The Gospel and Genuine Love

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7, rsv

How can I express what I feel about the message I’m about to give? I’m going to talk about two of the most wonderful realities in the world: the gospel and genuine love. I’m going to be grappling with how these relate to each other, and the tremendous difference they can make in human life. I wish I could have the attention of everyone in the world for what I want to say and I pray that you who are actually hearing now will listen carefully and take it in.

It’s not that I have something brilliantly original to present. I don’t. It’s not that I’m a noted authority on the subject. I’m not. But I’m going to consider with you now what many people believe are the most marvelous words ever written. They come from the apostle Paul, in the thirteenth chapter of his first Corinthian letter. They’re about love. I want to think with you first about what it really means to love, next about why it is so important, and finally, about how in the world we can do it.

Do you see why I’m so excited? Think of what it would mean if this message today “worked.” What if you could understand, if I could, in a new way, at a deeper level, what love is? What if you could feel in your bones how vitally important it is to be a loving person? And what if by some miracle you could actually live that out in a way you’ve never done before? What might all that mean for your life, for the people around you, for the world of our time, for the kingdom of God? That thrills me to imagine.

All right, first, what does it mean to love? Paul writes, “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Now notice, love as described here is not an abstraction. It’s not a theory or an ideal. It’s not even an emotion. Love, as Paul describes it here, is a way of acting. As someone has said, “There’s no such thing as love; there’s only a lover.” For the apostle, the easiest way to understand love is to think about what you do and don’t do when you really love someone.

Let’s go through these briefly. Love is patient, he says. That is, a man who shows love, who acts lovingly, does not lose his temper or turn away, no matter what he has to put up with from others.

Love is kind. A loving woman seeks to do good even to those who may do her harm.

On the negative side, love is “not envious.” People who love don’t get all bent out of shape over the successes and honors of others.

Love is not boastful. Loving people don’t bore and burden others by talking themselves up.

Love is not arrogant. Lovers don’t act pompously. They don’t inflate themselves with conceit.

Love is not rude. Those who love don’t treat others unfairly or inconsiderately. Caring folks don’t put others down.

Listen to this one: Love does not insist on its own way. Loving people aren’t always looking out for Number One. They aren’t absorbed with their own concerns and they don’t always have to have the last word.

Love is not irritable. When we truly love we aren’t touchy, easily offended, supersensitive to slights.

Love is not resentful. It doesn’t nurse a grudge. Loving ones don’t keep careful count of the wrongs done to them. They don’t concentrate on getting even.

Love does not rejoice at wrong. We’re prone to do that, aren’t we? We sometimes take pleasure in searching out and holding up to scorn the failings of others. Maybe we gain a sense of superiority from that. But love doesn’t act that way.

Love rejoices in the right. Loving people are on the lookout for the good in others. They delight to find something to affirm and appreciate. It makes them glad when others are walking in the light.

Now for a string of rich positives. “Love bears all things.” Loving lives are what support other people. They keep the whole world from falling to pieces. “Love believes all things.” Loving people don’t lose faith in God and what He is able to do in human lives. “Love hopes all things.” Those who love don’t give up on others or on themselves. They keep waiting eagerly for God to work. “Love endures al things.” No hardship or rebuff, no coldness or insult ever makes loving people stop loving. They just keep at it.

Well, there it is. Love in action: fifteen little vignettes, sketches from life. They may not tell us everything that love is, but they show us a great deal. If we think about them and try to picture each one as it applies to our daily experience, we’ll have a pretty good idea about what it is to live with genuine love.

Now think for a bit about why living this way is so urgently important. Listen to the apostle again: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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 have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Paul is saying here that nothing else counts for much in your life or mine if we don’t show love. Like those Corinthian Christians, we may be able to speak in tongues, (a remarkable spiritual endowment), but if we don’t live lovingly, that inspired utterance sounds to God like so much jarring noise. Think of that!

Prophecy is a remarkable gift, the ability to proclaim and apply God’s Word. That is surely a ministry to be coveted. And think of how wonderful it would be if we could understand all the mysteries of the Word and could attain to full knowledge. And imagine what it would be if we had the mountain-moving faith of which Jesus spoke. But even if all those things were true of us, it wouldn’t amount to much if we lacked genuine love. Those spiritual endowments might impress other people, but in God’s sight, we would be nothing at all.

