The Greatest of These

January 30th, 2022 homily on 1 Cor. 13:1-13 by Pastor Galen

Super Powers

If you could have any superpower you wanted, what would it be? Maybe you’d like to be able to fly, or to disappear, or travel through time.

A friend of mine says that if he could have any superpower in the world, it would be the ability to reach behind his back and pull out a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies whenever he wanted. How many of you would like to have that gift?

Here in our passage today, the apostle Paul lists some pretty amazing gifts, that are kind of like superhero powers. Here are a couple of the powers that Paul talks about:

The ability to speak any language in the world (v. 1) The ability to tell the future (v. 2a) The ability to make a mountain move just by telling it to move (vs. 2b)

Those would be some pretty cool superpowers, wouldn’t they?

I would love that first one — wouldn’t that be amazing to be able to speak Spanish, Chinese, Russian, French, German, Swahili, and all the other languages in the world so that you could communicate with anyone?

Or, what if you could always know what’s going to happen before it happens?

What about the ability to make things move just by commanding them to move? This would absolutely be the superhero gift I would choose – especially on laundry days. Imagine if all you had to do was say, “laundry, be folded and put away!” That would be wonderful.

But Paul tells us that even if we had all of the superpowers in the world, or even if we did incredible self-sacrificial acts of heroism, they would all be worthless without one very important thing: Love.

Paul is saying, it doesn’t matter how powerful you are, or how many wonderful things you do to help other people on a regular basis, if the things you do are not motivated by love, they are meaningless. As we’ve seen over and over again, by people who rise to the top of corporate ladders or who amass political power or wealth but lose their moral and ethical grounding, power without love can actually be a very dangerous thing.

Power without Love

The reason Paul was writing this to the people in Corinth is that some of the Corinthians thought that their particular gifts or abilities were better than others.

As we learned a few weeks ago, God has given each and every person in the Church gifts to be used for the building up of the church, and for the common good. These gifts range in diversity from teaching, to preaching, to administration and hospitality. Some of the gifts in the Corinthian church even resembled the “superpowers” we talked about above – like speaking in unknown languages, and prophesying, and healing people.

The problem is that some of the people in Corinth thought that their gifts were better or more important or more spiritual than other people’s gifts. Perhaps the teachers thought they were more valuable than those who did the administrative work. No doubt the leaders thought they were more significant than the people who collected the tithes and offerings, or the people who were given the ability to heal or speak in unknown languages thought that their gifts were more spiritual than the people who were given in hospitality.

And you know what? I don’t think that the Corinthians were the only people who ever thought that way. The reality is that all of us probably value the things that we’re good at, and if we’re not careful we might have a tendency to look down on people who aren’t gifted in the same ways we are.

If you have the gift of hospitality and you are really good at making people feel welcome and at home, it’s probably really frustrating to go to someone’s house who isn’t very hospitable. Or, if you’re really gifted at teaching, it can be very frustrating to be taught by someone who is not gifted in that same way. It’s so tempting to sit their and quietly judge, thinking to ourselves, “That’s not the way I would do it!”

But what Paul told the congregation in Corinth in the previous chapter is that each and every member of the Church has a unique gift and a valuable role to play in the church. Every spiritual gift is equally important. The preacher is not more important or significant than the Sunday School teacher. The greeters and ushers are not more important than the janitors. We all have a vital role to play in the Church, and just like the various parts of the human body need each other in order to function, in the same way in the Church (often called the Body of Christ) we are interdependent on one another.

Noisy Gongs and Clanging Cymbals

And now here in this beautiful and poetic chapter, Paul takes it a step further by pointing out that no matter what our spiritual gifts or roles are, and no matter how much we’ve sacrificed our time or energy or resources to help other people, if what we do is not motivated by love, it’s worthless.

Paul uses the analogy of a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Both of those instruments can be really beautiful when played at the just the right moment in an orchestral suite. But these same instruments can be really irritating and annoying when played incessantly or at the wrong time.

