1 Corinthians 13

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. 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. 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.

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

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. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 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. 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.

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

Introduction: Paul loved lists. He uses them everywhere. The nine fruits of the Spirit. The fifteen acts of the sinful nature. The seven gifts of the Spirit in Romans 12. The nine gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12. The five virtues in Colossians 3.

We all like lists. Publishers have told me that books with numbers in their titles, like five keys, four steps, ten secrets, tend to outsell others because they are practical, memorable and simple. Lists are good for other reasons. I feel better about flying knowing both pilots have been through an extensive check list prior to taking off. Atul Gawande wrote a book titled “The Checklist Manifesto” to tell what happens in medical care when doctors follow very defined checklists. “The researchers found that simply having the doctors and nurses in the ICU create their own checklists for what they thought should be done each day improved the consistency of care to the point that the average length of patient stay in intensive care dropped by half.”

Do you remember when we talked about Benjamin Franklin’s list of thirteen virtues? Every morning he identified a virtue he would emphasize and intentionally practice that day. Every evening he evaluated himself on how well he had done that day with all thirteen.

Lists are like practicing our scales. They are disciplines and mental tools for getting things done. They are important. But, just as music is more than notes on a page or a painting is more than a list of colors used, the life Paul describes is more than checking off a list of virtues at the end of the day.

But, for some people they can become overwhelming. For some of us when we see a list of qualities or characteristics we want to make sure we check every box. That could be the case for some when we read 1 Corinthians 13 – especially when Paul introduces it by saying he is showing us a “more excellent” or “more perfect” way. We see the word perfect and that triggers something in us that jumps us into perfectionism. Perfect attendance. Perfect score. Perfect skin. We remember the verse in Matthew 5:48 -”Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” We remember the story in Matthew of the rich young ruler and Jesus saying, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Or, as Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians in closing, “Aim for perfection.”

Perfect in Scripture is not perfectionism. It comes from two Hebrew words. One means wholeness or integrity and the other means beauty. Perfection is not completing a list or living in fear of mistakes and omissions. It is a description of a life that is over time conforming itself to Christ – and each life is different.

I’m saying this because we are looking this morning at one of Paul’s most famous lists. Like his other lists, they help us get a handle on the idea but they are not exhaustive. Just as there are likely more fruits of the Spirit than nine and more gifts of the Spirit than seven, Paul’s intent is to paint a picture of what Christian love looks like in practice. But, it is not intended to make us discouraged or guilty if we do not live up to every word of it. In fact, just as in the Beatitudes, we discover that all of these things are impossible without the Holy Spirit. We cannot grit our teeth, clamp our jaws and by a force of our wills and lists make ourselves into this.

But, we can start to get a picture of what the Holy Spirit desires to do in our lives individually and as a Church. So, that said, let’s look at the most excellent way – Paul’s list of 16 qualities of love.

1. If you think about these 16 marks of love you begin to realize they might well fall into three basic categories. As Jesus said, we are to have heart love, mind love, and soul and strength love for God. That would lead us to believe that there are different kinds of love we can have for each other.

Mind love or what I’ll call commitment.

Soul and strength love or what I’ll call character.

Heart love or what I’ll call care.

These three then are the fairly natural types of love that Paul describes in this passage: Commitment, Character and Care. Each of us has varying degrees of these as we’ll see.

2. What are the qualities of love that require our mind and commitment? This is love that is an act of the will and not just the emotions:

Love never gives up
Love puts up with anything
Love never looks back
Love keeps on going to the end

Love presses ahead and puts the past behind.
Love sets its mind to trust and focus on tomorrow.
Love is persistent and tenacious and puts up with all sorts of disappointments to get to the goal.
It is love that endures and persists. It is love that is left standing when everything around it has eroded away.
It is love that goes through doors.

It is the love C.S. Lewis speaks about: “Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

Do you know anyone like this?

Ask yourself these four questions as we move to the next:

A. Which are easiest for me?
B. Which are the most difficult?
C. Which is most characteristic of my spouse or best friend?
D. Which would you like most to have?

But committed love is not enough. Left to itself it becomes insensitive and it needs other love to balance it. It needs character.

3. What are the qualities of love that require our soul and strength?

Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have
Love doesn’t fly off the handle
Love takes pleasure in the flowering of truth
Love always looks for the best

Love that cares about the truth and looks at all sides
Love that encourages people
Love that looks out for people
Love that has its own emotions under control
Love that has enough
Love that you trust.

If the love of commitment goes through doors then this is the love that opens doors. People and opportunities are attracted to this kind of trust, integrity, protection and maturity.

Do you know anyone like this?

It is the quality Greek philosophers described as contentment: “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”

Again, ask yourself the four questions.

A. Which are easiest for me?
B. Which are the most difficult?
C. Which is most characteristic of my spouse or best friend?
D. Which would you like most to have?

But character love is not enough. Left to itself it becomes aloof and stoic and it needs other love to balance it.

4. What are the qualities of love that come from what is in our hearts? Of all the categories, this is probably the one most identified with this passage.

Love that is sure of itself but not stuck on itself.
Love that makes all charity possible
Love that is sometimes invisible but irresistible in the end.

It is love that may not go through doors like commitment and may not open doors like character. It is love that makes doors unnecessary. In a world of Heart love there would be no doors.

It is the love made possible by realizing we are loved. “We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19

Do you know anyone like this?

Once again, as the four questions.

A. Which are easiest for me?
B. Which are the most difficult?
C. Which is most characteristic of my spouse or best friend?
D. Which would you like most to have?

But heart love is not enough. Left to itself it becomes lop-sided and other worldly and needs the love of mind and the love of soul and strength.

5. All of us are a combination of all three but we tend toward one of them as primary with the others less pronounced. The life long challenge is to find ways to balance ourselves. How do we do that?

We learn how to balance love only as a body. No one person can embody all the qualities by themselves. This passage is not about individual perfection but about the characteristics of the whole. We complement each other. We have taken this passage out of context and made it a description of the perfect individual. That is not where it fits at all. What comes before it? One body and many parts. What comes after it? More discussion of the gifts residing in the body of believers. It is not about personal development but about the life of the church lived together.

Take a minute to check off which you find to be most descriptive of you: Commitment and the ability to will and persevere. Character and the ability to look for the whole truth and encourage people. Care or heart love that makes doors unnecessary and breaks down walls between people.
Everyone has some that are more natural than others.

Take a minute to check off which you think are the least descriptive of you. These are the marks of love for which you need other people and which take you longer in life to learn.

Think about it this way. I cannot wait to be loving until I am always kind. Instead, whenever I am kind that counts as love. It may not feel like love. It may not be complete love but it is an act of love. Whenever I am patient, whenever I could be rude and get away with it, or self-seeking or easily angered and am not, that is love. It is not like a sudden explosion in our lives and we are suddenly changed forever. It is not volcanic. It is layer after layer after layer of small things practiced over time until the change, almost unnoticed, becomes real.

Otherwise, every time you are not kind or patient or angry you are like Sisyphus. You roll all the way back to the bottom of the hill. You lose everything.

Love comes in stages. It accumulates. It covers over. That is why Paul says (in yet another list) in Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

See the theme there? Virtues covered over with love which binds all the parts together in whole and beautiful unity. Love is not a list. It is an overcoat. It is not simply one of many virtues.

Finally, remember that Christ is in us, reshaping us to conform to the image of what God created us to be and He is relentless. He goes through doors. He loves truth and encouragement. He opens doors. He has broken down everything that would keep us from Him and his love is irresistible in the end.

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