I Corinthians 13, John 13:1-17 (click to display NIV text)
August 19, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
In the middle of the chaotic events leading to the cross, Jesus takes time to show love to the disciples. Notice that the account in John 13 is detailed and moves slowly. Love is detailed and deliberate. Jesus has all things under his power. He is about to give his life for the sins of the world. He is about to return to the Father. But at that point he humbled himself and washed feet, drying each one with a towel. Love is difficult. Love is not the first thing we think to do. It is not always the answer that makes most sense.
Paul writes that love is the most excellent way. In the middle of disputes about worship and fellowship and morality, Paul takes time to write about love. He can give advice, he can offer correction, he can solve all the problems he wants, but love is the most excellent way. Only when we are on the most excellent way do our advice, our corrective action, our instructions truly express the will of God. You can even prophesy and yet be nothing, if you do not have love. You can express such faith that miracles are accomplished, and yet without love, you are nothing. Paul is making some very bold statements here.
We often think of this as a passage to be read at weddings. It is a very good passage to read at a wedding, and yet we must admit that Paul was not thinking of weddings when he wrote it. He was thinking about a church that had drifted far off course. Still, I like it when a couple chooses this for their wedding. It says such good things. But at one wedding I had preached it in a very idealistic way, carefully spelling out every instruction to the couple. After the service, a friend complimented me on the message, and then said, with a smile, “And I know you live up to all of it in your marriage.” His comment helped me to take a new look at it, and instead of seeing it as the ideal standard, I began to search in it for more practical, real-life direction. I began to let it convict me and redirect me. It is not so much a word to be written on a plaque and hung on a wall, or preached in pear-shaped tones from a lofty pulpit. It is a word that reaches in very practical ways to people who have lost their way. This is the excellent way.
Last night was the 38th wedding anniversary for Kathy and me. We went for a nice dinner to celebrate. The dinner was very good, but then I realized that maybe I had chosen the wrong name of a restaurant for a wedding anniversary. It was called the “Crab House,” and maybe I should have chosen “Sweet Tomatoes.” Am I becoming an old crab as the years go by, or am I choosing the most excellent way of love? What does Paul mean when He talks about the most excellent way?
I found Gordon Fee to be very helpful in his commentary on Corinthians. He says that Paul is trying to help that church place love over their self-interested behaviors. They speak in tongues and yet they are endorsing illicit sexuality, greed and idolatry. They speak words of wisdom and knowledge and yet stand boldly against the Gospel. They are spiritual people but not loving people. Without love their knowledge has led them to pride, their wisdom to quarrels and rivalry, their tongues to confusion instead of clarity.
So Paul writes to them about a better way. The way of love is both patient and kind. It waits for others, and it actively seeks to help others. This is God’s attitude towards us. He holds back his wrath while we come to repentance. He extends mercy.
Then Paul speaks to their behavior. Their behavior is not loving. Love does not envy, it is not competing for position and favor in the church. Love does not boast, it is not calling attention to itself. Love is not proud, it is not puffed up, it will not be arrogant in the face of so much that is unholy and unloving. It is not rude, like those who behave disgracefully at the Lord’s Table. Love is not self-seeking or easily provoked. Love does not delight in evil or keep a record of wrongs.
Instead, love protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres. This summer we have had a group of youth interns. They were present at all our events, helping in any way possible, without complaint. They sat with pre-schoolers at VBS, hauled food and led games at Family Nights, stocked shelves and stacked cardboard boxes at the food pantry, provided whatever was needed at the summer adventures, and joined the Youth Worship Team. This is the way of love. It is taking care of details, cleaning up, helping a child, filling in a spot so that the ministry of the church goes forward. Love is practical, detailed, difficult and humble.
Craig Blomberg writes, “Christian love is that caring, forgiving, spontaneous, redeeming love which is the essence of God’s nature. In love we take God’s side, share his outlook and implement his designs; and we treat our neighbors as we know God has treated us.”
Love never fails. We might question that, because it seems like it does. A marriage comes to an end. A rebellious child leaves home unreconciled. A church member falls into one sin or another, despite repeated attempts to restore him. What does it mean that love never fails?
Last week at the family retreat a fellow came and offered rides on his sailboat. He allowed us to work the tiller and pull the ropes to set the sails. I was doing OK at the tiller with the wind at our back, but when we turned into the wind and began to tack back and forth, the growing list of instructions overwhelmed me and I got confused as to just what to do. The learning curve got a little too steep for me and I slid off. So I started guessing instead of thinking and that was not working out so well either. I needed to stop and have a review session, but the wind was blowing and there was not time to reflect. The more mistakes I made, the more frustrated the teacher became; and the more frustrated the teacher became, the more confused I became. So we were not making much progress toward the goal.
Life can be that way. It can become overwhelming, filled with storm, unmanageable, and our best efforts fall short. We become confused, we lose hope, and we grasp at poor responses and grow fearful in the waves and wind. Even love does not seem to work. Worse yet, love is the last response we choose. We choose to hide, or to protect ourselves.
Love never fails. The other things we rely on will pass away. The gifts and strengths of life, our competencies and even the blessings of God will come to an end. In the last day, only love remains, along with faith and hope. That which seems weak in the battle is all that is left standing. That which seems ineffective in the moment wins in the end.
Jesus, in the storm, washed the feet of his disciples. Jesus, in the agony of the cross, assured a thief of his place in Paradise. Jesus, in dying, brought victory over sin, the powers of evil and death itself. Love never fails. Today God’s love reaches out to you. Today there is mercy with the Savior. Today the Lord invites you to walk with him on the most excellent way.
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