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“What’s Love Got to Do with It?”

Date: May 6, 2024/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

May 5, 2024 (6th Sunday of Easter)

“What’s love got to do with it?”

1 Corinthians 13

This might be a very appropriate confession to make on Cinco de Mayo, when we’re about to go downstairs for a fellowship dinner celebrating the occasion:  I love tacos.  Absolutely love them.  Carne asada,[1] carnitas,[2] al pastor,[3] tinga,[4] birria,[5] you name it, I love them.  I love the ground beef ones like you get at Taco Bell, too.  Apart from any that might be made from tongue or some kind of guts,[6] I love tacos.

While we’re on the subject, you know what else I love?

I love it when the temperature warms up enough that I can wear sandals.  I think I have seven or eight pairs, and now that it has warmed up that’s just about all you’ll see me wearing—except at camp, where we have to wear closed shoes.  I love wearing sandals…unless I can go barefoot, which I love even more.

It’s sort of easy to throw around the word “love,” isn’t it?  I love tacos, I love wearing sandals, I love a Twitter cat I have never met and am not likely to meet, that kind of thing.  Is that what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13?  Is that the kind of love that makes spiritual gifts worth having and using?  Is that the kind of love that never fails, even when other spiritual gifts fail?  Is that the kind of love that merits first mention in the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5—the signs that the Holy Spirit is active in the life of a Christian or a church?

Our culture tends to describe a lot of things as “love,” doesn’t it?  We enjoy listening to a particular band—we “love” them.  But is “love” really the best word for that?  And how can we come to understand the kind of love Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13 when this is what our culture has done with the word?

When we go from one language—in this case, ancient Greek—into another—in this case, English—there are lots of decisions that have to be made.  Sometimes words in one language have shades of meaning that can’t be conveyed with an equivalent word in another language.  That’s true with the Hebrew word hesed, for instance; this is the word the New Revised Standard version of the Bible generally translates as “steadfast love.”  In older translations it was sometimes rendered as “loving-kindness.”  Neither of these terms quite gets to the heart of the matter.

And Greek translates hesed with a word that means “gift” or “grace,” not with one of its three words for love—even though one of those words, the one Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13, does a good job of describing what God’s love, God’s hesed, is all about, as Paul encourages us to have the same kind of love for one another.

You’ve probably heard plenty about the three Greek words that are translated into English as “love.”  One has to do with physical attraction, with sex; another has to do with friendship, with warm and companionable feelings toward another person. The third one, agapē, is the one Paul uses in 1 Corinthains 13, and it merits further explanation—but notice that none of these three words really has room for the kind of “love” I talked about a minute ago, for tacos and sandals and such things.

Nobody likes church conflict.

Folks who don’t attend church will sometimes point to church conflict as one reason they don’t go.  Sometimes people who have previously been involved in churches stop going when conflict erupts in their congregations.  In other cases people know, in a more general sense, that churches do often find themselves in the midst of battles of one kind or another, and that’s pretty unattractive in a world that’s already riddled with conflict.

There’s a sense that Christians ought to treat one another better than that.  There’s a desire for the church to be a place where we can have respite from our divided world, not just another battlefield.  But there is also a tendency in churches to be “nice” and ignore or deny conflict until it erupts in particularly ugly ways, rather than dealing with it when it’s small so it can be kept from taking root.

Paul once said to give thanks in all circumstances.[7]  Does that mean we should be thankful for conflict in churches?

I don’t know if we can make that case for every situation—but there is certainly one instance of church conflict for which we can be thankful.

1 Corinthians 13 is one of most Christians’ favorite passages of Scripture.  You hear it at weddings, and you hear it at funerals, and in lots of other settings, too.  But we wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for the conflicts in the Corinthian church.  They were divided in a myriad of ways.

