Find Your Place, Part 4: A United Church in a Divided World

This morning, please open your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 13. We'll be looking at the final words of this famous passage of Scripture, penned by the Apostle Paul. Please read along with me. This is the Word of God.

1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Here ends the reading of God's Word. Let's pray. 

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION

Gracious God, give us humble, teachable, and obedient hearts, that we may receive what you have revealed, and pursue what you have commanded. Amen.

INTRODUCTION

As I mentioned, this is one of the more famous passages of the Bible. It's read at weddings. It's quoted on greeting cards. It adorns home decor items at Hobby Lobby. And you'd think, because it's so well known, that it would be well understood. Sadly, you'd be wrong. In fact, this is probably one of the most misunderstood passages of the Bible. 

Why is this? Well, among other issues, we tend to only see it as a list of directions when it's also a description providing a diagnosis. We tend to see it primarily as a list of directions for the kind of love God wants us to show one another, instead of a description of the love he's already shown to us in Jesus Christ - and the kind of love we so easily fail to show one another. In other words, we view it as a law to obey rather than as a love to enjoy.

When this happens, we set ourselves up for failure. Let me illustrate. 

So, two buddies went on a road trip to Florida. Someone told them that they would get there without any issue, as long as they paid very close attention to the road signs along the way. 

After driving for a little while, they saw a sign saying, "Clean Restrooms Ahead." 

A couple months later, they finally arrived in Florida. They were completely exhausted, and used up 90 bottles of Windex, 300 rolls of paper towels, and fourteen cases of toilet-bowl cleaner on 46 different restrooms. 

Instead of reading the words as a provision, they read them as a command, and in so doing not only missed the point entirely; they set themselves up for exhaustion. 

If we're not wise, we can do the same with this passage. Read it again. Husbands, do you love your wife like this? Wives, do you love your husband like this? Children, do you love your parents this way? Parents, do you love your children this way? Friends? Coworkers? Neighbors?

Do you see what I'm saying? If this passage is only a set of directions to obey, we're in trouble before we even begin. 

We all can be impatient. 
We all can be mean.
We all can be discontented and envious.
We all can be prideful and arrogant. 
We all can be disrespectful. 
We all can be selfish. 
We all can be easily provoked.
We all can be withholding and unforgiving.
We all can enjoy the wrong things. 

Simply telling us to do these things hasn't given and won't ever give us the power to do them. It only exposes how far short we fall of them each and every day. Our deepest problem is not ignorance, and therefore our deepest need is not another list of directions. 

WITHOUT LOVE, WE ARE NOTHING (13:1-3)  

Honestly, it gets even worse when you think about it. There is an even deeper layer to our dysfunction. We not only fall short in our failures. We fall short in our successes! Our successes aren't as successful as we might think. They are always temporary and always conflicted, never decisive and total. That's why, centuries ago, the Puritans prayed that even their tears of repentance would find cleansing in the blood of the Lamb.

Why is this? Because God's standard of holiness isn't partial or yielding; it is total and unrelenting. James teaches us this when he says, "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it" (James 2:10). In other words, unless we love perfectly, even our best expressions and experiences of love are not the love that God desires and demands. 

So, what is the point of this chapter? Is it God's appeal to "do more, try harder, and get better" or is it something else entirely? Let's begin shaping an answer by looking at the first three verses. 

1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

One of the first rules of biblical interpretation is that every text has a context. To understand a particular passage of Scripture, we must understand it within its broader context. 

With that in mind, we know that the Apostle Paul just completed a discussion of the body of Christ, the Church. In 1 Corinthians 12, he said that it is one body, composed of many parts - each designed and distributed by God. We all have gifts. We all have callings. We all have a role to play within the life of the body. Every single member matters; none are dispensable. You might not feel that way this morning, but it's true. You belong. 

