A sermon delivered January 30, 2022 by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Paul has a problem with the Corinthian Church. If the Corinthian Church was Presbyterian, it would probably have an Administrative Commission come in and take control of it because it was so unruly. Last week, we noted there were all types of divisions within the community. They were segregated by ethnicity, wealth, social status, and between slave owners and slaves themselves. Those who had higher social, economic, political clout got their way with how the church operated, where people sat worship, and when they could receive the Lord’s Supper. The church members even segregated themselves with assumptions about whose spiritual gifts were better and more important than other people’s gifts. All of this is the impetus for Paul’s writing the letters to First Church Corinth.
This morning, our scripture reading is one that you have probably heard at weddings all the time but unfortunately do not hear the context for what it’s saying. Well, today you’re going to get the context. As you listen to our scripture, I invite you to listen out for the issues of segregation by spiritual gifts and what Paul says is really most important. As I read our text, I am going to parenthetically add words in the reading that are not actually there in the original text but are understood as being there by the Corinthians when they heard the letter read. You will be able to pick it up. Listen to the Word of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13
31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. 13.1 If I speak in the GIFT OF tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have THE GIFT prophetic powers, and THE GIFT TO understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have THE GIFT OF all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I HAVE THE GIFT OF BEING ABLE TO give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 THE SPIRITUAL GIFT OF Love never ends. But as for THE GIFT OF prophecy (ies), they will come to an end; as for THE SPIRITUAL GIFT OF SPEAKING IN tongues, they will cease; as for THE SPIRITUAL GIFT OF knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes I.E. WHEN JESUS COMES AGAIN, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but WHEN JESUS COMES AGAIN then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three SPIRITUAL GIFTS; and the greatest of these GIFTS is love.
Verses 1 through 3 outline what the Church felt were the more important and desirable spiritual gifts. For the Corinthians, the gift of speaking in tongues, i.e. an unintelligible form of prayer language, was the most important gift. This is followed by the prestige of the gift of prophecy, followed by the gift of faith, and finally the gift of giving things away and liberality.
In verses 4 through 7 Paul then inserts what love looks like. In the biblical paraphrase The Message, the late pastor/linguist/author Eugene Peterson describes love like this and writes:
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
It’s in chapter 13’s last paragraph Paul contextualizes love and ranks it as not just a feeling or attitude but is insisting it is the spiritual gift above all others. All the talk about looking in the mirror dimly and thinking like a child and then growing mature is Paul’s shorthand way of saying, “One day, when Jesus comes again, the only gifts that really matter are faith, hope, and love but the most vital, important gift for all members of the church to possess and share is the gift of love.” You see, there will not be any need for mysterious prayer language or the need for prophecies. We no longer will be searching and seeking knowledge because we will be in the presence of Knowledge itself. You see, God wants his beloved to have the same gift God has exhibited since the foundation of time itself: Love. When we meet Jesus one day, we will experience first-hand the most precious gift God gives his beloved: Love.
On this beautiful morning when iguanas rain from the trees, I am aware that the English language has more words to describe the temperature than we do for the word ‘love.’ There is freezing, cold, cool, tepid, warm, hot, scalding. Love? The only we have for love is just plain old love. The only way we differentiate between different types of love is the tone behind how we say it.
“I love you!”
“Hey, baby, I luuvvve you.”
“Hey man, I love ya’!”
The problem in our culture is that we use the same word for love to describe everything from gelato, our dog, a TV show, the weather, and football to our spouse or partner. The word is bantered about like a shuttlecock in a badminton match. In Paul’s time, there were over four different words to define love. Eros, or romantic passionate love. Storge which is the natural affection one has for something nice or pleasant like a sunset or a delicious meal. Phileo, which describes the affection between two close friends. Finally, there is agape. This word for love was not used often in ancient Greek literature but it is used over 300 times in the New Testament. Do you wonder why? I believe it’s because agape describes the very essence and character of Jesus, of God.
Agape love is intentional, sacrificial, difficult, and costs the giver something. It is totally other-focused and is often inconvenient to express. Agape love requires the lover to totally empty his or herself for the sake of another. You see, this is the depth of love Jesus demonstrated to you and me.
The whole upshot is this: When the Church, those rapscallion Corinthians of First Church Corinth as well as First Pres Fort Lauderdale, manifest the gift of love to one another and to the world, all forms of division and segregation cease; all of those doctrinal issues and arguments we think are so important don’t really matter at the end. The Church becomes the living essence of being Jesus in the world.
Friends, look around the room right now. You see the faces of people who have certain spiritual gifts among us. Some are great teachers. Others are great givers, while others have the spiritual gift of service or evangelism. No one’s gift is better than anyone else’s gift. They are all needed to make a unified demonstration of Jesus in our community.
Think of it this way: In order to graduate spiritual high school, a Christ-Follower needs to know and use his or her spiritual gift God has given them. In order to graduate spiritual college, a follower of Jesus worships and serves in a community and live agapegetically! Ha! I just made up a new word! When we do that, we are working with God to show the community, show the world, a little of what heaven will is like. So, the question for each of us to ask this week is: Do I speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child, or do I see clearly and am a graduated adult in Christ?
© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 “Chapters 12 through 14 concern the presumed hierarchy of spiritual gifts within the community, gifts that lent status to some and second-class citizenship to others, thereby causing divisions.” See, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 1 (p. 217). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 I have added these parenthetical words by making them all caps. This is a text that is often read out of context at wedding. The insertion of these words reinserts the contextual background of spiritual gifts as opposed to looking at love as some sappy emotion.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. PLEASE NOTE: Words in parentheses are not in the original Greek text.
 Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 1 (p. 216). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.