The Most Excellent Way

by Elaine Maust
I Corinthians 13
June 8, 2008

There’s nothing like preaching a sermon on love to make a person feel inadequate.

Now don’t get me wrong, I can feel plenty incapable regardless of the topic on which I preach. But this sermon on love, it just looked at me and shook its head and said, “Bless her heart.”

Turn with me to I Corinthians 12. Two weeks ago we considered God’s word to us from I Corinthians 12. It was about spiritual gifts, remember? The foot should not say, “Because I am not the hand, I do not belong…” “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” We have different gifts that come from the same Spirit… You remember.

Well, look down to the very last phrase of chapter 12 to see what caught a hold of my heart and started pulling. (12:31a)

What is the more excellent way? I wanted to think about that more. What a cliffhanger. I couldn’t just close the book and stop there!

And so today let’s look together at what comes next, I Corinthians 13, called the love chapter.

It begins with describing the uselessness of lovelessness. (1-3) Here’s my version of these verses…

If I can sing like an angel but don’t love the folks I sing to,
I might as well be beating on a pot lid.
If I can explain the great mysteries of God and answer every question,
And if I have so much faith that I can excavate without a backhoe
By saying, “You, mountain, move over there.” By faith!
But if I don’t love people, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own,
And even if I die for my faith,
But it won’t do a bit of good,
If I don’t love people.

And then, to make sure we get it, we have lists of what real love is and what it is not. (4-7) Love is patient and well mannered. It doesn’t brag and isn’t rude. It doesn’t keep track of the offenses of others. Love is only happy with the truth. Love always hopes for and believes the best about the other person.

Love is the great leveler. It does not require great gifts or wealth or talent. Just loving. (Maybe that is why it is “the most excellent.”) The champion of love can come from any educational level, any background, any pedigree. We do not all have the same gifts, as we read in I Cor. 12, but we all have the same crack at being lovers. Whoever you are, you can love. Great faith, great experience or great gifts, not required.

What a beautiful scripture. This chapter is one of the most exquisite in the Bible. Worthy of another trumpet fanfare like we had at Easter.

I only have two problems with I Corinthians 13. Can we be honest here?

1) I’m not loved like this.
2) I don’t love like this.

First, I’m not loved the way I want to be.

If I read this text and think about the way other people love me sometimes, well, it can be pretty depressing. All of you know the feeling. The words of Henry Nouwen have been a great comfort to me.

(Nouwen, The One Necessary Thing, pg 150)

Love is not jealous. It does not keep score. (v4-5) Barclay writes, “One of the great arts in life is to learn what to forget.”

This is tough stuff, but it is the most excellent way. To be grateful instead of demanding. To keep a record, all right, but of things done right, instead of wrongs. After all, love is not self-seeking (v5). It always hopes and never gives up. (v7)

Only God loves us completely and perfectly. I believe that love is the fragrance of God. And when anyone loves us a little, we get a whiff of God. But people, our church, our family, our spouses, they don’t love us the way God does. Why do we find this shocking or disappointing? They are not God.

It is interesting to me that the love chapter doesn’t mention agreeing. Interesting that it seem irrelevant to love. Could that be?

A study was conducted of couples that stayed married until “death do us part.” What do these long-term marriages have in common? One thing surprised me, “irreconcilable differences.” Love may “keep no record of wrong” (v5), but someone averaged how many irreconcilable differences these couples had. Guess how many they had on average? 10.

So how many fights do you suppose all these irreconcilable differences represented for all these couples over all those years? After all, what makes these differences irreconcilable is that there was an attempt to resolve them. Right? But they remained, alas, irreconcilable.

Somehow this was encouraging to me. We don’t stay in marriages because we agree on everything. We aren’t kind to our neighbors because we see eye to eye with them about the tree on the corner of the lot. We don’t stay in churches because everyone in them thinks just like us. We don’t wait around for other people to love us perfectly.

Duane read this sermon. I guess he thought he caught me at a weak moment, me preaching about love. He said, “I think I need a new Harley.”

I said, “I am not God. I do not love you perfectly. I can not love you like that.”

