“The Greatest Gift”
(From 1Corinthians 13: 1-13)
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have 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 do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
The scripture from 1Corinthians 13:1-13 is often read as a part of marriage covenant celebrations, also known as wedding services. It has either been read, or I have read it at many of the wedding ceremonies over which I have presided as the pastor. This passage is an appropriate scripture for a wedding ceremony celebration because it speaks about the truest and purest purpose, the highest calling, for the partners entering into a marriage covenant relationship—the giving and receiving of true love.
We have spent some time in the past discovering love as the ancient Greeks understood it. Our English language uses love to describe a variety of thoughts, feelings and motivations for our behaviors. In many circumstances, especially those involving inanimate objects like clothing or houses, the word “like” would be a more appropriate word choice. The Greeks, however, had four different words to represent four forms by which love can be expressed. The love of romantic physical attraction is known as Eros love. Eros is the love associated with Cupid’s arrows striking our hearts and creating an immediate attraction to another person. Phileo love is mostly associated with the relationship between friends and neighbors. It is the root word for our US city, Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Storge love is the love associated with the deep familial relationship of parents and children, and among close siblings. Finally, the highest and greatest love is known as Agape love. Agape love is sacrificial love, a love that is given to another person whether or not love is given in return. It is first associated with God’s love for us. Through God’s love, the plan of salvation to atone for human sin was fulfilled for us in Christ Jesus. When Jesus admonished his Disciples and followers to strive to love one another as he had loved them, the term for the love he wanted them to seek was, indeed, agape love.
Many of us have read the book The Road Less Traveled by noted Christian Psychiatrist Dr. M. Scott Peck. In this book, Dr. Peck describes for his readers what he calls “the myth of romantic love.” The love he is referring to is, of course, eros love. According to Dr. Peck, romantic love is designed to “trap us into marriage”, by causing us to experience the falling in love illusion. This illusion makes us “feel” that this is a love that will last forever. This myth is further fostered in our culture by romance novels, ROMCOMs and other forms of media. They are designed to get us to buy into the belief that there is a person out there that is perfect for us, the one with whom we are intended to live “happily ever after.” Peck suggests that the romantic experience of falling in love is, perhaps, a necessary myth to create partnerships that will ensure companionship (which he calls togetherness) and the survival of our species.
The problem with this myth of falling in love with the perfect person for us, according to Dr. Peck, is that no one is either perfect or able to meet all our needs at every single moment in time. Hence, we eventually come to experience the human side of partner relationships, and the friction begins. Some people experience this period of disillusionment as “falling out of love”, and they decide to end their partner relationship. But, for Dr. Peck, this is the very point in a relationship where the opportunity to develop true and lasting love can begin.
The true love that Dr. Peck is referring to is agape love. It is the very pure and perfect love that we receive from God. It is the love that Christ Jesus called all of his Disciples and followers to model after his example when he said to them, “Love one another as I have loved you.” It is meant not only for partners, but for all human relationships. Agape love is self-sacrificial love and, as I mentioned previously, love that is given regardless of whether love is received in return. Agape love is not feeling based, but action based. Agape love is a choice, as Dr. Peck defines love with the following words, “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
With this background of understanding about the nature of true agape love, let us now return to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church found in 1Coritthians 13: 1-13. I would first like to take a moment to frame this morning’s lesson for you. To do this, we will need to go back to Paul’s closing statements found in Chapter 12. You will recall that the Corinthian Church had become divided over the source of their spiritual gifts, and over which gift was the greatest. Paul reminded the Corinthians, and by our reading of this text, us, that all gifts are given for the up-building of the whole community-the whole body of Christ. Paul said, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” “Are all apostles…prophets…teachers? Do all work miracles…possess gifts of healing, speak in tongues, interpret [tongues]?” With these words Paul is describing just who the church members are, and the spiritual gifts they have been given for the good of the collective body of Christ at Corinth. Then, Paul shared with this church the critical words that reveal his purpose for the discourse found in 1Corinthians 13. He said, “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” What, a more excellent way than the spiritual gifts they were given, and over which they were now arguing with one another? What could possibly be more excellent for believers than possessing these gifts of the Spirit through baptism by confessing faith in Christ Jesus? The “still more excellent way,” dear friends in Christ, is not another and higher gift of the Spirit; it is by giving of one’s self the gift of agape love.
Now, Peninsula Church Family, we can better understand the words Paul was speaking to the Corinthian Church in Chapter 13. Whatever special gifts of the Spirit the members may have received, they were not only meant for the benefit of the whole church body, but, are actually meaningless unless they are motivated by the will to self-sacrifice one’s self to offer the greatest gift—agape love. So, let us now turn once again to our lesson and read Paul’s words with this new understanding in mind:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have 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 do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Love, true self-sacrificial agape love, is both a choice and a gift freely offered. It is, as our scripture lesson for this morning reveals, the greatest gift we are blessed to receive, and the greatest gift we can give. Amen.