- If I could speak like an angel (isn’t that the dream of every preacher, poet and playwright?),
- if my influence stretched to 777million followers,
- but if my content lacked Love, then my words just add to the noise.
- If you could prophecy and help guide us into a better future;
- if you had an answer for every mystery within the Bible, theology, and life;
- if you mastered every nuance of science, philosophy, and art;
- and if you added to your knowledge such deep faith that the mountains moved,
- but even with all that knowledge and power, if you do not have love, you are nothing.
- If we give away everything that we own to the poor;
- if we give up our very life as martyrs for justice or Jesus,
- but if our actions are not rooted in love, we receive no benefit whatsoever.
Love does not simply surpass knowledge or theology; love surpasses everything.(Ephesians 3:19) Love is the great ordering principle for our lives. (Luke 10) A life lived without Love comes off like noise, leads to a hollow nothingness, and benefits no one. Paul’s beautiful poetry may soften how forcefully countercultural Paul’s message is. Love deeply challenges our status quo that worships winning at any cost, wealth by any means, and power over everything else.
The supremacy of Love may be best argued by our movies, songs, and poetry. How many stories hold our imagination without the quest for some kind of love for life, another person, or even one’s self? Although a bit repetitive, the Beatles may have said it best, “Love, love, love. Love, love, love. Love, love, love. All you need is love. Love is all you need. All together now!”
The Greek word Paul uses for love is agape. Agape is an unusual word not used much before the Christians picked it up. The church adopted the unfamiliar “agape” over the more common words for love like ”eros” or ”philia”, avoiding the cultural baggage of romantic love or affections for a close friend or images of loving pizza, jazz, or the Titans. Agape allowed the early church to recast and redefine love. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “I am very happy that Jesus did not say, “like your enemies,” because it is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental, an affectionate emotion. I can’t like anyone who would bomb my home… exploit me… trample over me… threaten to kill me. But Jesus reminds us, love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill towards all people.” (Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience; A Christmas Sermon for Peace)
Paul writes to a church filled with sharp divisions. The Apostle calls us to measure everything by love. Love matters more. Paul offers his opinion (1 Corinthians 7:25, 40) on all kinds of theological and practical debates from the credentialing of apostles, to gender roles, to eating meat bought from the local pagan temple deli. Paul cares deeply about theology and the practice of faith. (Acts 9; Philippians 3) His handwritten letters to churches in Corinth, Rome, or Galatia helped the infant Christian movement unpack the radical grace manifest in Jesus Christ. Paul traveled over 3,000 miles around the Mediterranean Sea by foot or riding on ancient sailboats to preach the Good News. Paul debated theology with business leaders, Jewish rabbis, Greek philosophers, pagan temple devotees, and other Christians. Paul told-off the Bishop to his face. (Galatians 2) Paul’s bragging about rebuking Peter might have lacked Perfect Love! Paul believed theology matters. Good theology can lift heavy yoke. Bad theology can even kill. ( 2 Cor. 3.6) 1 Corinthians does not teach “anything goes” or that all theologies are equal. No, it says Love matters more than theology or knowledge. Love matters more than whether it is sinful to eat a pork sandwich from the pagan deli. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul asserts “knowledge puffs (people) up, but love builds (people) up.” That is a pretty good measure of our theology and practice; does your faith puff you up with arrogance or empower you to love and build others up? Love builds up.
Love matters more! 1 John tells us, “Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love … Dear friends, if God loved us so deeply (as to send Jesus into the world for us) we also ought to love each other. If we love each other, God remains in us and God’s love is made perfect in us … God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them… There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers, sisters, or siblings are liars. After all, those who don’t love their siblings who they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen! This commandment we have from God: “Those who claim to love God ought to love their brothers, sisters, and siblings.” (adapted from 1 John 4) Love matters more!
Love matters enough to measure it and redefine it!
- Love is patient.
- Love is kind, useful and gracious
- Love is not jealous;
- Love does not brag, boast, or put others down.
- Love is not arrogant.
- Love is not rude.
- Love doesn’t seek its own advantage.
- Love is not irritable,
- Love does not keep records of insults, slights, complaints, or wrongs suffered.
- Love is never happy with injustice.
- Love rejoices in the truth.
- Love puts up with things.
- Love trusts.
- Love hopes to bless all people.
- Love overcomes all things.
- Love never fails.
Look at that list. What does Perfect Love call you to change? Love changes us. Love is deeply focused on what benefits other people. Love dies to selfishness. “We love because God first Loved us.” When we are deeply loved, we have the capacity to love others. If we know we are Loved, we can love strangers, the unlovely, and even our enemies. Love is about the state of our hearts, not the actions of others. When Paul encountered the Love of God, along the Damcasus Road, the light of God’s Love broke Paul’s murderous breath. Paul stood up blind, but awakened to an unfolding sense of Christ’s radical Love. Everything would change. Love changes our hearts, our theology, and our actions. In Mark 3, Jesus laments the church’s hardness of heart, not their theology. When we are loved, we no longer need to puff ourselves up, Love empowers us to build others up.
Let us ask ourselves…
- Am I patient, or do I expect more grace than I extend to others?
- Am I kind or self-serving?
- Am I jealous or content to be who God created me to be?
- Do I brag, boast, or belittle, or do I know enough Love to build others up?
- Am I arrogant or open?
- Am I rude or generous?
- Do I seek an advantage over others or work for equality?
- Am I irritable or aware of others’ perspective?
- Do I keep records of wrongs suffered or forgive and release?
- Do I defend injustice when it benefits me or seek justice even as it erodes my privilege?
- Do I rejoice in truth or sometimes cling to self-serving ignorance?
- When things go bad, do I give in or dig in and build God’s kin-dom?
- Do I trust or guard my heart so closely that I stay closed to resurrection?
- Do I hope everyone might know the good things I enjoy?
- Do I let evil win or keep striving, knowing that Love never fails?
Paul ends the poem, focused on eternal matters. Prophecies will end. There will be no need for preaching or theological tests. Apostles, authors of Bible books, you, and me: we only know in part. But something better than our best theology is coming, and when perfect love comes, these partial imperfect things (like sermons or religious debates) will not matter. Love will end all our debates. Mercy not knowledge will heal us. Grace not theology will bring us peace. Right now, we all see a poor imperfect reflection of God. One day we will see God face-to-face. Our knowledge is partial; one day we will know Love completely. We will be completely engulfed with God’s love. Love matters more.
I remember as a child feeling sick and running home from school in tears after my 4th-grade teacher read my misspelled dyslexic sentences aloud to the class. And even as I struggled for hours at the dining room table learning to spell the simplest words with Mom, Mom loved me too much to let me believe what I believed about myself. I believed I was stupid; my mother knew this was not true. When it seemed that things could not be any worse, I would lay across mom’s lap weeping. She said nothing, simply running her fingers through my hair, like you might soothe a nervous pet. Nothing changed, but everything was swept away by incarnational Love. Love matters more. Love is incarnational. God loves us first and teaches us to love. God’s Love holds our humanity- holds our tears, roots for us, changed places with us and rose to life for us. Love never fails. At early service as we came to Our Lord’s Table, Pastor Heather Harris reflected, “I was thinking about the disciples; and why and how they had chosen to leave everything when they encountered Jesus. How in that moment when they met Christ they felt seen and fully known and yet fully Loved. What a great gift that is to be seen and loved.” When we know we are Loved, we find the capacity to go on; to Love. When Love finds us (not affection or romance) but Love, everything else falls away. In the presence of God’s perfecting Love everything else falls away. Love wins. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see God face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Amen.