1 Corinthians 13:13

02/16/03 and 06/25/06


Please turn in the Pew Bibles to the first letter to the Corinthians chapter thirteen and follow along as I read verse 13.  “And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Amen.  The word of God.  Thanks be to God.


On a Tuesday morning, about 8 o’clock, I was writing this sermon.  I got a phone call.  A lady with a foreign accent told that she was representing Chase Credit Card company, and they had a deal for me.  I was immediately outraged.  I said, “You call me at 8 o’clock in the morning about this?”  She said, “Well, would you rather we call you at 8 o’clock at night?”  I snapped, “I would rather you not call me at all.”  I slammed down the phone, and turned back to this sermon on love, and realized the difference between what I was writing and what I had just said.  I laughed at myself because I had obviously just failed to do what I am going to tell you to do.  Forgive me, Lord, and help me to apply what I say to myself first of all.

At her retirement, a college professor was asked what she considered the most important contribution of her career.  The professor said, "I have spent my career being a traffic officer.  Most people who direct traffic try to avoid collisions, but I tried to arrange collisions.  My calling is to arrange collisions between the minds of young people and the great truths of our civilization."

The Apostle Paul was also trying to arrange a collision.  He was arranging a collision between the members of the Corinthian church and the truth of love.  The Corinthians seemed to be concerned about everything else.  They were concerned about miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and eating food offered to idols and that sort of thing.  Paul emphasizes that there is no proper belief without love.  Love is what Christians are about.

Just as the individual organs of the body cannot function without blood; our spirit cannot function without love.  In the physical body, the organs are all present to aid the blood—the heart to pump it, the kidneys and liver to cleanse it, the lungs to oxygenate it—and the blood in turn nourishes the organs of the body.  We are able to survive without some organs.  Recent medical science is filled with people surviving with only one kidney, no spleen or gall bladder at all, or without entire lobes of the liver.  Even a severely damaged heart valve or muscle can be coped with by the body.  But when something goes wrong with our blood, we are in big trouble.  The Old Testament recognized this.  Old Testament belief was that blood symbolized life itself.  In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul says that our spiritual lifeblood is love. 

In 1956, Emil Brunner wrote a classic book on I Corinthians 13 entitled appropriately Faith, Hope, and Love (Philadelphia: Westminster Press).  Brunner insists that the relationship between faith and love is quite simple for, ". . .faith is the hand by which we receive love, the way in which we receive God's revelation."  In other words " is nothing in itself but the openness of our heart to God's love" (75). 

But when we open our hearts to God’s love, something else is revealed to us.  We realize the partial, piecemeal nature of our life here and now.  We are not yet complete.  In this world, we are not yet what we shall be.  It is our ability to recognize this "not yet" condition of things that enables our hope for the future.  We are “not yet” what we shall be in the New Jerusalem.  Thus our hope is for the fulfillment of the kingdom and the resurrection of the body.  Brunner ties faith and hope together by asserting that " . . .faith believes what hope expects. Hope expects what faith believes" (77).  Hope holds on because it has faith that God loves us.

Faith and hope never stand alone.  These two always stand upon love.  The Apostle Paul calls us to live in the reality of faith and hope, based on love. 

In 1 Corinthians 13,  we have probably the best known words Paul ever wrote—perhaps the best known words in the New Testament.  Paul begins the chapter with what he does.  He is primarily a writer and a speaker.  He has spent years writing and speaking about Jesus—which is the greatest possible subject, but he says if he writes or speaks without love, he is a noisy gong.  Of course, Paul would say that it is impossible to write the truth about Jesus without love.

Gongs and cymbals were used in pagan religious ceremonies, which Paul regarded as so much noise and nonsense.  But he says that we are no better, we are only noise and nonsense, without love.  In other words, we can have all the “religion” in the world, we can practice our religion faithfully, we can come to church every Sabbath, we can recite the creed, we can say all the right words, but if we don’t have love, we are noise and nonsense. 

Paul goes on in verse 3 to dismiss the validity of loveless works.  Paul recognizes that there may be many motives for doing what we call good works.  For example, we may want people to look at us and say, “Wow, you are really a good person.”  In other words, we want fame, reputation.  We want it to be about me.  Wrong motive.  Thus, if I give away everything I own to feed the poor, and if my motive is not love, what I am doing is worthless. 

The same holds true for martyrdom.  In the early church there was a distinct possibility that believers might be executed—crucified, eaten by animals in the arena, burned at the stake.  Paul says, “All right, if it comes down to you being executed, what is the only motive that will make your sacrifice acceptable to God?  The only motive is love—the same love Christ had when he went to the cross for us.

