The Greatest Gift
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Years ago, I was part of a church that did a number of great things. Its members fed those who were hungry, welcomed in those who were homeless. It had great preaching and worship services where I saw the Spirit at work. We studied scripture and read great thoughtful books on theology, justice, and God. But during my time there, I kept feeling like I was missing something. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but one day a friend of mine mentioned it: “We don’t really spend time getting to know one another.” And she was right. We had great gifts of music, preaching, service, organizing, studying, and feeding. But we weren’t making time for the greatest gift. We were missing the gift of love.
The Corinthian church that Paul is writing is also struggling with this idea of love. They have heard the gospel message and they have seen the Spirit at work in them. But I’m not sure they understand love. They understand duty. They understand loyalty. They understand power. They understand success. And this community does start to do the tasks that they think will make them successful Christians. They give and serve. They learn rhetoric and preach well. They are teaching one another about Christ and about God’s work through history. They even begin to speak in tongues and prophecy. They are doing all of the things that they think will make them successful and worthy of God.
But love is much harder for them to grasp.
First of all, it is impossible to define or fully describe love. It doesn’t fit neatly into human language. If I asked each one of you here, “What is love?” we may have 100 different definitions come forth, all of which would share some insights into love, but none of which would capture the entirety of what love is.
Secondly, love doesn’t follow any of the patterns of this world. Loves includes sacrifice. It includes grace. It includes giving something away and never expecting to be paid back. In First Century Corinth, just as much as today, that way of living seems absurd. It seems crazy. It seems foolish. Love doesn’t make a lot of sense to this early church.
But at some point in Paul’s journey of faith, he has discovered that love is the key to it all. He has found that this is what God wants from us more than anything else.
I am not sure what part of Paul’s life it was. Maybe it was growing up and hearing all that God did for God’s people: creating the universe, freeing us from slavery, calling us to life again and again. Maybe it took longer in Paul’s life. Maybe it was on that road to Damascus as he was struck by a light. Maybe in his blindness, he saw something greater than anything his eyes had ever gazed upon before. Maybe in the voice of Christ he heard the voice of love, and knew its wondrous joy. Or maybe it was seeing how Jesus’ followers lived, sharing everything they had, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming even villains and murderers like Paul into their homes and their lives, not judging but forgiving.
Whatever it was, Paul realizes that love is not some side project of the gospel message. Love is what the good news of Jesus Christ is all about. Without love, the gospel is meaningless. It would be just another noisy gong.
But love is hard. And we as humans don’t always practice love very well. We hurt each other. We stay separate from each other. We use one another. We bear grudges and judge people.
So Paul begins not with a description of how we as humans love. Instead, he describes how God first loved us. He describes the actions of the one who made us and saved us and breathes us into new life.
“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.”
None of us have ever lived fully this way. I know I am still impatient and rude. I still have times of jealousy and envy. I still want wrongdoing done to people who have hurt me and others around me. I have plenty of moments of selfishness and conceit. I am still very far from loving fully.
But God’s ways are not our ways. Time and again, we have broken promises with God, gone our own ways, distanced ourselves from the one who made us. But time and again, God keeps forgiving us. God keeps calling us back. God sent Jesus into the world for us. God still has hope in us, and believes in us. God never gives up, on anyone. God keeps giving again and again and again.
Love is hard to describe, but when we experience it, we know its power. We know its joy. We know why it is the greatest gift and the greatest treasure. We know when we have received it from God. And we know when we have received it from others.
Today is Mother’s Day. And it got me thinking about my own parents and growing up with them. They did a lot for me. They fed me. They clothed me. They made sure I was safe. They took me on trips and watched me when I played sports. But one thing I will never forget is how much they listened to me and spent time with me.
Even when I was a little kid, we would take walks around our block in the evenings. I’m sure my parents were exhausted from work and wanted to talk about grown up things. But as we walked slowly during those evenings before the sun set, they didn’t just talk at me. They asked me questions and wanted to know what I thought. They spent those moments holding my hand and as we walked, listening to my dreams and hopes. On those evenings, they didn’t say or do too much. They just wanted to spend time with me. But it was one of the first moment where I saw what true love looks like. I remember those nights well, because that is when I got to receive the greatest gift of all.
We may think of those moments as being small. They aren’t the moments when we win trophies or make fortunes or get our names written in the history books. But it is those moments that I believe mean the most to God. It is those moments where we become more of who God created us to be.
None of us are perfect when it comes to love. But that is what grace is for. The whole purpose of forgiveness is to allow us to love and be loved once again. I am still learning what love means and how I can live in it. I don’t think I will ever fully grasp it in this life or in this world. But I think a huge part of my calling as a Christian is to grow in love. Learning how to love may be the greatest thing I can ever do with my life.
Because love is the one thing that we will carry into the next life. Our possessions, our accomplishments, our strengths and weaknesses, our mistakes and victories – they will all fade away. But love will remain. Learning to love is learning how to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. Growing in love is how God makes us ready to live into the everlasting life. That, I believe, will be our final transformation. We will no longer be people who love imperfectly or who understand only as if it were an image in a mirror that is smudged and dark. Instead, love will be the very air we breathe and water we drink.
There is so much that demands our time and energy and resources in this world. Everything is clamoring over each other to say, “We are the most important thing. Make us top priority” And I admit, sometimes the church even gets that way. We think the most important thing is our tasks, our music, our preaching, our budget, our numbers. And we get so wrapped in all of those things, we forget the core of the gospel. We forget to love one another and love God.
So my encouragement to you today is to make time to practice love. It is okay if you aren’t perfect at it. It’s okay if you don’t know all the right words to say to show what you want to. Often it’s not the words that matter the most anyway. It’s your presence. It’s your being there. It’s your willingness to give of yourself.
Practice love with one another here in this church. Listen to stories. Share meals. Go to baseball games.
Practice love with family. Encourage them. Ask them about their dreams. Have faith in who they are.
And practice love with your neighbors. Visit them. Invite them over. Care about what happens to them. Often, what love needs the most is for one person just to offer their time. It is kind of amazing how love can grow from there.
Know this day that God loves you with everything. And all that God wants in return is for you to know that love, to share the love, and to grow each day into someone who is more and more loving. Everything else is just to lead us to that goal. For we are made to love. We are made to share God’s greatest gift. Amen.