Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-8a
I may be able to speak the languages of human beings and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell. I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountainsóbut if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have, and even give up my body to be burned but if I have no love, this does me no good.
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail. Love is eternal.

Love is Ö

There was once a cricket coach, a good coach, who wanted his team to be the best. He told them that a team needs players with a variety of skills - some who were good bowlers, some who were good fielders, and some who were good batsmen.

"Now," said the coach, "How many of you want to learn how to field?" No one raised his hand.
"How many of you want to learn how to bowl?" Again no one raised a hand. Finally he asked,
"How many of you want to bat?" Every hand went up.

The coach was frustrated. "How can we have a cricket team with only batsmen? Who will field and bowl when the other team is batting? Cricket is a team effort. You can't all be batsmen. You can't all expect to have the glory of getting centuries. We need fielders, bowlers and batsmen if we are going to be a team".

The coach finished his speech with a great deal of gusto. He had laid it on the line. And he asked again. "Who of you want to be fielders, and bowlers?" He was sure his message had got through. No one was interested. They weren't interested in teamwork. Each one wanted to be the centre of attention. Each counted himself more important than the team.

This would-be cricket team is no different to people generally. We see in families, in business, in government, in schools and in churches this same tendency of individuals counting themselves more important than the team.

In Corinth Paul had the same problem. He didn't have the Corinthian Eleven to deal with but the members of the Corinthian congregation. To put it simply, the problem was that many Corinthian Christians thought they were spiritual superstars. They werenít interested in working as a team. Too many had an elevated view of their importance and were too critical of others.

Paul points out that the Corinthians didn't lack in spiritual gifts. Some of them worked miracles, some performed acts of healing, some had the gift of tongues, others had the gift of interpretation, others the gift of administration, of teaching, and preaching and so on. Yet in spite of all of these, the people of Corinth had a me-first attitude. There were quarrels, lawsuits, disregard of those with weaker faith, selfish neglect of poorer members, unhealthy divisions in the congregation, arguments at congregational meetings.

This is not the way people who have been brought into the Kingdom of God by the love of God should behave. He tells them, "Together you are the body of Christ. Each one of you is part of his body" (1 Cor 12:27 CEV). And then in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul speaks to them about a much better way of worshipping and working together as a congregation. He gives them the wonderful description of love.

Now we all know what love is. Donít we see it on TV and in the movies all the time? Man and woman meet, "fall in love", have a romantic evening, they kiss, fall into bed together, then argue and go their separate ways. We all know how changeable, fickle and short-lived our feelings of romantic love can be. We know how romantic love depends mostly on our moods, our feelings; what the other person does for us and how appealing that person is to us.

A man at work decided to show his wife how much he loved her and planned a quiet romantic evening with his wife. So before going home, he showered, shaved, put on some very nice cologne, bought her a bouquet of flowers. As he walked through the front door, he met his wife. Before he could say a word, she exclaimed, "Oh no! This has been a terrible day! First I had to take Billy to the emergency room and get stitches in his leg, then your mother called and said she's coming for 2 weeks, then the washing machine broke down, and now this! You come home drunk!"

Itís not hard to guess what happened to the husbandís feelings of romantic love?

It's worth noting that in the Lutheran wedding service order, romantic love is not mentioned. There is a lot of talk about commitment, fidelity, being true to one another. It is this faithfulness and commitment that keeps people close to each other, even when itís hard to be patient, understanding and friendly.
It is this kind of commitment and faithfulness that enables a couple to stick by each other when life takes a turn for the worse, or when one partnerís health declines and the other is committed to caring and helping even though itís hard work and a drain on their strength and tests their patience.
It is this kind of commitment that should enable a congregation (like the Corinthian congregation) to work together in spite of the diversity of opinions, talents, backgrounds, and levels of spiritual maturity.
This kind of love Paul describes as a "fruit of the Spirit". It is the Holy Spirit working in our lives that gives us this kind of love that never gives up even though we often feel that the other person doesnít in any way deserve a second chance.

And so Paul writes to the Corinthians congregation and to us saying,
"Love is patient and kind;
it is not jealous or conceited or proud;
love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable;
love does not keep a record of wrongs;
love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth.
There are no conditions on this kind of love Ė like Iíll be nice to you if you are nice to me. There is nothing optional in Paulís description of love Ė simply love is Ö. "Love is patient and kind".

We simply need to look at our family life, our congregation, our school, in fact every human relationship that we are involved in. We all know how difficult it is for us to love in the way Paul describes. We know how hard it is to follow Paulís advice when he wrote to the Philippians, "Don't do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, be humble toward one another, always considering others better than yourselves. And look out for one another's interests, not just for your own. The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:3-5).

The Corinthian congregation was filled with all kinds of gifted people, but it was also filled with all kinds of division and unhappiness.

I hardly need to say that this problem wasn't unique to the Corinthians Christians. Our sinful nature gets in the way all the time and we end up being unfriendly, unhappy, hurt, upset, tense, regretting things we have done and said. The kind of love that Paul talks about here is not an easy love. It isn't something that comes naturally. This kind of love is something that we need to work on.
We donít rely solely on our feelings whether we like this person or not.
We donít excuse our unkind behaviour by saying that itís "human nature" to be jealous of others, or to put them down, or to really dislike the person who brags all the time.
We donít justify our unfriendly attitude saying that so and so is irritating and just plain hard to get on with.
Being patient and kind, not jealous, or conceited or proud,
not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable, not keeping score of the wrongs others cause us,
all this is hard work and requires an iron will to carry this out.

But who has an iron will when it comes to relationships? Who can love like this? I donít know about you but I firmly resolve to do better tomorrow but when tomorrow comes I find myself falling into the same traps.
When we are feeling down and upset about the mess that we have made of our relationships, there is one who will keep on loving us.
When we cry the tears of repentance for our selfishness, impatience and unkindness, Jesus,
who is God's love in the flesh,
who considered us more highly than he considered his own safety,
whose love is enduring and totally reliable,
graciously forgives us
and sends us out with the Holy Spirit to be his disciples demonstrating love in our homes, in our school, our congregation, at work, wherever.

This is where the rubber hits the road.
All this talk about love is useless unless it results in some very solid, everyday, practical application in our lives. Itís very easy to talk about love, and to walk out of here and do nothing.

Considering others above ourselves. That's a pretty tall order, but nevertheless one that love demands.

Remember the love that the Bible talks about includes commitment, faithfulness, compassion, understanding, patience, tolerance, and long-term endurance.
When there is someone in some kind of need, let nothing but love move you to act.
When you strongly disagree with someone, let love rule and not let this difference of opinion become between you and the other person.
When you are tempted to avoid another person because just donít like them, let love rule to the extent that you are friendly and caring.
If you see a stranger walk into the church, let love rule and welcome him/her.
When there is a person with a need, let love rule and help that person in that need.
If someone really stirs you up and his/her habits really get under your skin, let love rule and understand why he/she is like that. Be tolerant and patient.
I dare say we miss out on many God-given opportunities in our homes, congregation and school because love is not the controlling force. The love our Saviour had for us when he took the road to Calvary demonstrated his total commitment to us. He commands us to love just as he did but he knew that we canít do it, so he gave us the Holy Spirit to motivate to be great lovers Ė that is the very beginning, the basic requirement of being his disciples. Recall Jesusí words,
"As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples" (John 13:35).

This kind of love requires hard work right through life. This kind of love means waking up every morning asking for the grace to help us love despite others, and despite ourselves. We pray especially that as part of the St Paulís Community that we be given the grace to love one another as God has loved each of us in Christ - completely, committedly, forever.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
1st February, 2004

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