A lot of it had to do with wealth and social status—we wouldn’t know that the early church observed Communion regularly as a remembrance of Jesus’ death, except that the Corinthians had divided themselves by social class, even at the Lord’s Table.[8]  The discussion about whether or not it was acceptable to eat meat that had been offered to idols[9] had its roots in social class.  People who were wealthy and well-connected were frequently invited to banquets in which this meat was served, and the poorer members of the church never had that opportunity.  That division led to spiritual problems when those who had no access to idol meat decided they were spiritually superior because they did not eat such meat, and those who regularly attended the banquets decided they were superior because they had enough knowledge to understand that eating such meat would not harm their souls.

They were split into factions, as we learned last week, based on which leader had baptized them or whose teachings they found most attractive. 

And the Corinthians divided themselves up, and looked down on one another, based on their spiritual gifts.  This is the specific conflict Paul addresses in chapters 12 through 14 of 1 Corinthians.

The way the section begins, it’s clear he isn’t pulling the topic out of the air at random.  “Now concerning spiritual gifts…” he says at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 12.

It’s either something where someone from the church has reported that the congregation is having problems around this issue, or else they’ve written to ask, “Which is the most important spiritual gift?”  And of course, given the Corinthians’ history, if they want to know which gift is most important, it’s because they want to decide who’s superior and who’s inferior, based on the gifts they have.

Paul, of course, won’t give any answer that feeds into this petty nonsense.  Instead, he tells them that all gifts are important, all gifts are necessary, all gifts come from the same Spirit.  He tells them that the gifts that seem the most unimportant are actually the ones that may be honored most of all.  He tells them there is no such thing as a gift so essential that all believers must have it, or so important that those who do not have it must count themselves out of the body of Christ.

Having done that, shown them a bigger picture of how spiritual gifts are supposed to work in the church, Paul tries to shift the Corinthians’ focus off finding yet another way to divide themselves up.  The transition between chapters 12 and 13 is, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.”[10]  Then off he goes into a praise of love.

This is that agapē love I mentioned earlier.

No gift, Paul says, means a thing if not undergirded by love.  Tongues are nothing but irritating noise without love.  Prophecy and knowledge, faith and the power to work miracles, are a waste of energy without love.

These are the spiritual gifts the Corinthians likely prize the most highly, and Paul declares them to be useless, without love.

Then he describes what this love of which he speaks looks like.  It looks like kindness, humility, a love of truth.  It looks like a willingness to set aside our own desire to be powerful and important and attend to the betterment of others.  It looks like steadfastness, endurance, patience with others who seem not to be as spiritually mature as we like to believe we are.

It’s not a feeling; it’s about what we do—and we can do this kind of love even when we don’t actually feel like it.

In Galatians 5 Paul says that this kind of love—active, faithful, gentle, eternal—is one of the sure signs that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in the church and in individual Christians. In John 13:34-35 Jesus says this is the way the world should recognize us, know how we are different from other people.

Unfortunately, based on what is presented in popular media, a lot of folks believe the way to recognize a Christian is to look for someone who is legalistic, hateful, and way too interested in what people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms.  Those may be the loudest voices out there, but I would argue there are a whole lot more of us who are not making that much noise but are doing our best to fulfill Jesus’ commandments to love one another, and the one he quotes from Leviticus 19:18:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The kind of love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 is the kind of love God has for us—a love that hangs in there no matter what, that actively seeks what is best for the beloved.  And it is the single most creative and transformative force in the universe.

So how can we, each of us individually, and all of us together as a church, tomorrow and in the days and weeks to come, speak and live that kind of love, a love that can truly change the world?

[1] Grilled steak.

[2] Pulled pork.

[3] Grilled pork, sort of equivalent to the Middle Eastern shawarma, which is made from lamb but which was probably the origin of al pastor.

[4] Shredded chicken in a spicy tomato-based sauce.

[5] Shredded beef—like pot roast—in lightly fried corn tortillas with a spicy au jus for dipping.

[6] Mike likes lengua (tongue) and tripa (tripe) in tacos and burritos, but I just can’t go there.

[7] 1 Thessalonians 5:18

[8] See 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

[9] 1 Corinthians 8:1—11:33.

[10] 1 Corinthians 12:31