The Greatest of These…

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Psalm 71:1-2 In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; incline your ear to me and save me.

Introduction

I never cease to marvel at the mystery that is love. How is it that we can come to love another person or animal or thing? No one can command love. I can clamor until I’m blue in the face that Christians should love one another, that you should love each other, but it would be in vain. I cannot command you to love one another or other people as much as I cannot tell the very humans that came from body to—for the love of God—love each other. Love really is mysterious. Love exceeds my control.

To be honest, I’m not sold that I choose love. I hear it a lot, especially in regards to marriage: every day I choose to love this person. Ehhh….maybe. *shrugs* I think you choose to follow through on the vows, or choose loyalty, faithfulness, steadfastness, commitment, and maybe even choose to act lovingly. But I’m not sure I choose love. In the same breadth I’ll add: love is more than a feeling. You can feel in love and you can feel not in love. However, I’m not sure that means you don’t love in that moment or that you aren’t loved in that moment—it just means you don’t feel it. Love exceeds my reason and rationality.

I think a hick-up in our conception of love is that we try to define love from our limited human perspective. When we do this, we render love as something we can squish between two small pieces of glass and slide under our microscope, or something we can slice open and dissect with our scalpel. In this scenario we are the determining subject, and love becomes the determined object, the other, the thing to be examined, dissected, and defined. This top-down evaluative approach is why we end up with ideas and definitions of love that are bitter on the tongue and less permanent than cotton candy. Love exceeds my examining gaze.

Love is truly mysterious.

What if all we need to get a better understanding of love is to change our perspective? What if I just reverse the direction between us and love? What if Love is the subject and we are the object? What if love is the subject and the verb, and we are the direct and indirect objects? Maybe love defines, examines, reveals, determines me? Maybe we can’t choose it because it chooses us? Maybe we can’t command it because it commands us? And if you have ever been wrapped up in intense feelings of love, that’s exactly what it feels like: a force presenting itself in our world and our hearts and minds that drives us toward each other and the world.

Love loves the beloved toward the beloved.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Love perseveres, love acts gentle, love does not burn with envy, love does not vaunt itself, it is not inflated with its own interest, it does not act improperly, it does not demand things for its own interest, it is not exasperated into wounded vanity, it is not reckoning evil (in the wildest sense), it does not rejoice over the unrighteous but rejoices over the truth; there is nothing love cannot face, there is no limit to its faith, hope, and endurance.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The first thing I noticed when I was translating this passage was this: I am not the subject of these independent clauses. Love is the subject. While I know this may appear like a very rudimentary grammatical and intellectual moment, stay here with me. In English it sounds like a noun being modified by adjectives. For instance, I could say: The tree is tall. This is a descriptive construction about an object. *I* am doing the describing of the tree. So, as we read the English translation of the text, it sounds like Paul is describing this object “love” with these other adjectives. But here’s the thing: those aren’t adjectives. They’re verbs whose subject is love. The “is” comes from the fact that the verbal form is present tense.

ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ, χρηστεύεται.

1 Corinthians 13:4

The word for love is in the subject position (it’s the feminine, nominative, singular) and the verbs are present tense and in the 3rd person singular. Thus, in accordance with the subject of the sentence doing the action of the verbs: love perseveres, [love] acts gentle. When we shift the tone of the words away from adjectival into verbal, we move from love as one more objective emotion, to love being a principal actor in our narrative. Love does this and not that.

Without love, Paul declares, he is nothing but a clanging symbol even if he can speak in tongues of humanity and angels (v. 1); without love, Paul exclaims, even with all the knowledge and all the faith, he is nothing (v.2). Yet, with love, with love acting through him the tongues turn from clanging symbols into gentle words; with love moving into and through him, he is something.[1] For Paul—holding close to Christ crucified and raised as God’s divine act of love in the world—love alters everything because love as the divine operative in the world is always oriented toward the other, toward the beloved.[2]

What Paul is describing here is not his conception of love but the activity of God in the world as the word incarnate—the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Love made manifest by God in Christ acts for the livelihood, welfare, and concern for the object of love, the beloved.[3] For Paul, who is wrapped up in the overwhelming reality of God’s love for the world and for him, launches into a poetic string of statements about what this Love present in the world looks like. He is not speaking of the way he loves or indicating that by doing such things he or the Corinthians obtains love; rather, he is proclaiming God’s love in the world for him and for the Corinthians.