And Paul says what it’s like when we do even wonderful, supernatural, amazing, self-sacrificial things for any other reason other than love.

Probably all of us have met someone who does nice things for other people but for the wrong reasons. They want others to be indebted to them. Outwardly they do nice things for others, but inwardly they are keeping a mental list of everyone who owes them favors. On the outside they appear servant-hearted, but when you scratch the surface you find that down deep they’re really self-centered.

They’re like the neighbors in those old TV sitcoms who rush to bring plates of cookies to meet the newest arrivals in their community so they can gossip about them, or curry favor with them against their neighborhood rivals.

This happens in school or in the workplace as well. We all know someone who is always doing nice things for their bosses or teachers or those in authority, with the hopes of getting a good grade or promotion ahead of everyone else. They’ll step on whoever they need to in order to make it to the top. They grow in power and authority, but not in love.

Paul says that this is not the way Christ-followers should act. If we are followers of Christ, then we are to not just do the things Jesus taught us to do, but we are to do them in the manner he modeled for us, which is love.

Paul says “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3).

While Jesus was here on this earth he did amazing things. He healed people. He performed miraculous signs and wonders. But ultimately, the greatest gift Jesus gave to us, and the greatest thing he did for us, was to love us unconditionally, and to point us to the wonderful, amazing, and unconditional love of God.

This is of course what made Christ’s sacrifice on the cross so unique. When Jesus gave his life for us by dying on the cross he didn’t do so in order to gain a special status, or to earn eternal riches. He already had all those things. But rather, Jesus came down to this earth, to live among us, to bring freedom and healing and forgiveness, and reconciliation between God and people, and ultimately to give his life on the cross for us because of his great love for each and every one of us.

Love is What We Need

The apostle Paul’s reflection here on the importance and significance of love is an important qualifier to what we’ve been talking about the past few weeks, about the unique gifts that God has given to every believer. Because, although our gifts are necessary and important, the reality is that as we look around us at our world today, we see that there are a lot of gifted and talented people. And there are plenty of powerful people. We’re living in a time when people are more educated, and have access to more wealth and power and resources than ever before in history. Technology has given us the possibility to do things that our ancestors would have never dreamed would be possible.

Unfortunately, so often power is abused, money is misused, and resources and technology are turned into weapons that hurt and harm and destroy rather than bless.

And so, what this world doesn’t need are more people with more power and resources who are only concerned with getting ahead, or currying favor, or racking up favors from other people.

What this world needs are more loving, Christ-like people who are willing to steward their gifts and use them for the common good. Genuinely loving people who love across boundaries, who are willing to extend mercy and forgiveness, who are willing to love unconditionally, no matter what. People who are filled with the type of love that flows out of the love that God has for us. A love that overflows from Christ’s sacrificial love, expressed most fully on the cross.

How do we gain this type of love? What do we need to do in order to become the type of people who love like this?

True Love

Interestingly enough, Paul doesn’t provide us with a how-to manual in this passage. He doesn’t give us the 5 or 10 steps to becoming a loving person.

Instead, he tells us what love looks like. He says,

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

Paul wants us to be able to recognize true and genuine love when we see it, so that we too can grow to be more loving. Just as all of us can think of people who do nice things for others but for the wrong reasons, hopefully each and every one of us have experienced those in our lives who loved us genuinely and unconditionally, who put our needs before their own, who loved us without any strings attached, and without expecting anything in return.

Love from a Kid’s Point of View

A while back, some children were asked to share their perspective on what real love looks like. Their responses in many ways parallels the Apostle Paul’s list here in 1 Cor. 13:4-7

One child said, “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.” Another child said, “Love is when someone hurts you, and you get so mad, but you don’t yell at them because you know it would hurt their feelings.” “Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is okay.” “Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.” And lastly, love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day.”

Even as we grow in our own gifts and skills and abilities, and even as we learn how to use them to serve God and others, may we never forget to love. Love truly is the greatest gift.

Amen.

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