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Greatest of These"
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
One of the more popular scriptural passages selected for use in wedding ceremonies is the thirteenth chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. And I think that's good, considering all the folks who will hear scripture read only at weddings and funerals.
If they are to hear nothing else, if they will but listen to this chapter, it can be a powerful force in their lives.
But truly listening to this chapter takes a lot of work. It is not EASY to listen to this chapter. It might change our lives.
It has been suggested by some of those who want formal, legalized prayer in schools that it shouldn't do any harm to pray the Lord's Prayer in schools.
On the contrary, if we pray to God, "Thy will be done on earth," I would suggest that we are inviting radical revolutionary change into our lives.
Well, the same might be said for Paul's dissertation on love.
"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."
Now, there is nothing wrong with gongs and cymbals. They have their place in bands and orchestras. But we must be mindful that they are percussion instruments. And Paul doesn't even have to use the adjectives "noisy" and "clanging."
Gongs and cymbals can carry but one sound. That sound can be intensified; it can be made louder; it can take on different rhythms; but it can never produce a melody. We might say that its message is extremely limited, if not shallow.
And Paul is telling us that we may have all the words in the world, capable of producing literary masterpieces; but without love, as persons we are reduced to emptiness.
If you want to know what that sounds like, find some literary masterpiece that is truly moving for you, and read it aloud as fast as you can. You might as well be hammering on a gong.
"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."
Have you ever known that kind of person? The person who seemed to know everything and seemed to be able to do everything? I admit it; I'm envious of people who seem to know a whole lot more than I do. And I'm envious of people who seem to have done or are able to do a whole lot more than I have done or can do. But the more I hear of many of these people, the more I read about them, the more I discover that often their lives are so filled with knowledge and accomplishment that there seems to be no room left for anything else.
Indeed, I read of those who are so arrogant in their knowledge that they have no use for people; and they are in such a rush to build their accomplishments that people just get in their way.
"If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."
And the key phrase here is "so that I may boast." I think that the world needs more anonymous philanthropy. That is, we need more giving without anybody knowing the giver. The Internal Revenue Service allows deductions for charitable contributions. I think that's a mistake. The motivation is all wrong.
I often wonder how many folks make so-called charitable contributions less out of charity and more out of concern for financial advantage, or so that others might SEE how wonderful and giving they are.
But what IS love? Or, at least, what are the characteristics of love?
Paul tells us, "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude."
Patience and kindness. Parents already know this. And although it may have been difficult for them, I know my parents practiced it. At least, with their children. Patience is not an easy thing to come by. I think God knows that. I think God knows that we have to work at it.
But where do envy and boastfulness and arrogance and rudeness fit into all this? Well, none of these traits have much to do with kindness. No, they are all focused on our greed and our desire to be BETTER than others.
But if we are patient, with God, with our own place in God's world, then these negative traits should melt away.
"Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful."
I really believe that couples whose marriages last for a very long time understand the meaning and the implications of this verse. And couples whose marriages fall apart after a very short time usually don't.
We all want life to go the way we plan it. Otherwise, we wouldn't MAKE any plans. But the test of our LOVE is the test of our patience and kindness with others. The test of our LOVE is whether we can allow others their way without irritation and resentment.
In his book The Way to Love, Anthony De Mello makes the point that we are plagued by our attachments. We are attached to people, we are attached to things, we are attached to ideas, and we are afraid to let go.
But only by letting go, De Mello argues, can we experience love. Only by letting go can we rid ourselves of our envy, our boastfulness, our arrogance, our rudeness, our irritability, and our resentment. And I'm not going to tell you that that's easy.
I'm sure that I will probably be working on it for the rest of my life.
"Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth."
This is an easy verse to brush aside. It almost sounds like, "Love knows the difference between right and wrong." And since we all assume that WE know the difference between right and wrong, we may think, "So what?"
Back up a verse. When we insist on our own way, WHY do we do so? Don't we insist because WE believe we have a handle on truth?
I would suggest that too often we believe that WE discover truth. But what if we turned this around?
What if we believed that TRUTH discovered US? If we left ourselves open to God, instead of hiding from God in our own truths; if we allowed ourselves to be discovered by God, what amazing things might be discovered in us and by us?
And what if that verse were reworded slightly: "Love does not rejoice in our own personal selfish so-called truths, but rejoices in the truth of God."
"Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
Love puts up with a lot. But we're not talking about some form of sick masochism here. Because balanced with what love bears and endures is what love believes and hopes. We live so much in the moment. And we don't WANT to bear all things and endure all things. We want everything to be better RIGHT NOW. We insist on our own way, forgetting that maybe God has another way for us. And God does. Which is why love believes and hopes.
The story of the Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures is a story of a people who bore and endured while they believed and hoped. But we can all come up with our own personal stories. When I informed my parents, at the age of 43, that I was planning on going to seminary, adding three more years of college to the eight I already had, my mother's calm, unsurprised response was that she had long believed that it was a decision that would some day happen. I just took a long time to make it.
"Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end."
All that we know, all that we speak, all that we write, everything that is of this secular earth, does come to an end. Because it IS of this secular earth. Only the absolute truth of God, the LOVE of God, is eternal and never ends.
"For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end."
One of the difficulties in preaching or in writing is that I can only tell you PART of what I'm thinking. And no matter how long I might preach, even for days on end, I would still only tell you PART of what I'm thinking.
And even if you knew EVERYTHING I thought, no matter how much I might know, it would still only be partial knowledge. But there is a completeness that we can seek, a completeness that we can find only in the truth of the love of God.
But let us not confuse this completeness with our narrow understanding of earthly truth. It is not bounded by the physical world, but is eternal. And it is a completeness that is continually unfolding for us and will be so throughout eternity.
One of the silliest things we do on this earth is elevate people with college degrees. And we elevate even further those with graduate degrees. I can get away with calling this silliness because I have a few of them. At at this point, I may offend some of you, but I do not intend to.
We put initials after our names, or we put titles in front of our names, or we even call people by those titles, like the practice of calling physicians doctors. Folks, more education doesn't mean you're smarter than anybody else.
It just means you have certain specialized education. And whatever we learn, whatever knowledge we attain, can never be anything but partial. And within a few years after obtaining that knowledge, it becomes obsolete, and new knowledge must be acquired.
And anyone who has attended graduate or professional school will agree with that, which is why continuing education is important for attorneys and physicians and even pastors.
"When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways."
This is one of those beautiful scriptural verses that gets ripped out of context to prove whatever we want it to. But I think that Paul is telling us about maturing into an understanding of love.
The "child" in this verse is the person whose wisdom is earthbound, whose thinking is tied to secular values. This is the person who lives in the here and now, impatient for the material gains to be found on the earthly plane. This is the person whose primary motivation is greed, the person who insists on having his own way.
For Paul, becoming an adult, discovering the truth of the love of God, is to put away all of this childishness.
"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."
And what is it that we see and will see? Is it not OURSELVES? We have been fully known by God, but we know ourselves only in part; we see ourselves, only dimly.
In my Bible there is a footnote for the word "dimly," and it tells me that in the original Greek this translates as "in a riddle."
And isn't that how life often seems to us, like a riddle, a puzzle, that we are continually trying to solve?
Well, God has given us the key to the solution: Love bears all things. Love believes all things. Love hopes all things. Love endures all things.
"And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."
And may God's infinite grace bring you to the truth of his love. Amen.T
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