The famous Lutheran theologian, Adolf Harnack, referred to this chapter as, “the greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote.” And G. Campbell Morgan, said that “If one examined this chapter, it would be like dissecting a flower to understand it. In the process, one would tear the flower apart and lose its beauty.” My goal here isn’t to tear it apart Paul’s perfectly penned words, but to find our place and God’s power in them.
It should go without saying that the subject of this chapter is love. But not the kind of love I use to describe my longing for donuts or the feelings I have for my wife and kids. Instead Paul chose a rarely used Greek word “Agape.” We’ve talked about agape before; describing it as a type of altruistic, undeserving, unmerited love. The ancient Greeks considered it to be Divine because no human could achieve it. Maybe that’s why Paul chose to use it. And why the early church took the idea and ran with it.
If you read the entire epistle, you’ll see that Paul did not have brides, bouquets, or unity candles in mind when he wrote it. He was not trying to be poetic either, but pastoral. You see, Paul had heard that there were some in Corinth who were trying to enhance their status in the church by puffing-up their spiritual gifts. The age-old, “I’m right, you’re wrong, so get over it” type stuff.
There will always be people who think their insight or opinion is better than everyone else’s. And will do whatever it takes to get their way. This happens in business, in politics, in school, and even in the church. Yet tucked away in the Bible are these profound verses where Paul both admonished and affirmed the young church with one simple command: practice agape, be the divine love of God.
My first point is this: The primacy of love begins with God. You heard me say God is love. And that those who dwell in Love dwell in God forever, for God is love and love never ends. But what exactly does that love look like? Just reread this passage and wherever you see the word love, or any inference of it, replace it with the word God.
For example, God is very patient and kind. God is never jealous or envious, boastful or proud. God is never haughty or selfish or rude. God is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever truth wins out. God never dies.
I think this exercise gives us a wonderful portrait of who God is. And what agape looks like in reality. Like the ancient Greeks, you might believe it to be impossible for humans to attain agape. You might think the things you’ve done in your past have made you undeserving or unworthy of such love.
But that’s where agape turns everything you know upside-down. It’s God’s way of telling us that we are worthy to be divine and beloved. Agape is our assurance that no matter how far you have strayed from doing what God has called you to do, you are never beyond the boundaries of God’s love. And the proof of this claim is Jesus – the incarnation of God’s agape.
Which is my second point: the character of love is Jesus. If you want to know who Jesus is, then all you have to do is look at what he does. Jesus is God’s love because he lived agape in all that did. Again, replace the word love in this passage with the name Jesus.
Jesus cares more for others than for himself. He isn’t selfish, or force himself on others, or have the need to be first. Jesus doesn’t revel when others grovel. He takes pleasure in being truthful. He trusts God always. He doesn’t keep score but keeps leading us onward and upward to God’s glory.
When we look at Jesus through the lens of Paul’s letter, we see that wherever this kind of Love is practiced, God’s love is present. Our world today could use agape because it defuses fights, and exhausts the need to be right, or to get its own way simply because it’s not focused on itself but on the other.
There was a couple who had been married for 60 years and had no secrets except for one: The woman kept in her closet a shoe box that she forbade her husband from looking in. But on her deathbed the two opened the box together. In it was a crocheted doll and $95,000 in cash. She explained to her husband that her mother taught her that the secret to a happy marriage was to never argue. Instead of fighting she should crochet a doll. Her husband was touched. Because there was one doll was in the box meant she’d only been angry with him only once in 60 years. But then he asks dying bride, “what about all this money?”
“Oh,” she said, “that’s the money I made from selling all the dolls.”
While Paul isn’t speaking of weddings, his pastoral point remains true in all circumstances. Our capacity to flourish in God’s love is realized when we can live out the love of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ. By seeing and doing what Jesus did, we begin to understand that Love is not so much a feeling or spiritual gift. It’s an action. A way God intended us to give our gifts and talents to others. When we give ourselves freely to others… we are giving others a glimpse into God’s gracious heart.
Which takes me to my last point: the enduring presence of love is us.
We are both loved and love. But my fear is we throw the Love word around so much that we’ve lost any sense of agape. To this point, the other night my wife and I were enjoying a glass of wine after dinner. Out of the blue, she says, “I love you.” Instead of just taking it to heart, I jokingly asked “Is that you or the wine talking?” She said, “It’s me. But I was talking to the wine.”
I still remember that time my daughter fell in love with five different guys in a single day…Niall, Harry, Louie, Liam and the other one. Around the same time Fiona began her love affair with One Direction, there was a post making its way around Facebook. It was written by a concerned mom whose daughter always fell head-over-heels in love with whomever she was dating.
When the mom saw her daughter getting involved with a guy she had reservations about, she handed a piece of paper to her daughter with the words of 1 Cor. 13 written on it. And wouldn’t you know it, she put the boy’s name wherever love was written or implied. She told her daughter if this boy could passed this test, he was worthy of her love.
It didn’t take long for the young girl to think about all the times her boyfriend laughed at her when she goofed up. And earlier that day she saw him lie to a teacher so he could do something he wanted to do. The mother concluded her post by stating, “Not only did this give my daughter greater discernment about others but it also has helped her reflect on her own behavior.”
I invite you to put your name in the passage, and think about how might it affect the way you see yourself or how others respond to you. When we take on the qualities of Jesus, God’s agape, we attract those same qualities from others. Patience begets patience. Kindness begets kindness. Love begets love.
God is the primacy of love. Jesus is the character of love. And we are the enduring presence of a love that can transform and renew the world. To practice agape is to practice the immense compassion of God and “to look at people with love the way Jesus looked at the adulterous woman and made her discover her own goodness that empowered her to go and sin no more.”
There’s a good chance we’ll mess up it up from time to time. That’s ok. Love is sloppy and messy and complicated. That’s just the way it is. But as Paul so poetically penned, love rejoices in all things, good and bad, because wherever love is, God is. By this truth, we are able to be patient and kind, to bear all things and hope all things and get through all things.
As we know some marriages don’t last. And our spiritual gifts will eventually fade away if only because every human life comes to an end. But love never dies. We pass it on throughout the generations. But the divine love we receive through Christ is not merely left behind in the hearts of others when we die. But it grabs hold of us and pulls us into God’s heart throughout eternity.
Let us pray:
Most loving Lord, in your perfectness you have made us in your image, and by your steadfast love you have empowered us to be agape. Send us out into the world to be a mirror of you love so others may see you and glorify your wonderful name. Amen.
Today I leave you with the charge Paul gave to the Corinth Christians: “Be on your guard; stand firm in your faith; be courageous; be strong; and let all that you do be done in love.”
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. (Westminster John Knox: 2009) pp. 302-306.
Garish, Jim. Word of God Today. http://www.wordofgodtoday.com/1-corinthians-13 (accessed Oct. 23, 2019)
God Vine. My Daughter’s Boyfriend Test. https://www.godvine.com/read/love-verse-insert-boyfriend-name-test-relationship-951.html(accessed Oct. 23, 2019).
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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