this wonderful chapter about love. That is, love is the way of seek the greater gifts. The greater gifts are the ones which will enable us to best serve each other in love.
Love is essential to the exercise of our gifts, because without love, our Spiritual gifts are worthless. In verses 1-3, Paul lists various different types of gifts, and shows that each gift, if exercised without love, is nothing. In v.1, Paul says “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”. Paul is talking about the gift of speaking in tongues here in this verse. Some people have thought that the reference to “tongues of angels” means that the gift of speaking in tongues is an actual angelic dialect. This is not really Paul’s point – he is using hyperbole to include all kinds of language - both human and angelic – and if any of this speaking is done without love, then it is nothing more than unpleasant noise.
The same holds true for the gifts of prophecy in verse 2 – the most gifted prophet who can fathom all mysteries – without love, it is worth nothing – in fact, Paul goes further and says if am doing this, “I am nothing”. To those people in the church at Corinth who were big-noting themselves – “look at us, we are the super spiritual ones because we can speak in tongues and we have the gift of knowledge” – Paul’s response is to remind them that exercising spiritual gifts for the sake of serving ourselves or our egos or our need for recognition or significance or importance – that is exercising a gift without love. In fact, they are not spiritual gifts at all – they score a big zero as far as God is concerned.
But it is not just the spectacular gifts which can be exercised without love – the non-charismatic is just as much at risk as the Charismatic. In verse 3, Paul goes on to say If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. A person who gave their life away for the sake of others could still do this out of sense of personal worthlessness, rather than for the sake of another. Again, spiritual gifts apart from love are worth nothing; they gain nothing.
This is a passage that must make us look deep at our own motivations for using –or not using – or gifts. Is it self-importance or self-fulfilment on one hand, or is it self-deprecation on the other. Either extreme suffers the same problem – self it at the centre. And that is the heart of the problem, because that is the antithesis of true love.
Love (1 Cor 13:4-7)
Having told us what it is like when love is absent in verses 1-3, Paul goes on in verse 4-7 to show us what it is like when love is present. I could preach a whole sermon on these 4 verses – if you want this, come to the next wedding I do. But for today, I’m only going to draw out three central ideas that define what love is all about.
The first idea is seen in the theme that links together the first 7 statements - 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking.
The link between all seven statements is summed up in the final one – love is not self-seeking. When Christians exercise their gifts, they do it, not for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of serving others. The other 6 statements are all examples of this kind of attitude – and notice that they are examples which have a particular relevance in a church torn apart by conflicts over spiritual gifts. “Patience” is literally long-suffering; unlike the non-charismatics who wouldn’t put up with the tongues-speakers; Kindness is exactly what the charismatics were NOT doing when they denigrated other Christians; Love doesn’t envy, the opposite perhaps of a non-charismatic envying those with more spectacular gifts. Love does not boast and it is neither proud not rude – the opposite of the “super-spiritual” Christians at Corinth! Paul is showing both parties in the church that they have something to learn about how to exercise their gifts in love. The problem at Corinth was a problem of self – everyone was asking “what is best for me”. By contrast, the way of love is to ask “what is the best way I can serve others?”. The ultimate model of this, of course, is seen in the Lord Jesus, the one who came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Love is not self-seeking; love is self-giving.
Secondly, love is forgiving.. Paul goes on to say “[love] is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” Again, it is easy to see a none-too-subtle backhander to the church at Corinth. The various factions in the church had written to Paul, with complaint and counter-complaint against each other. Paul is reminding them that true love is not like that. True love is not easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs – that is so contrary to human nature that you’d have to say that that kind of forgiveness is unhuman. Which, of course, it is! The model for forgiven is not the human model, but the divine. When God says “I forgive you”, he keeps no record of wrongs. The bible says that, when God forgives, we are washed clean; our sins are removed from us, removed as far as the east is from the west. God does not hold a grudge, but freely forgives all who seek forgiveness. Or if you want another picture of the same thing, think of Jesus, hanging there on the cross, looking down at those who had put him there, and praying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. True love is based on forgiveness; true love seeks reconciliation between parties. That is the way that we are supposed to forgive others. Love is forgiving.
Thirdly, love is everlasting. Verse 7 says – “[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres”. Love is for always, not sometimes. God’s love for us is just like that – God does not love is not fickle, loving us one day and tiring of us the next. God’s commitment to us is for always. Love is forever.
In 1 Cor 13, Paul reminds us that love is self-giving and forgiving and forever. While these are all vital things to tell a married couple – and to all those who are married here, let me say that we would do very well to think about our own relationships and make sure that it is based on self-giving and forgiving and a for-ever commitment – remember that 1 Cor 13 was primarily addressed to, not a couple, but a congregation. It is asking us – are we using our gifts to serve in self-sacrificial ways, are we forgiving each other our disagreements and differences, or are we torn apart by factions and rivalty and suspicions and envy? And will we persevere in serving each always, even through the hard times, or will we love and serve only when it suits us??
Love Outlasts Spiritual Gifts (1 Cor 13:8-13)
In the final part of the chapter, Paul shows us why love matters so much, and that is because love will outlast all the Spiritual gifts. In the end, all the spiritual gifts will cease, but love will remain. See the contrast Paul draws in verse 8 and following – Love never fails – but gifts like prophecy and tongues and knowledge, they will all come to an end on the day that perfection comes. That day is the day of the dawning of the new age – when Jesus returns and brings in his new creation, and when that happens, the spiritual gifts will cease, because there is no longer any need for them. The purpose of the gifts is to serve others in preparation for heaven, and we won’t need to do this any more once we get there. In heaven, there won’t be any need for me to exercising the gift of teaching or administration. Sometimes as Christians it is easy to get caught up in using our gifts to serve that this almost becomes the heart of our relationship with God – we become human doings, not ‘human beings’. Paul is saying – all those gifts that you use for God – all of those are destined to cease. Like a grown man leaves childish things behind, we will leave our spiritual gifts behind. Spiritual gifts are something for this age alone.
Spiritual gifts are merely instruments to use in this age, and we don’t take them with us when we enter the next age. Spiritual gifts are a bit like our material wealth - there is not point hoarding up our gifts or taking pride in our gifts, any more than there is in hoarding up our money or taking pride in our money. Gifts to be used in this age, and nothing more. Spiritual gifts are not of enduring spiritual value. What matters to God - and what will endure into the age to come - is not the gifts of the Spirit, but the fruit of the Spirit’s transformation within is – like a life transformed by love. Gifts will pass away; love never fails. It is all too easy to get caught up in the things that matter less, and neglect the things that matter most. A simple way to test if this is you is to ask the question – What do you want more - to be a gifted Christian, or to be a loving Christian? The message of this chapter is – keep Spiritual gifts in perspective. Gifts will cease; love never fails.
The way of love means using our gifts to serve in self-giving ways, it means being forgiving with each other our disagreements and differences, and it means persevering in using our gifts to serve, whether it is rewarding and fulfilling, or just plain hard work. We need to be a church that uses its gifts to serve each other in love.