Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Love Never Fails - A Sermon

Audio version of this sermon is available here.

With this sermon we finish our 7 week series “Great Relationships”, which has been based on Paul’s “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians 13. We’ve focused in on verses 4-7 thus far and we finish today with verse 8 which says “Love never fails.” This final phrase, “Love never fails”, doesn’t stand alone and really is the part that reconnects this section, verses 4-7 with the entirety of chapter 13. While in the past 6 sermons we’ve gone really specific, focusing on a couple of words for each sermon like Love is Kind, this final sermon requires us to take a bird’s eye view of the entire chapter. Paul begins building in the first section with the last verse of chapter 12 and the first three verses in chapter 13 teaching us that everything we think is important is nothing without divine love, this is bookended in the final verses 8-13 which teaches us again that everything we think is important has an end but divine love is eternal, it transcends the temporary. The central section, verses 4-7 which we’ve been teaching on in this series on Great Relationships, is the peak of the chapter that describes how this divine love expresses itself. All of these sections work together as whole to teach us about a love that transcends everything else.

And now I will show you the most excellent way. 1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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 have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

So let’s begin with the first section, verses 1-3 which basically begins like this: Everything we think is important is nothing without divine love. Paul starts this passage in an effort to counteract the excessive emphasis the Corinthians were evidently placing on various gifts and abilities that individuals were demonstrating. Paul gives us 3 categories and each category has both a natural action, something earthly, and a supernatural action, something heavenly, but regardless of whether it’s a natural ability or a supernatural ability, all of it is nothing without divine love. Paul’s overriding theme here is the primacy and importance of this divine love.

The first category has to do with speech. Paul writes “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  The word tongues here is the word for languages. Whether it is natural speaking or supernatural speaking, whether it is the languages of men, or the heavenly language of angels, the essential element of importance is divine love. You could be the most gifted speaker in all the world, you could move people to tears with your words, yet if these abilities and gifts, even if they have good consequences, don’t come from a foundation of divine love within you then you might as well be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. The ability to speak is an incredible power, the book of James (chapter 3) describes the tongue as a “fire”. I’m sure you can think of inspirational speeches and words that have changed your life, that have changed the course of history even. There are some examples from the movies below.

Now even if you combine all of these inspirational speeches and yet you don’t have the divine love that Paul is teaching about here, abiding and residing within you, then all of it might as well sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown.

The second category has to do with knowledge. Paul writes about natural knowledge and also about supernatural knowledge. Think about the amazing things that we as a people have been able to accomplish through our accumulation and application of natural knowledge, knowledge available to us as we study and learn from the world. Our community here on the space coast has seen on numerous occasions the amazing feats of technology, especially through the shuttle launches. I’m still amazed to this day, that our daughter received a heart transplant at 8 mo. old and the progress in knowledge and technology that has been achieved to be able to do such things. Think about the power of the nuclear bomb which was created by extremely knowledgeable men. Paul says if you have all knowledge, imagine coming to a place where you knew everything, I know some people that think they know everything, but even if you actually knew everything, if that omniscient knowledge isn’t grounded and used according to divine love you are nothing. You could have every degree on the wall and it would mean nothing. The same is true for supernatural knowledge as well, if you have prophetic powers, the ability to pierce all mysteries, to have an answer for every theological question, yet you have not this divine love, you are nothing.

The final category has to do with actions, again whether they are natural actions or supernatural actions, without divine love you gain nothing. You could, as Paul writes, give away every single material possession you own. You could be so committed to a cause that you give up yourself to be burned as a martyr. You could even have a faith that allows you to perform miracles, instantaneously healing someone, and yet if at the core, at the center of our being if there doesn’t abide and reside this divine love then you gain nothing. Let me say it again, you could donate everything you own to the church, you could go to another country and be burned for proclaiming Jesus, you could even go town to town performing miracles in the name of God, and still gain nothing.

It’s not about what you say, even if you spoke with in the language of the angels. It’s not about what you know intellectually, even if you’re a prophet who understands the very depths of the mystery of God. It’s  not about what you do, even if you die for the gospel, it’s about this divine love, that’s been given to us freely, by grace, that is taken in and becomes a part of you. I keep saying the word divine love rather than just love, because this is a love that comes from God, from the divine and when you experience it, when you open yourself up to receive it through repentance, turning away from whatever you think the end all be all is, and through faith, turning towards the one true source of all goodness and all divine love, you experience a love that transcends romantic love, that transcends the love of family, that transcend the love of friendship, that transcends all the boxes we have to describe love. The word used in the New Testament is agape. It was a Greek word that wasn’t in common use before the New Testament, and the Christians took it up and made it their characteristic word for this divine love. It is a new word for a new idea. When this new love, this divine love, agape, is received, it begins as a spark within you that grows into a flame and it is the bond between us and God, and between us and each other as fellow believers  

Agape is the foundation, the essential element of the secret sauce for Great Relationships. This agape, can’t help but be expressed, and if you look at verses 4-7, you see how this divine love expresses itself through being patient, being kind, by not envying or being boastful, and so on. If agape, divine love, is the tree, then verses 4-7 are the fruit. We won’t go into those verses today, you can go back online and listen to the last 6 sermons as we fleshed out each of these manifestations of this divine love, and how they contribute to Great Relationships.

