Greatest of These is Love”
Message by Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
Usually, when I read those words, I
have a wedding couple standing in front of me. My guess is that most of you
associate those words with weddings. I also suspect that people in the
un-churched public also know them because of their own weddings, or weddings
that they attended, but might not have any idea where they came from. They
might take a lucky guess and say that it is in the Bible somewhere.
And the reality is that these are
probably the MOST familiar words that Paul ever wrote. However, these words …
often read at weddings around the world … have absolutely NOTHING to do with weddings.
In fact, they have NOTHING to do with romantic love.
The problem is that when we read
this passage at a wedding, we read it out of context. It is detached from the
rest of the letter. This passage follows immediately after the passage that we
read last Sunday. That passage concluded with the words, “But strive for greater
You may recall that last week, we
talked about the Body of Christ, the body of the Messiah, being made up of many
members. We explored the passage that said that though we are many members, we
are one unified body.
We also talked about the gifts that
God has blessed each of us with. Each individual has been blessed by a wide
variety of unique and distinctly personal gifts. Gifts that are given by God to
be utilized for the common good. Gifts that are intended to be used to
establish and build up the body … the church.
Then Paul offered a transitional
phrase between that passage and the one for today: “I will show you a still
more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:31b)
And that is where we begin today …
hearing about Paul’s more excellent way.
Chapter thirteen does not stand on
its own. It is the continuation of chapter twelve.
I concluded my message last Sunday
saying that as the Body of Christ, created in the image of God, bearing the
spark of God in our spirits, WE are now the Word of God made flesh. We are
called to be the continuation of Christ’s ministry here on earth. Therefore, we
are called to share our gifts in the most Jesus-like way that we can imagine.
And that way is love.
According to Jesus, the love of God
and the love of our neighbors is the Greatest Commandment. It is a more
We all know that Jesus grew up as a
good and faithful Jew, raised by faithful Jewish parents. He was the embodiment
of scripture. He was … and is … the fulfillment of their faith. Obviously, as
the Son of God, the Word of God Made Flesh, he was well-acquainted with their
Like English, Hebrew only had one
word for love. The majority of rabbinic texts about love refer to the
relationship between God and the people of Israel. However, the ethical
movement within Judaism considered selfless love to be the most important
attribute that one could cultivate. Many Jewish scholars believe that love as a
feeling is not adequate. Love is demonstrated properly through action.
And then Paul introduced the
companion to that thought … action without love is worthless.
Whereas, English and Hebrew have
only one word for love, the Greeks have four. This is not new for you. I am
certain that you have heard this many times in the past. So then, you already
know that the love of which Paul speaks is NOT eros … romantic love. We
have already established that.
The love of which he speaks is not
our fondness for a particular thing, or food, or activity, or song, or color.
It is not the affection that we have
for a friend, or a pet.
It is something much more.
It is something so far beyond them
as sunlight is beyond the light of a candle.
This love of which Paul speaks
surpasses our understanding; it surpasses all forms of love with which we are
accustomed. And it is the love that is essential for Christian life and
All of the gifts that Paul listed in
Chapter 12, and in his other letters, are just empty practices … meaningless
activities … if not done in the spirit of love.
“To one there is given through the Spirit a
message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the
same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of
healing by that one Spirit, to another
miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing
between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of
tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” (1 Corinthians
love, speaking in tongues is just noise. Even a gong or a cymbal make noise.
away all of one’s possessions, even if it is to feed the poor, or care for the
widow or the orphan, or to support the gathered community of the church, is
empty if it is done grudgingly. If it is done without love this is a burden
difficult to carry.
giving one’s whole self as an offering does not do any good if it is not done
in love. Without the spirit of love, the gift of time feels like a mandatory
obligation, a conscription into unpleasant duty and undesired responsibility.
our gifts should not feel as though it is a millstone hung around our necks. It
should be a joy.
as important is that the gifts should not be given or shared for personal gain
or glorification. In one of my previous churches, there was a certain member that
always wanted m to know when they had done something “good” or “helpful.” The
individual was always seeking to be acknowledged, recognized and praised for
sharing their gifts.
then, what does Paul mean by this love? He has made it clear what it is NOT. So
… what IS it?
us go through the list of what love IS. However, let is do a little exercise as
we do. Let us reflect on the passage and consider these three things:
in what ways do we see this quality reflected in Jesus himself?
in what ways do we see it … or NOT see it … in ourselves?
third, if we do struggle with one of these, in what ways could that quality be
put into practice in our lives and ministry?
us do this prayerfully. Let us not do this in a way that beats ourselves up or
makes us feel as though we have failed. This is not intended to be an exercise
each of these qualities. Think of them in terms of Jesus Christ. Now allow
yourself to imagine how we might behave differently as we embody these
qualities. Imagine what it would feel like.
will go through the list slowly.
Love is patient.
Love is kind.
Love is not envious.
Love is not boastful or arrogant.
Love is not rude.
Love does not insist on getting its own way.
Love is not irritable.
Love is not resentful.
Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing.
Love rejoices in the truth.
This is life in the Spirit. This is how we embody
the Word of God. This is how we live as the Word made flesh.
Love never fails.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I
thought like a child. When I was a child, I threw tantrums when I did not get
my way. (I am sure that my mother would be willing to share stories about me
lying on the floor screaming and banging my head. But … please don’t.)
When we were children, we grew and developed as
every child does. We pass through the ‘Imperial Stage’ … the stage in which it
is all about “ME.” I want my way. In that stage we are selfish and
self-centered. It is not because we are bad children, but because all children
develop along a similar and shared path. And thankfully, most people pass
through that stage of development.
As we become older, we throw off our childish
ways. Then we are able to see the world around us. We are able to see the needs
of others. We are able to see the ways that our actions affect those around us.
As our understanding becomes more sophisticated, we are able to see our
interconnectedness. We are able to understand that we are one thread within the
totality of the human fabric.
Paul used the image of a mirror to make his
point. Corinth happened to be one of the cities in which mirrors were
manufactured. Of course, they were not made with the same technology that we
have today. The images were not nearly as clear. Most homes could not even
afford mirrors, and those that could gazed into polished metal. The images were
often hazy or clouded.
Of course, even with our modern mirrors, working
one is difficult. The image before us is reversed. It is confusing. Have you
ever poked yourself in the eye trying to trim your eyebrows or pluck your
lashes? Looking into a mirror, everything is twisted, backwards, upside down.
Our brains struggle to flip the image.
But now, in our maturity, as human beings and as
we mature in our Christian lives, we see the world more clearly. Things make
better sense to us. Our brains to not have to work as hard to flip the “image”
that we see in order to make it reconcile with what we know reality to be.
Now we understand. Now we are complete. It is as
if we can see God face to face. We can experience Jesus face to face.
as we discussed last week, the congregation in Corinth was learning what it
meant to be “church.” They were learning what it meant to be Christian, and to
embody Jesus Christ in the world. They were finding their way.
as we consider the world in which we live, what we see around may be in danger
of becoming shrouded in that same haze as those ancient mirrors. The things
that we see happening around us are not the ways that recognize. They certainly
are not the way that Jesus set before us.
the lesson is still important and instructive for us today.
hope and love abide.
… looks at the God made known to us in Jesus Christ and places our trust in God
… looks ahead to God and what God will do for us and for the world in the
… is that which animates our faith and our hope. Love is that which gives our
spiritual gifts life and meaning. And love, as practiced by Jesus Christ, gives
us a glimpse into God’s new world.
greatest of these is love. Amen.
Congregational ChurchUCC, SACO MAINE12 BEACH STREET | SACO, ME 04072