Scripture Readings:

1 Corinthians 12.31-13.13

John 15.5-17

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Love’, which is a word we use quite a lot in Church. And it’s a word we use quite a lot outside of Church as well. But it can be a confusing word, because it our English word, ‘love’ has a range of different meanings. And the words the Bible use for love have particular meanings. But love is central to Christianity, and essential to the life of the Church. ‘Love your neighbour’ and ‘love one another’ are two of the most important commandments which Christ gives his followers. So we need to know what we mean by ‘love’.

Today we read St Paul writing to the Church at Corinth about love. It’s a passage which is often read at weddings, for why would we not want to give this sort of advice to a lovestruck couple?

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.

All good advice for a happy marriage.

Perhaps when some of you were married, you heard those words in the King James version:‘Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not…’ But oddly, in the King James version, the word ‘love’ is completely missing. Instead of ‘love’, it uses the word ‘charity’.

This puzzles a lot of people nowadays, because today charity means something different from what it did back in the 17th Century. At a wedding service, we celebrate two people who are ‘in love’ with one another. We don’t say that they are ‘in charity’ with each other. They’re not going to give donations to each other.

King James’s scholars were translating from Greek, and Greek has more than one word for what we would nowadays call ‘love’. Back in the 17th century, the word they thought best translated the Greek word was ‘charity. There’s a classic book by the Christian apologist CS Lewis called The Four Loves in which he explains that, although we have only one word ‘love’ in English, the Greek of the New Testament has at least four different words, each with different meanings. You might say you love strawberries, or Strictly Come Dancing, or even Ross County Football Club. But clearly that means something different from saying you love your wife or husband. Or that God loves the world.

Paul’s words weren’t written for a wedding, and they are not how we should give to charity. Rather, the Greek word rendered ‘charity’ in the King James version, and ‘love’ by modern translations, refers to a Greek word which means a very special kind of love. It’s love which wants the best for another person. It’s love which does not expect anything in return. It’s love which is given wholeheartedly and freely. It is the love God showed for us in Christ, and the love we are to try to show as Christians.

Last week we read the previous chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Church at Corinth. And today we heard the last couple of sentences of that chapter, chapter 12, in order that you would hear today’s reading of chapter 13 in context.

In the previous chapter, Paul is writing about how we are to understand the gifts of different members of the Church. He tells the Corinthians that their different gifts are from the one Spirit of God. And he uses an imaginative image to describe the Church, as being like the human body: one body, with many parts, and all of the necessary and useful. And so that’s how it is in the Church- different people have different roles, according to the gifts that the one Spirit of God has given them. And he finishes the chapter with the words we began our reading today: ‘Set your hearts, then, on the more important gifts. Best of all, however, is the following way’. And then he writes about love.

Paul had had to write all this to the Corinthians because they were in conflict with one another. Some of those who had particular gifts, or special offices in the Church, had become rather proud of themselves and their special place in the Church. And so Paul tells them that they are not to be too proud of their gifts, for the most important thing is to live lives of love. The most spectacular gifts are no good without love:

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.

Then he goes on to talk gifts which we often still value in the Church. A silver-tongued preacher is surely a great gift to the Church; and faith is surely a great gift of God? Maybe. But Paul says,

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 mountains- but if I have no love, I am nothing.

What if I give up everything for Jesus? What if I take Jesus’ advice to the rich young man, and give away all my property? What if I stayed faithful even to martyrdom?

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.

Without love, we might sing like angels, but we may as well sound like a clanging bell. Without love, the greatest preacher, the cleverest scholar of the faith, the person whose faith could move mountains- is nothing. Without love, the most radical discipleship, giving up everything for Jesus, will do you no good. These were qualities, these were gifts of the Spirit, which the Corinthians prized- and we still do today. Jesus said if we have faith we can move mountains, he called on the rich young man to give everything away, he said we should take up our cross to follow him. All well and good, says Paul- but Jesus also talked a lot about love. Jesus told his disciples to love one another, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading. He even said that we should love our enemies.

Sometimes people accuse Paul of adding on to the teaching of Jesus, or even misunderstanding Jesus. But I think Paul understood Jesus very well. For did not Jesus sum up his morality by saying that the greatest commandments in the Hebrew Bible were that we should love God and love our neighbour? For Jesus, love is the key to understanding God, and to knowing how to treat others. Paul agrees with that completely.