To make his point clearer, Paul then continued by listing eight representative gifts distributed throughout the church, while ultimately urging his hearers toward what he called "the higher gifts" (1 Corinthians 12:31). That's what sets the stage for this chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. Here, Paul then identifies these higher gifts - faith, hope, and love, ultimately concluding that the greatest of these is love (13:13). 

How great is love? So great that Paul says, in verses 1-3, that apart from it, we have and gain nothing. In verse 1, Paul says that no amount of beautiful words matters apart from love.

When I was a kid, my family often vacationed in the Adirondack mountains of New York State. We'd get up super early, hop into the backseat of our family's 1977 Ford Thunderbird, and start the 7-8 hour drive. Invariably, sometime over the course of that drive, I'd hear a loathsome sound: the sound of our styrofoam cooler's lid rubbing and squeaking against the cooler itself. It's one my least favorite sounds. If you ever need to get information out of me, buy a styrofoam cooler. I'll sing like a canary. 

The sound of a resounding gong or clanging cymbal might not resonate well with us today, at least as an illustration. Feel free to insert the sound of styrofoam on styrofoam. Even the most eloquent words sound like that, when uttered without love. 

Paul continues. In verse 2, he says that no amount of profound wisdom matters apart from love. In verse 3, he says that no amount of generous works matters apart from love. The greatest words, wisdom, and works all ultimately mean nothing - absolutely nothing - apart from love. Without love, they're all a sham. 

In other words, it's not only in our failures that we fall short. It's also in our successes. Even when we speak beautiful words, impart profound wisdom, and perform even the most sacrificial works, we don't do so with the perfect love of God. 

WITH LOVE, WE HAVE EVERYTHING (13:4-8a)  

Now, if you're listening, this should create a rather obvious and perplexing tension, right? If the love that God desires and demands is an all-encompassing, never failing love, and if partial and conflicted expressions of love are not the love that he requires, then who - if anyone - truly pleases God? Only One. 

This is where most get this passage entirely wrong. It is not ultimately about our love for one another, or even our love for God. It is not ultimately a list of directions for us to follow. It is ultimately a description of the God who is love, and the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Stated another way, it's not about who we are and what we must do - but who God is and what God has done. 

There is only one love that never fails, the love of God, and without this love we are nothing. Before this passage is anything else, it is a description of God's great love for us, and a diagnosis of just how much we need it.

Now, listen again to Paul's inspired description of this great love:

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.

Before these words command or expect anything of us, there are a description of the love that's taken hold of you, the love of God. It took hold of you before you took hold of it. Listen to how Paul makes this point to the church at Rome (Romans 5:8):

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  

God's performance for us, not our performances for God, are the bedrock of our assurance and our peace. He loved us while we were still sinners. He loves us even as saints continuing to struggle. It's his love that never fails, not ours. 

UNITY FLOWS FROM MATURITY (1 Cor. 13:8b-12)  

When we fail to understand the primary function of a passage like this, and the message of God's law in the Bible, we take our eyes off the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. We forget that we are already loved perfectly, and that because we are already loved perfectly, we can risk being loved imperfectly by others. 

When we forget this love, when it ceases to be the operating force of our hearts, we so easily turn Christianity into a competition for assurance through comparison. We will turn this passage into a list of directions, and thereby a metric for measuring our own spiritual progress and the progress of others. We won't complement one another, as one member of the body serving the others; we will start competing with one another. 

So, let me give you an example. If I'm not broken by this passage, but rather see it primarily as a way of gauging my spiritual progress, I'm going to introduce a measure of comparison and competition to my marriage that God never intended. In conflict with Molly, I'll roll out the scorecard. Maybe I'll say that I've been more patient; more kind; more servant-hearted; more even-tempered than her. I'll make my case. I'll minimize my sin and maximize hers to gain supremacy. I'll take confidence in my performance and self-serving comparison. We will compete rather than complement one another. This is not God's design for our marriages; and it's not his design for his bride, the Church. 

