1 Corinthians 13:1-13
With a sermon title like this, you’d think it was Valentine’s Day! But that’s still a couple of weeks off. Or, maybe you think I’m going to talk about an old “Huey Lewis and the News” song from the 1980s. But, again you’d be wrong – in part because I probably wouldn’t have thought of the song, except Chris Cartwright asked last Sunday if I was going to talk about it in my sermon! So, even if it’s not Valentine’s Day, and I’m not talking about an old pop song from a movie about time travel in a Delorean car, the questions remain: what is love and what is its power?
I think you will agree with me that the word love can have a lot of different meanings. It can speak of romance, but not always. So, when I say “I love you” to Cheryl, hopefully that means something different from saying “I love the San Francisco Giants” or “I love pizza.” Love has to do with feelings and emotions, but feelings and emotions can be fickle and fleeting. You can fall desperately in love one day, thinking it’s the real thing, and the next day move on to someone else, especially when you’re young.
If all of this is true, then what do we mean when we say: “God is love?” Could this love be as fleeting as a teenager’s crush? I don’t mean to put down teenage emotions, because I was once a teenager myself, and I remember what it was like. The question here concerns whether God’s love dependent on the moment?
1. Love Defined
1 Corinthians 13 is perhaps the best-known love song in history. Although I’ve used this text in numerous wedding ceremonies, this isn’t a wedding song. What it offers is a definition of divine love and then it invites us to share in it. As we listen to the song, it becomes clear that the love described here is more than an emotional response to a person or a thing.
So, what does it speak of? As we try to answer this question, a problem of language pops up. The problem is that the English word “love” has many nuances and uses, which is why I can use it to speak of my spouse, my favorite food, and God. In the English language, context usually determines meaning.
Paul, on the other hand, was writing in Greek, and the Greeks had at least four very precise words that typically get translated into English as love. C.S. Lewis placed these four words into two categories: Gift-Love and Need-Love. He wrote that:
“The typical example of Gift-love would be that love which moves a man to work and save for the future well-being of his family, which he will die without sharing or seeing; of the second, that which sends a lonely or frightened child to its mother’s arms.”1
As we listen to the reading of 1 Corinthians 13, a hymn Paul likely borrowed rather than wrote for this occasion, it appears that his definition falls into the first category. In fact, by reading this passage in the context of the Corinthian letter, we discover that Paul was focused on resolving a church conflict, which means that this is a song about practical living, not emotion. It’s a love that calls on warring factions to lay down their arms and embrace each other. That is a very powerful form of love, and I believe that it’s the kind of love that only comes from the heart of God.
2. Marks of Love
Listening to this song, three words emerge concerning the power of love:
This hymn of love begins in the first person: “If I speak with tongues”; “If I have all prophetic powers”; “if I give away all my possessions”; “if I embrace the flames of martyrdom.” All of this might be good, but it matters nothing without love. Tongues, prophesy, sacrificial giving, and martyrdom, they may all have their place in the church, but without love, they have no value, no purpose, and no power. They are nothing more than noise and useless gestures. But, if they are accompanied by divine love, then these gifts and abilities — which Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 will give the church the power to change the world.
The Greek word used for love in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape, a word that’s related to the Hebrew word hesed, which means “steadfast love.” This kind of love is very practical. It’s outward looking, pushing us to seek the best for others rather than for our selves. According to the song, it’s patient and kind; it isn’t jealous, boastful, arrogant, or rude. It doesn’t insist on its own way, nor does it become irritable or resentful. It protests injustice and rejoices in the truth. As the New Living Translation puts it: “Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” This kind of love is full of hope, and it is a love that enables us to welcome everyone into the community of faith.
Such a love isn’t easy to come by, but then it isn’t a human emotion . It is, rather, a gift of God. It comes to us by grace, as we allow God to dwell within us and transform us. This transformation, which begins on the inside and continues to work its way outwardly, doesn’t happen overnight. It requires maturity and commitment. Often it emerges out of suffering, but as Paul reminds us elsewhere suffering leads to endurance, and endurance to character, and character to hope, and hope comes to us through the love of God that is poured out upon us through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:1-5).
Of course, none of us perfectly live out this love, and yet it’s still our calling and our purpose as followers of Jesus — the one who perfectly embodied God’s love. As Jesus said to his disciples, “I came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
“Gift-love” has an important partner in “need-love,” because it calls forth from us the “gift love” that comes to us from God. Ultimately this “need-love” doesn’t last, but that doesn’t make it bad, it just means it’s not permanent. Lew Smedes, who was my seminary ethics professor, had this to say about Eros:
“Eros flickers and fades as the winds of desire rise and wane. Change is the way of life for Eros. This indeed is part of the power of Eros. Its very fragility creates the possibility of repeated excitement. We could not endure a steady stream of Eros at its highest pitch: we need the valleys to be inspired by the peaks.”2
Eros ebbs and flows, it rises with the excitement of newness and dies when that newness fades. That doesn’t mean we should despise Eros, it just means that it is impermanent. While agapic love is essential, life needs more than this one kind of love. Agapic love needs Eros, because, despite its limitations, it is, as Lew Smedes writes,
“The driving power for personal growth. It may not endure unchanged into eternity, but its unrelenting urges move us beyond ourselves in this life. All creativity rises from the need-power of Eros. Eros is a drive created by human need for a share in what is beautiful; it is life’s aesthetic power. . . . Eros is a drive rising from human need for personal completion and human communion.”3
Eros drives us, but agape transforms us. Eros drives us out into the world, but agape motivates us to serve the leper, the homeless person, and the one who is dying, even though no reward will be forthcoming. Therefore, it’s agape, which is permanent, that finally enables us to do what we wouldn’t otherwise consider possible. This is the kind of love that enables a spouse to stand by the other through serious and even debilitating illness. It’s the love pictured in the parable of the prodigal son that allows a parent to keep loving and caring for a rebellious child. It’s the love that enables a congregation composed of very different personalities and needs to stand together as one people. Yes, agapic love is what allows us to risk our lives for one another. But this love only exists because of an infusion of God’s grace. Perhaps this is why the older translation of the word is Charity.
Divine love doesn’t replace natural love, as if we must, in Lewis’ words, “throw away our silver to make room for the gold.”4 It’s simply this: that which is natural is transformed by grace into sweet charity. And there’s no better expression of this than the incarnation. As Christians we affirm the mystery that God has become flesh and dwelt among us. In Christ, the human and the divine come together to perfectly display the power of love. And it is a love that embraces us and empowers us to love others even as God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, loves the creation.
- C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (HBJ, 1960), 11.
- Lewis Smedes, Love Within Limits, (Eerdmans, 1978), 120.
- Smedes, 120-21.
- Lewis, Four Loves, 184.