The Greatest of These is Love (a Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13)

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”


The words of St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, from towards the end (thirteenth chapter, to be exact).

It’s one of the most familiar passages in the Bible, I think. Even if you have not studied it personally or heard it read out here on a Sunday morning before, there is almost no doubt that you have heard it read at some time, and most probably at a wedding.

I can’t remember being present at many weddings where this passage hasn’t been read and I can’t remember taking many weddings where the couple haven’t requested it.

Indeed, even those who do not know where to find the passage, when asked, “have you thought about what Bible reading you would like at your wedding?”, almost invariably answer, “how about the love passage?” Do you mean “Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful or rude – that passage?”, I ask. “Yes, that’s the one!”

And most of us clerical wedding celebrant types wince a little when this is said too, as we know, and as anybody who has been to Bible College or spent any amount of time studying the Bible knows, that this passage is really quite inappropriate for a wedding, and this for two reasons:

  1. Paul’s eulogy here is part of his discussion about how to use spiritual gifts within the church community, and is not addressed to couples.
  2. The sort of love Paul is taking about does not seem to be the sort of romantic love that we associate with weddings.

Yet people continue to ask for it, because it is beautiful and poetic, and indeed, as a piece of verse, it surely must be the most beautiful piece that St Paul ever wrote.

And they ask for it too, I think, because, even though St Paul is not talking about romantic love, and even though he is not addressing couples, I think we recognise in Paul’s description of love here some of the most fundamental elements that a long-term loving relationship needs if it is going to be successful.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (vss. 4-7)

If Paul is not talking about romantic love, what is he talking about?

‘Commitment’ would be my usual response here: Christian love is not about feeling passionate towards lots of people, it’s about commitment to their needs.

And that’s gotta be true, as far as it goes. But as I read through this beautiful poem of St Paul’s again, I wonder whether Paul’s understanding of love was really as devoid of emotional entanglement as the word ‘commitment’ might suggest?

“Faith is passion”, said Kierkegaard, and I suspect Paul would have agreed with him, and if faith is passion, surely love is passion too.

You see, the problem we have here with getting inside Paul’s head to really grasp what he meant by ‘love’ is not only that he wrote it a long time ago and in another language, but that he and the rest of the early Christian community more or less constructed their own language of love.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book about this. I suspect that a number of you have read it – ‘The Four Loves’it is called.

In it, Lewis points out that there were three words in first century Greek regularly used for love – ‘Eros’, ‘storge’ and ‘philia’. These three loves are, respectively, romantic love, family love, such as we have for our children, and the more formal sort of love, such as the love the Godfather might have for you – a love that carries with it a clear expectation that a service will be done in return.

“Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But uh, until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.” (Vito Corleone)

Strangely, when the New Testament writers chose a term for love, which is a word that turns up rather a lot in the New Testament, they deliberately avoided all these standard terms, and employed instead a reasonably colourless Greek word – ‘agape’ – and then went about the task of defining it!

Evidently the early Christians felt that they were talking about something new and different when they talked about the love of Christ, and so they felt that none of the old words for love would do. So instead of using one of those words, and trying to put a bit of a twist on it, they decided to take a little known word and mould it more appropriately for their own use.

Now, I don’t want this sermon to be just an academic dissertation on the meaning of certain words in ancient Greek, but we are dealing with a significant question here that is relevant to all of us.

Jesus is always telling us that we’ve gotta love people, but what was He talking about? We know He didn’t mean that you have to be in love with everybody, which would not only be an impossible task, but something that would be rather disastrous in our litigious environment, as you’d find yourself up on harassment charges very quickly! So what did He mean?

Well, if we take our starting point from these words of St Paul’s, we’d have to say that love has got a lot to do with persistence.

Love is patient’, Paul says, or as the older translations put it, ‘love suffereth long’.