Today, we press on to the final section, verses 8-13, which comes back to describing agape, the divine love directly. Just as verses 1-3 taught us that everything we think is important is nothing without divine love, so verses 8-13 bookend the chapter by teaching again that everything we think is important ends, but divine love is different, is eternal. Verse 8 says that love never fails. More literally, it translates that divine love will never fall, or collapse, or suffer ruin and when we look at the following verses we clearly see in contrast that the point here is that divine love is eternal, it never ends. Paul writes that these other things, like prophecies, tongues, and knowledge, will cease and pass away.

Now, whenever we try to grasp the divine, the infinite, it’s difficult to say the least, so Paul gives us two metaphors to help us grasp what he’s talking about. The first metaphor is that of maturity and childhood. He points out there is clearly a difference between the way in which children speak, think and behave and the way in which adults speak, think and behave. This may not make sense to some of you who haven’t had kids yet, but I can clearly attest that children reason differently than adults. In fact when I was a high school teacher, I was quiet fond of telling the teenage students that scientifically their brains hadn’t even finished completely developing so whatever conclusions they came to too actually couldn’t be trusted because how can you trust a brain that’s not finished yet?  Anyway, I learned this lesson about little children, before I we had Sophia, when I was riding in the car with a 3 year old named Reid. We had just gone to a church service with this family and they had two cars. Reid’s dad took the first car and went ahead of us to go home. Reid’s mom took the second car with my wife Benita and I and Reid. About halfway to the house, which this was like a 5 min drive by the way, Reid starts screaming his head off that he wants to ride with his dad. I tried reasoning with him. I thought, I’ll fix this. “Reid, what can we do? Do you want us to pull over and wait for your dad? He left before us so he’ll get home before us. The fastest way to get to your dad is to keep going home!” How do you think he responded? He wanted us to pull over and wait for his dad, even though his dad had left before us! His unreasonableness stumped me and I let Benita and Reid’s mom take over. When we as humans think about this divine love, and really whenever we try to grasp God, we have to recognize that we are currently in a time of childishness. We haven’t reached perfection yet, and so all our abilities, speech, knowledge and actions, which may seem great at this time, are nothing compared to this divine love, this love of a completely different order. You might be the best block stacker in pre-school, but you can’t ride that train your whole life. The expression and receiving of divine love, however, lasts through every age and into eternity.

The second metaphor that Paul uses is that of a mirror. The city of Corinth was actually famous for its mirrors, but two things to note. One, during this time the mirrors were polished metal mirrors, with not the same quality of reflection that you and I enjoy today. Second, few Christians would be able to afford even a good quality metal mirror. So when you look into a poor quality, polished copper mirror, how good is the image quality? You can see somewhat dimly what you look like, but it’s nothing compared to seeing someone face to face. For fun, we’ve put in the lobby a camera and television that distorts your face a little to help emphasize this metaphor. We live right now in a time that our vision is not perfect. Again, many of the things we value, like speeches, knowledge, and actions, are only temporary when compared to the High Definition reality of divine love.
These are the metaphors that Paul uses, but one that’s become more popular recently is that of multiple dimensions. In our study of quantum physics and the states of particles like electrons, scientists have begun to dabble with the idea of the existence of different dimensions, different realities, outside our own reality. I ran across an article this week about a neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander , who believes that he had a near death experience in which he got a glimpse of this other dimension. Previously to this experience he thought, like many materialist, that all there was is this world, this reality, this time so to speak. This is what he said:

“There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility”

“It was very clear that love was a huge part of the constituent of that whole multiverse.” And that a being “looked at me … It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these, beyond all the different compartments of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being much bigger than all of them.”

Paul ends this chapter by writing “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” This divine love is everything, is eternal, is a taste of another reality that awaits us. Everything in this time that we think is important is nothing without divine love. Everything we think is important will come to an end but divine love is eternal.  This divine love is the greatest even of hope and faith because love unites us personally in relationship to God and through God’s love we are enabled to love one another in great relationships, other worldly relationships. This divine love is divine, it’s not easily grasped, so we conclude reading another section of scripture that helps spell it out for us. 1 John 4:7-16 says:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 13 We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.

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