Now Paul makes the case even more compelling. Suppose you surrendered all your possessions. Suppose for a good cause you made the supreme sacrifice and gave your body to the flames. Wouldn’t that qualify you for a martyr’s crown? Not, says the apostle, if you lacked love. Without love, nothing, nothing would be gained. How could he say more powerfully that love is the key to everything else? It’s the one indispensable element in a person’s life. It alone gives worth to everything else we do and say and suffer. That’s how important it is.

Here’s another reason. Paul goes on: “Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away . . . . So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

People in Corinth were excited about spiritual gifts. They all wanted to prophesy, to speak in tongues, to be given some word of wisdom and knowledge. And that was all fine. Paul didn’t discourage them from seeking any spiritual endowment. But he wanted them to know that love is what lasts. Love is the stuff that eternal life is made of. These other gifts are provisional, for a time. They’re preparing us for something else. But love is the power of the coming age, already operating in this one. It’s the everlasting prize which we can begin to experience and enjoy here and now. Love is forever. Whatever we do in genuine love will never go out of style, never be replaced by something else. You might say that love is heaven already.

There’s one more thing to say about love’s importance. Paul has been talking about spiritual gifts and how the best ones are those which best build up the church, the body of Christ. Then as he’s about to begin this chapter, he promises, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” That’s love: the “more excellent way,” because more than any other gift or activity or ministry in the church, love builds people up. Love makes the church strong and healthy. It’s mightily important to love.

Now for the crowning question, the supremely practical one. How can we do it? How can people like us, who most of the time are anything but loving, become those who genuinely love? I’ve got three clues for you about that. The first is: remember where Paul got this description. He didn’t read this portrait of love from a recently published book. He didn’t find it in the writings of the rabbis or the Greek philosophers. He got this where he got all the rest of his theology – from Jesus Christ, the living Lord. The model for this portrait of love in action is Jesus of Nazareth. Try putting His name in there and you’ll see what I mean. “Jesus is patient and kind. Jesus is not jealous or boastful. Jesus is not arrogant or rude. He does not insist on His own way. He is not irritable or resentful. Jesus does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Paul is not talking about an ethical theory but about a living person and it’s not a make-believe, idealized figure. It’s a life once lived in first-century Galilee and Judea. The first step toward living in love is realizing that it can really happen, that somebody actually lived this way, and getting our attention fixed on that person, Jesus Christ. Think of love as a way of summing up how He lived.

Now that’s a start, but if it’s all we have, it becomes a counsel of despair. Love then becomes a high and holy standard, but so far beyond us that we may lose heart. Here’s the second clue: The love we see in Jesus Christ can become real in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is how it happens and how the gospel fits in: When I hear the marvelous good news of the Christian gospel, how God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, how Jesus died for our sins and rose again so that I could be forgiven and have eternal life, and when I, confessing my sins, repenting, believing in Christ, turn over my life to Him, I receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He pours out in my heart the awareness of God’s great love. I realize in a personal way with the most overwhelming sense of gratitude that He loved me and gave Himself for me. And because I have been so loved, I begin to find within me a new power to love. Having been forgiven, I discover the resources to forgive.

You see, friends, love is not an idea but a power. Love is a presence. Love is a person, Jesus Christ living in me by the power of His Spirit and expressing His love through my life. And the more I trust in Him, the more I open myself to Him, the better I get to know Him, the more fully and consistently I am able to love. Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified, risen, is not only the pattern for love but also the secret of its power.

But I want to leave you with one more clue. When Paul gets to the end of this matchless chapter, he says to the believers in Corinth and to us: “Make love your aim.” Literally, he’s urging: pursue love, go after it, make it the object of a fervent, life-long search.

To say that the Holy Spirit gives us the power to love is not to imply that it’s something automatic. He energizes us, but we do it. He provides the power but we act it out. Remember how Paul describes Christian living? “Striving according to his working that works in me mightily”? That’s it. It’s His power working in us mightily but it’s also our striving. Without faith in Christ, without reliance upon the Spirit, the striving would all be in vain. Through faith, by grace, our pursuit of love won’t be in vain. Someone has put it this way: “How can I love?” The answer is “believe.” Then’s there’s the companion question. “How can I believe?” to which the answer is: “Love. Practice it.”

When we look at this unforgettable picture, seen in this passage and in Christ, we realize in faith that He lives in us by His Spirit to make love possible and then we pour all our energies and ingenuity into learning to live that way. Let’s do it. Let’s make love our aim.