In verses 4-7, Paul describes something of the way love acts.  “Love is patient; love is kind.”  Then he talks about how love does not act.  “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;” not even when telemarketers call.  If we have a loving heart, we do not approve of evil or wrong, no matter who does it.  If we have love, we always stand for truth.

Love is the only thing that can reach beyond this world to the world to come.  Now we live "between times."  We live between the time of Christ’s first appearing as the babe of Bethlehem, and his reappearing as the love of time and creation.  There is much that is important to us in this time “between times” that will vanish in the end when Christ returns, but “love never ends.”  In the New Jerusalem, Christ makes everything complete in love.

In verses 11 and 12, Paul uses two figures to make his point.  The first is that of a child.  In this time, in this world order, we are all like children, we are think and act in childish ways.  We love our toys.  Like children, we often get wrought up and emotional over trivia.  But in the end, we will put away childish ways and childish things. 

The second figure is that of a mirror.  Now we see in a mirror dimly.  We don’t even know ourselves, we grope and stumble along.  We only partly perceive God.  But when we celebrate the end of time with the Risen lord, we will see God face to face, and fully know both God and ourselves.

Now we have faith, hope and love.  But in the end, we will no longer need faith, because the Risen Lord will be fully revealed, and we will no longer need hope because all our hopes will be fulfilled, but we will still have love, the greatest and the most enduring gift of God.

Love is one of those good words that everyone likes.  Back in 1991, Life asked 173 people the question "What is the meaning of life?" The editors of Life published the full roster of responses ("from the Dalai Lama to Rosa Parks, from Richard Nixon to George Lucas, from John Updike to Desmond Tutu, from Timothy Leary to Maya Angelou, from poets to scientists to religious leaders to everyday sages on the street") in a book entitled The Meaning of Life (New York: Little, Brown, 1991).

Some answers are amusing, some are thought provoking.  Martin E. Marty said: “What is the meaning of life? Love. To love. To be loved.”  Philosopher Max Scheler reminded us, and our experience confirms, that before she is the thinking being or the willing being, a person is “ens amans - the loving being.”

And love is a word that we associate with God.  The Old Testament speaks of God’s "steadfast love."  In the New Testament, God is love.  In other words, God is for us.  God is a force of love, trust, and hope, and God calls us to build communities of love, trust, and hope—because ultimately those are the only communities worth having.

There is a great scene in Matthew 26, when Judas and the temple guards come to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.  Judas identified Jesus with a kiss, but as the guards surrounded him, Peter drew a long knife and chopped one of the guards in the side of the head with it.

I suppose some kind of general combat could have erupted at that point, but Jesus put a stop to it saying, "this is not my way.  The way of the sword is the way of the world, but It is the way of coercion and force.  Jesus said that if I wanted to go that way, I could have appealed to my father and he would have sent me twelve legions of angels, but that is not what I am about.  Coercion and force are not what Jesus is about.

Jesus is intent on building a community of faith, hope, and love.  You do not do that with coercion and oppression.  You do it with faith and hope and love.

Thus, three words from 1 Corinthians 13 bring meaning to our lives: "So faith, hope, love abide, these three: but the greatest of these is love."  A life of faith, hope, and love has tremendous strength and comfort.  Trusting in the abiding nature of faith, hope, and love may sometimes be our only source of sanity in an insane world.


Jack London's great novel, Call of the Wild, was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1903.  Carl Sandburg called it the best dog story ever written.  It is the story of the sled dog Buck and his owner John Thornton.  At one point in the novel, John Thornton gets semi-drunk in a barroom and starts to brag about how Buck is the greatest sled dog there ever was (pages 164-169).  Like a lot of people his mouth soon runs away from his common sense, and he bets everything he has that Buck can start and then walk for one hundred yards with a sled loaded with a thousand pounds. 

Everyone piles outside to see this, and the sled is loaded with a thousand pounds.  As Thornton's looks at the massively loaded sled, and Buck fastened alone in the traces, he realizes how foolish he has been.  He knows he is asking Buck to perform an incredible task, a task far beyond his normal strength and abilities.  Kneeling beside Buck, Thornton took Buck’s head in his two hands and rested cheek on cheek, and whispered in his ear. “As you love me, Buck. As you love me” (167).

It was not possible for Buck to move that thousand pound sled, but he did, out of love.  It was not possible that God would love us when we were sinners, but he did.  It was not possible that Christ would love us so much that he would overcome sin and death for us, but he did.  Love overcomes all impossibilities.  When we love, we find that we can do more than we ever thought possible.  Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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