I Corinthians 13 seems to assume that people will disappoint us. Why else would we need to be told that love is patient or does not lose its temper? (4-5)

We are not loved as we wish we were. And in fact, some people don’t love us at all. We love them, and nothing. I thought “love never fails.” (v 8) Love does not fail. But sometimes it takes a really, really long time. “Love is patient.” (v4)

And love is not proud (v4), or presumptuous. It doesn’t demand a particular response. If I am behaving generously to someone because of a response I hope for. Is that love or is that manipulation? How do I know if what I’m doing is real loving or just some sort of selfish display? Here’s one test … What do I expect in return?

Remember Jesus taught us, to love even… our enemies! Jesus said, “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you…” (Matthew 5:44 KJV)

No, we’re not loved the way we wish we were… But if we read the Bible to consider whether or not other people measure up… For example, if we read this chapter and think, “my mother doesn’t love me like that” or my husband or my daughter or my pastor or friend… we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

It is more wise to let the Scripture read us. Remember Jesus taught us to take the log out of our own eye first, before we attempt to take the speck out of someone else’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-4)

Which leads me to my other problem with this text, I don’t love like this. I am not always patient. Sometimes I am proud. Sometimes I am unkind (v4). If I read this text and think about the way I love, well, that can be pretty depressing too.

Isn’t it with those we are closest to that we struggle most with love?

When I was growing up in a house that was pretty well too small for our family on a farm that was pretty well too big for our family, it seemed that the telephone always rang when things were the most tense. My mother would muster up her sweetest voice possible, say “hello” and glare at us children (bless her heart) as we began to act up even worse. And then she’d say, “pretty good.” That was our signal. In the most terrible harmony possible, we kids would begin singing, “Love at Home.”

Mother Teresa said, “So, spread love everywhere you go: first of all in your own home. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to a next-door neighbor.”

Mother Teresa spent her life loving the dying people in the slums of Calcutta. Her simple description of how we can love each other is precious.

“Some people came to Calcutta, and before leaving, they begged me: ‘Tell us something that will help us to live our lives better.’ And I said: “Smile at each other; smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other — it doesn’t matter who it is — and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other’. And then one of them asked me: ‘Are you married?’ and I said: ‘Yes, and I find it difficult sometimes to smile at Jesus.'”

No, I don’t love other people perfectly. Sometimes I get angry (v5), sometimes I am rude (v5), and sometimes I give up (v6). It is reassuring that love is not some great theological doctrine to be mastered. It is as simple as smiling at the people whose faces we see the most often. “Love is kind” (v4). What simple act of kindness will you offer to someone you love today?

Sometimes the examples of great love, like the description we have here in I Cor. 13 just intimidate me. I’ll never be able to live this out. I’ll never love like Mother Teresa. I’ll never sacrifice like Danielle’s mother, Ms. Walker. So why even read this chapter or consider the great lovers of the world?

But you know, you will probably never swing a golf club like Tiger Woods. And you will probably never whip up a meal quite like Paula Dean. But they are inspiring to watch. And it is fun to try.

As we attempt this loving, it is as if we are looking in a fuzzy mirror (12) and can’t quite make out how we need to love. Or maybe it is as if we are making copies of God’s love on the copy machine of our lives. Every day we love again and again and again. And after awhile, we need to clear things up. We need to go back to the original. Every now and then we need to stop and say, “Oh, yeah. I remember what real love is.”

Love always trusts. Love always protects. Love always believes. (v7)

Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote that love takes practice, “And love, besides, is a habit and cannot be obtained without actual practice.” And so we must practice, like a doctor practices medicine, in the sense that we must do something in order for love to be. And we practice as we do this loving again and again and again, and don’t give up even though we don’t get it right. We are practicing love.

I Cor. 13:8 says, “Love never fails.” Our experience of being loved and our loving fail. That doesn’t mean love fails. Whether or not I love perfectly or am perfectly loved is irrelevant to the truth about the nature of love.

We are still immature in the loving department, like children (v11). We aren’t completely grown up in loving yet. It’s as if we are looking into a bad mirror (v12). We get the idea of loving but it somehow hasn’t transferred all that well. We are like people who know only half of the story, “for we know in part.” (v9)

But one day, one day we will love and be loved in high definition.
“But for right now,
Until that completeness,
We have three things to do
To lead us toward that consummation:
Trust steadily in God,
Hope unswervingly,
Love extravagantly.
(and the greatest of these,
the most excellent way)
And the best of the three,
Is love.” (I Cor. 13:13, adapted from The Message)

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