And so Paul reminds the argumentative Christian community of Corinth that whatever they do, they’ve to do it in love. Now, you can’t ask an institution- like a Church congregation- to love. For love is a virtue- it’s something which individuals have to learn to practice in their daily lives. Love is the principle which is guide how we relate to one another. Listen again to Paul telling the Corinthians what love looks like:

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.

Now these are fine words, and it might be nice to hear them sometimes- perhaps at a wedding ceremony. But they were written for a particular situation, in a letter which an exasperated Paul wrote a congregation in conflict with itself. Read them again, and you can begin to guess the kinds of situations Paul had in mind.

Do you get annoyed with other people in the Church? Maybe you have an idea of what the Church should be like, but someone else disagrees with you. Well, says Paul, if practice love, you will be patient with them and kind to people like that. Maybe you see that someone has an important role in the Church that you would like to have?- but if you practice love, who can’t be jealous! Or maybe you think your gifts are really special, or that you fill a more important role than other people in the Church? But love doesn’t allow you to be conceited or proud. And so it goes on… if you are showing love, you won’t be ill-mannered or selfish or irritable in your relations with other people. You won’t count other people’s wrongs; you’ll avoid evil and seek the truth; and you won’t ever give up on someone, not even the most annoying person in the congregation.

Paul says of love that ‘its faith, hope, and patience never fail’. And here is the key to love for Christians. It’s not a burden which is imposed upon us; it springs from our faith and our hope. Our faith is that in Jesus Christ, God showed incredible love to the world. The first letter of John, at chapter 4 and verse 14 is one of my favourites in the entire Bible; it says,

We love because God first loved us.

This is telling us not that loving others is not a burden, but a possibility because of what God in Christ has done for us. God loved me first; if we can plumb the depths of that statement, understand what it means for us personally, then we can begin to live lives of love which reflect our hope and our faith in the God who first loved us.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks to his disciples about being ‘fruitful’. We would all like to be fruitful in our lives, and we would like the Church to be a fruitful place. Jesus says, if you want to be fruitful, you will have to remain in me. A branch won’t grow fruit without being attached to the vine- it’ll curl up and die, producing no grapes. So, says Jesus, who need to remain attached to me, united with me, in order to bear fruit.

And what happens when we stay united with Christ is that we know about love: the love that God has for us in Jesus Christ. You see, Christian love is a love that gives much, and doesn’t expect anything in return. So Jesus tells his disciples that he is loved by his Father, and that we know God’s unconditional love for ourselves as long as we are united to him. And he says that ‘the greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for him’. That, of course, refers to Jesus. Jesus has loved us so much that he gave his life for us. Jesus love us so much that he died for us. That is a measure of the kind of love that Christ has for us: a love which would die for us.

We are fruitful when we show that kind of love in our lives. We are able to do so when we are united with Christ. Because when we are united to Christ, we know the depths and the strength of God’s love.

There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us form the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord

says Paul elsewhere[1].If we believe that to be true, then we can be enabled to love others as God loves them: with a sacrificial love, a love which will give up much for someone else, never looking for something in return. That’s the kind of love God has for us, the kind of love which is the fruit of being united in Christ.

Paul says:

Love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth.

We need that kind of love more than ever, in the Church; and in the world. For we are in an are where we need to battle for truth and decency more than ever. For example: it seems to be more and more acceptable insult or belittle people because of their religion, their nationality or their race. This week, an MP gave an interview on television in which he used racist slurs against the chairman of Airbus, who happens to be a German[2]. There was a bit of a fuss, but as far as I know he hasn’t been disciplined by his party or deselected by his constituents yet. It reminded me of an incident back in 1990, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sacked her Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Nicholas Ridley, after he made anti-German remarks[3]. Those were different times- it seems that nowadays we are more willing to tolerate racism than we used to.

But Christians believe that God has shown incredible love to humanity through Jesus Christ. Christ loves us so much he gave his life for us. So, of course, we are to love one another, just as Christ has loved us. What the world needs now is Christian people, and a Christian Church, that will speak of love- self-sacrificing love. Love that honours and cherishes people for who they are: children of God, for whom Christ was willing to lay down his life. Love that cherishes truth and calls out evil. We can never stand when people are insulted or belittled or attacked just because of who they are. For we are love as Christ loves us. So these three remain, says Paul: faith, hope and love. All are need in the Church and the world today. And the greatest of these is love.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo


[1] Romans 8.39