1 Cor 13:1-13
My predecessor at Good Shepherd, Pastor Schmidt, served as pastor of this congregation for sixteen years. Had it not been for health issues, no doubt, he would have served longer. This summer, I will have been pastor at Good Shepherd for thirteen years. It’s taken awhile, but I am gaining on Pastor Schmidt and before too long I will tie and then pass him. And no one would have been more pleased by that than Pastor.
Come July we will be able to say that during the last twenty nine years, Good Shepherd has had two pastors. The average tenure of pastors during that time will be fourteen and a half years. It’s not hard to figure out why this has been so. Good Shepherd is a very good place to be a pastor. Our congregation supports and respects of the Office of the Ministry. The members here are interested in learning, and very open to practices that are biblical and firmly grounded in catholic heritage of the Lutheran church. We have friendly and loving people. On two occasions my family and I have been the recipients of the congregation’s care and support: first when Amy ended up bedbound because of the pregnancy with Michael, and then again when she had brain surgery.
Of course, not every congregation is this way. I had a conversation with a pastor not long ago who was telling me about his first call. It had been a very difficult experience, and it was clear that this was not unique. During the hundred plus year history of that congregation, the average length of the service by pastors was four years. The congregation had a history of chewing up pastors and spitting them out.
Of course, some of the problem must have been individual pastors along the way. But when a congregation has such a consistent track record over so much time it becomes pretty clear that there is something wrong in that setting. There is something endemic in that group of people. For whatever reason, congregations have their own character. There are patterns of behavior that keep showing up generation after generation.
Corinth was definitely one of those congregations where it was hard to be a pastor. We see this in both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. The church there was a source of tremendous frustration for Paul as they challenged him. And the next time we hear about the congregation things have not changed. About fifty years later in the letter known as First Clement, Clement writes from Rome to Corinth because they have removed a pastor without cause.
Not long ago I preached on the end of 1 Corinthians chapter nine and the beginning of chapter 10. We saw that the problem there was the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. Now, in chapter thirteen Paul is in the process of addressing another problem – an effort that begins in the chapter twelve and runs all the way through chapter fourteen.
The problem this time was that the Corinthians were enamored with those works of the Spirit – those gifts – that were showy and called attention to them. In particular they valued speaking in tongues. This speaking in praise of God occurred in a way that was not understandable by others. Paul didn’t deny that this happened. In fact he said it was something he experienced. But he is very clear that is it not something that builds up others. In chapter fourteen Paul will say that if there is no one to interpret a person speaking in tongues, then the person needs to remain silent.
The Corinthians thought they were spiritual people who had it made. They were secure in salvation and were uniquely gifted by God. There were interested in those things that were spectacular and showy – things that called attention to them. The apostle Paul is trying to lead them in another direction. In the previous chapter he had written, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Paul wants them to value the many different gifts that the Spirit gives to the church. And he wants them to understand how those gifts all serve the church as a whole and not the individual believer. He has just described the Church as the Body of Christ – a body that we became part of through baptism. Paul said, “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.”
In our text, Paul wants the Corinthians to recognize that what unites the believers together in Christ is love. Of course, the source of this love is what God has done for us in Jesus. He has told them, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” He has told them that, “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed.” And of course in chapter fifteen he will powerfully declare how the resurrection of Jesus Christ has defeated death for us.
For those who have received this love of Christ, all that is done with the gifts the Spirit gives is done in love. In the verse just before our text Paul says, “But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” The more excellent way is the way of love, because without it nothing that we do means anything. Paul says at the beginning of our text, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not 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 have not love, I am nothing.”
In some of the most famous words of the Bible, Paul goes on to describe what love does and does not do. He says, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
What comes to mind when you hear these words? If we are honest, we recognize that we have not always been patient and kind. We have envied and been resentful. We have not always borne and endured the challenges of our vocations.
That is true. And that is why you are here this morning. You are here to hear the Good News that because of Jesus Christ, death and resurrection that doesn’t matter. Baptized into Christ you have been washed, sanctified and justified. Jesus Christ has just told you in Holy Absolution it doesn’t matter because he has forgiven you. Because of what Jesus did for you on the cross, as far as God is concerned your sin never happened. And what God says is the way things really are. He sees you as someone who is in Christ. When it comes to your sin, God sees Christ and not you, and so your sin is gone. All you have is Jesus and his righteousness; Jesus and his holiness.
And there is more good news. Paul wrote in the previous chapter, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” You have received the Holy Spirit. You continue to receive the work of the Spirit through the Means of Grace. The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in you. And so the power of Christ’s resurrection is at work in your life now.
It is the Spirit who enables us to look at these words and think, “Yes, that is what I want to do!” We have received God’s love in Christ. This word of God today renews our attention on what the Spirit of God now prompts us to do; what he leads us to do; what he gives us the ability to do.
Because of Jesus’ love for us we seek to be patient and kind. We resist the urge to envy or boast. We don’t insist on our way, but instead put others before ourselves. We bear the burdens God gives us in our vocations. We endure the hardships this may entail.
The source of this love is unlimited for it comes from Jesus Christ the risen and exalted Lord. Through his Spirit he continues to lead and strengthen us to do these things. He does this now. He will do this tomorrow. He will always do this. Paul says in our text, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
The love of Christ will carry us on to the Last Day. Paul says, “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. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Right now we don’t understand all that God is doing. We don’t follow through on God’s love perfectly. But Christ’s Spirit sustains us in faith. He sustains us in hope until the end.
As he does, we look for the day when the risen and ascended Lord will return. When he does, we shall see him face to face. We will know and understand fully what God’s will is, even as we will be able to do it perfectly. No longer will we need faith. No longer will we need hope. Instead the love we receive now from God in Christ is the same love in which we will live forever.