A mark of Christian maturity is not needing Jesus Christ less, but realizing that we need him more. It is not needing one another less, but more. 

And so, conversely, if a passage like this isn't first a list of directions, but rather a description of God's great love for me, I'll be broken by it. It's diagnosis will humble me toward God. I'll see that he loves me in ways that I have never loved him. I'll realize that he's shown me the very opposite of what I so richly deserve. I'll see that if any comparison matters, it is mine to him - not others. I'll be humbled by my need of grace. I'll stand in more awe of his faithfulness than the failings of others. 

This should lead me to sympathize with others in their weakness and failings. Who am I to condemn others for the same sins that I see in myself? 

This should lead me to help others in their weakness and failings rather than despise them. Because God helped me when I was so undeserving, who am I to wait for others to deserve my affections and assistance?

This should lead me to serve others even when they don't serve me in return? Jesus served and serves me in all things, from the most trivial and mundane daily needs to the most profound needs of my soul. I can pour myself out because he fills me to overflowing. 

OUR DIVIDED WORLD NEEDS UNDIVIDED LOVE (1 Cor. 13:13)

Last week, we said that our culture often and easily confuses freedom with a lack of constraints, the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want. We style ourselves rugged individualists, and think we'll find contentment by finding ourselves apart from others.

This drive for autonomy undermines our relationships since deep relationships are impossible apart from mutual vulnerability, and mutual vulnerability involves the assumption of responsibility - rather inconvenient constraints for those desiring autonomy. 

There is an interesting example of this in the story of Christopher McCandless, a saga documented in a book and later movie entitled, Into the Wild. You've no doubt read, seen, or at least heard of it. It's what I would call a beautiful tragedy. 

McCandless graduated from Emory University in 1990, shortly thereafter destroying his credit cards and ID and setting out on a cross-country drive to experience an isolated life in the wilderness. He didn't tell his parents or his sister of his plans; he simply left. 

His travels took him on a meandering path across the West, and even into Mexico, wherein he established a string of brief but ultimately temporary relationships. He wouldn't allow himself the vulnerability or responsibility of relationship, although others longed to depend upon and care for him. One man, Franz, was a particularly profound example. He offered to adopt McCandless as a grandson, only to be kindly rebuffed in favor of McCandless' desire to travel to the Alaskan wilderness. 

It's there that McCandless grew disenchanted with a life of isolation in the wilderness. Soon after, he found the wilderness harsh and cruel. In response, he attempted to return home, but - after setting out - found the wintry conditions much too harsh for travel. Disappointed, he returned to his camp (an otherwise abandoned bus) and eventually died of malnutrition after the mistaken consumption of a poisonous plant. As he McCandless died, he documented his own growing realizations of the need for community, expressing a longing for his family. 

In many ways, McCandless' life is both parabolic and prophetic. It's a sort of parable because it calls into question our culture's value of autonomy, our mistaken definition of freedom as an absence of constraints. It shows, vividly and tragically, that loneliness is a prison without bars. Thankfully, it's also prophetic in that, in some sense, McCandless' writings called others home - even as he could not make it back himself. 

An interesting twist to the McCandless story is that those finding his body realized that, unbeknownst to him, he was closer to civilization than he realized. Salvation wasn't that far away. 

The same is true of God. Whether you're a sinner in need of salvation or a struggling saint, he is near to those who seek him. He didn't wait for you to make the first move. He loved you that you might love him. 

Paul concludes this chapter saying that "the greatest of these is love" because, among other reasons, love is what orders and orients us together. God's love frees us to look beyond ourselves to him for security, for significance, for satisfaction. Ultimately finding them in him, we don't need to use one another, but can rather serve. We can grow into an increasingly united church, even in our increasingly divided world. 

SOURCES

"Continual Repentance," in The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, ed. Arthur Bennett (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust), 136-137.

Krakauer, Jon. “Into the Wild.” Into the Wild, Anchor Books, 1997.

Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.