In other words, ‘Love puts up with a lot of stuff’‘, and this same concept is reinforced again four times in verse 7 of this short passage.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Love, it seems, has a lot to do with sticking it out. Love goes the distance. Indeed, St Paul concludes this passage by reflecting on the fact that while life is transient and all things pass away in time, yet “Three things abide, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.”

I don’t know if many of you smoke Marlborough. Even if you don’t smoke the cigarettes, I suspect that most of us would be old enough to remember the ‘Marlborough Country’ ads.

I heard an interview once with marketing guru, Jay Conrad Levinson, where he talked about the history of the ‘Marlborough Man’ ad campaign. In its day, he said, it was the most expensive ad campaign ever undertaken by any company ever.

They created a whole world in the American wild west, which they called, ‘Marlborough Country’, and they created this rugged, outdoor individual, who had the strength and determination to survive and thrive in this world, and he smoked Marlborough!

They took this bold initiative because their brand was ranking poorly in terms of sales and because surveys showed that they were perceived as a feminine brand.

A year after launching this massive campaign and spending an enormous amount of money in rolling it out, they did their surveys and tallied up their figures again, and found that they were still doing poorly in sales and that they were still perceived as a feminine brand!

And so members of the board of Phillip Morris (who produced the cigarettes) moved to scrap the campaign and salvage whatever funds and credibility they had left. But the chairman apparently said, “give it a bit more time”. And sure enough, within another year, after continuing to pour time and money into the campaign, they’d hit no.1 in sales and their public perception had changed completely.

What’s that got to do with 1 Corinthians 13, you might be asking? It’s the concept of persistence, or, as Levinson put it in that interview, ‘maintaining the attack’.

You might think it a rather inappropriate illustration to use in a sermon, but I can tell you that I have found myself regularly reflecting upon that story in my thinking, as I have thought about our church!

I am in my seventeenth year here, believe it or not. Seventeen years ago I was convinced that we could build up this church, become financially viable, and offer genuinely useful service to this community. I thought it would take us a year or two. Seventeen years later, we’re still not quite there, though we’re closer than we were. And so I think back to that story and ask myself, ‘do you believe in what you’re doing?’ And the answer is always ‘yes’. Then ‘maintain the attack.’

Of course Paul’s exhortation to persist is not focused on projects but on people. It is people that we need to love, people that we must not give up on, people we must endure, hope for, believe in, and persist with, for this is what love is.

It is hard for all of us, as members of this church, not to sideline some members – write them off because they are difficult, unproductive, draining or just downright obnoxious. But Paul believed that everybody had a place and that everybody had something to offer. God so constructs the body of believers such that every member is important and every member has a vital contribution to make to the body as a whole.

Sometimes it is not obvious what it is that some persons have to contribute, but don’t give up on them – maintain the attack, persist, keep working with them, for God has placed those people here too so that they might enrich the life of the body as a whole and push us forward in our ministry and mission.

Persistence, it seems, is the key, pastorally, to making the Christian community work, which is why love is always deeply associated with that other fundamental Christian virtue – forgiveness.

It may be this emphasis on persistence that makes this passage is so popular in weddings too. For I think each of us knows deep down that so much of what makes a marriage work is the fact that we are willing to stick it out and keep working on it.

I heard of a women who was overheard, toasting her husband on the occasion of their fortieth wedding anniversary with the words, “in spite of everything!”

That might sound somewhat cynical, but I think it is true, that the miracle of good relationships is that they do work, in spite of everything, as there are so many things that can destroy them.

And that’s as true of the church as it is of our marriages. In spite of everything, we have opted to stick it out with each other, in the hope that we might still serve God more effectively by worshipping Him and serving Him together.

In spite of everything – in spite of our individual weaknesses, in spite of the dramas and scandals that regularly threaten to up-end us, in spite of our tiredness, and in spite of the fact that, even after seventeen years, we haven’t reaped all the rewards for our hard work, as we may have like, we persist … because we love, and because that’s what love is all about.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. … So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich, January 2007.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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