Conclusion

If love is the subject performing the actions of persevering, being gentle, not burning with envy, not centering the self over and against the other person, and standing firm capable to face anything, without limit of faith, hope, and endurance, then what is the object?

You are.

The divine substance that is love seeks you and loves you to no end. From this edge of the earth to the other, in the worst and the best moments, in highs and the lows, you are loved by this divine love, by God. *You* are the beloved. And in being loved in such a way (unconditionally and completely) there is nothing you can do to lose that love; it’s not yours to lose because you are not the subject here, but the beautiful and wonderful object of love’s action in and for the world. Receive this truth; rejoice in this truth.

And if you are the beloved—the object of God’s love—then you are wrapped up in this force of love surging through the world and ushered into this realm of divine love for the world. In being so wrapped up and ushered in, you find yourself in the love of God erupting into the here and now as we are moved to love one another.[4] Love catches us up in its momentum into the world in search of more beautiful and wonderful beloveds.

We do not acquire the object of love by acting in this way or that way or avoiding this or that action; we do all of that for our own gain. Rather where there is perseverance, there is Love for the beloved; where there are gentle acts, there is love for the other; where burning envy is absent, there is love for the neighbor; where self-boasting is lacking there is love for the friend; where arrogance is missing, there is love for your brother; where there isn’t an exasperation unto wounded vanity, there is Love for your sister; where there is endurance, hope, faith, willingness to stand up and face anything no matter how scary, there is Love for God and the beloved.[5]

I’ll conclude with recourse to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The greatest of all virtues is love. Here we find the true meaning of the Christian faith and of the cross. Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time. Out of the hugeness of his [sic] generosity God allowed his only-begotten Son to die that we may live. By uniting yourselves with Christ and your brothers [sic] through love you will be able to matriculate in the university of eternal life. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.[6]

“Paul’s Letter to the Americans”

Beloved where you have hope, where you have faith, where you see the humanity of your neighbor be assured—even in our chaotic, tumultuous, and violent world—there Love is and there God is. For where you are, there, too, is God. For you who are in Christ by fait,h where you are there Love is.


[1] Thiselton Corinthians 1045. “The first person subject is now merely implicit, but the reference is clear enough from the context. The logical (as against grammatical) subject is the series of acts which build up from the familiar to a projected climax: all this counts for nothing. Petzer’s analysis of defamiliarization applies. What seemed ordinary and obvious now appears in a new, unfamiliar light, which produces shock. These wondrous gifts and triumphant victories all amount to nothing, unless love directs them, with its Christlike concern and regard for ‘the other.’”

[2] Thiselton Corinthians 1049. “Paul hammers home the incompatibility of love as respect and concern for the welfare of the other and obsessions about the status and attention accorded to the self. How much behavior among believers and even ministers is actually ‘attention seeking’ designed to impress others with one’s own supposed importance? Some ‘spiritual songs’ may appear to encourage, rather than discourage, this preoccupation with the self rather than with others and with God. Here is Luther’s antithesis between theologia crucis and theologia gloriae…”

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1035 “Second, as we have noted, love (ἀγάπη) denotes above all a stance or attitude which shows itself in acts of will as regard, respect, and concern for the welfare of the other. It is therefore profoundly Christological, for the cross is the paradigm case of the act of will and stance which places welfare of others above the interests of the self.”

[4] Thiselton Corinthians, 1035. “First, love represents ‘the power of the new age’ breaking into the present, ‘the only vital force which has a future.’ Love is that quality which distinctively stamps the life of heaven, where regard and respect for the other dominates the character of life with God as the communion of saints and heavenly hosts. The theologian may receive his or her redundancy notice; the prophet may have nothing to say which everyone else does not already know; but love abides as the character of heavenly, eschatological existence.”

[5] Thiselton Corinthians 1057. “Paul declares: Love never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up. The fourfold never with four negative actions provides rhetorical force to Paul’s fourfold all things…”

[6] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” Strength to Love Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 153.

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