Epiphany 4c

Preached: February 3, 2013

Love Makes the Difference
1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which the Holy Spirit speaks to us is 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

Read earlier as Second Lesson. (1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13).

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

February, the month of love. Pink and red aisles decorate stores. Candy hearts and cuddly bears sit on shelves. Florists stock up on roses. Jewelry stores display their mementos of love. Children sign their cute Valentine Day cards.

God's Word today lifts our hearts, souls, and minds above the worldly clamors of attractions, affections, romances, and passions. For as much as the world talks about love and as moving as their stories and songs can be, without Jesus there is no real love. The Bible declares, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NIV84).

And even we who follow Jesus grasp true love so poorly and fall so far short of practicing it. Through the word of God before us today may the Holy Spirit increase our love. For love makes the difference.

A. Without love gifts are nothing

Love makes the difference when it comes to spiritual gifts. Without love gifts are nothing, no matter how wonderful they appear.

The text today picks up from the discussion last week as the Apostle Paul talks about spiritual gifts. Just as a human body has many parts with different functions and abilities and yet is one body, so also Christ. Through faith in him we are members of his body, each one given different gifts. And Paul gives a short list of examples.

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? (1 Corinthians 12:27-30 NIV84).

What are some of the truths that these words teach us about spiritual gifts? 1) God's the one who distributes these gifts, arranging the parts of the body, appointing them in their places. So his gifts vary over time and place and from person to person. 2) The first three gifts, which he ranks, all involve bringing God's word to others. For it's God's Word that builds up the body of Christ. 3) Spiritual gifts include not only abilities but also persons and positions in the church such as teacher. 4) Some of these gifts are supernatural, like working miracles. Others are natural, God-given gifts, such as helping other and gifts of administration, which the Holy Spirit sanctifies for God's use. 5) Finally, these gifts are given for the good of the body, which leads into what Paul continues to write.

“But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31 NIV84). What are the greater gifts? They are the gifts that help the body, building in up and keeping it healthy. And what builds up and nourishes the church? God's Word, right? That's our foundation. That's our spiritual food. God's Word in the Scriptures and Sacraments. In fact, later in chapter 14 Paul says that he would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others rather than ten thousand words in a language no one could understand. And if we desire these gifts of knowing and sharing God's Word, we certainly will be in that word ourselves. For that's how the Holy Spirit equips us with his gifts.

But even the deepest Biblical knowledge or any other spiritual gift by itself does you no good. That's why Paul must speak about this “most excellent way.

He writes, “Now if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV84).

You see, dear friends, love makes the difference. Without love even the greatest gifts in the superlative degree are nothing. Even if we could speak not only in human languages but also in the heavenly language, that's only an empty sound without love. Even if we had a full understanding and knowledge of God's prophecies and mysteries and had a miracle-working faith, that means nothing without love. Remember what Jesus said, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22, 23 NIV84). Yes even the ultimate self-sacrifice, like doling out every last penny you have or sacrificing your life in a painful death, counts for nothing without love.

Love makes the difference. Without love even the greatest spiritual gifts are nothing. So what is this love? The Apostle Paul describes it, which brings us to part two.

B. Real love imitates God's love

As you listen to the description, contemplate how this reflects God's love. For, dear friends, real love imitates God's love. Don't forget that passage from 1 John 4. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NIV84).

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV84).

Love is patient. Contemplate how patient and long-suffering the Lord our God is with you and me. Day after day we add to our sin. We resist for awhile and then fall. We think we're stronger than we are and end up worse than we thought. Instead of loving others, we tend to blame others. But the Lord is patient, calling you and me to repentance day after day.

Such kindness from our God! Contemplate the kindness Jesus showed as he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk and the deaf hear and proclaimed the Good News of forgiveness and peace. The same Good News brings our repentant hearts to keep on trusting his cross for forgiveness and finding true peace with God in his empty tomb.

Love does not envy, for we know that our God is good and gracious. He generously gives us so much more than we need, opening his hand and bountifully satisfying our desires. Why would we envy what others have, whether that's their possessions, abilities, position, or status? And why would we boast or puff ourselves up with pride? All that we have is a gracious gift from our merciful Father in heaven -- unearned, unmerited, undeserved by us. There is no room for pride.

Love is not rude or self-seeking. It doesn't try to put others down or offend them so that we can advance. It seeks the good of others first. And oh, how our God did that when he so loved the world and gave his only-begotten Son! Self-giving, not self-seeking -- that's love.

Love is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrong. It's not touchy, ready to find fault. It doesn't keep a list of past infractions, ready to prove and justify he rightness of my disappointment or anger toward you. It does not seek revenge. What good news for you and me, dear sinners, that God is love. He has erased the record of your wrong and mine! He washed away your sins. That's his promise to you that he made to you personally at your Baptism. He erases not just past sins but all sins. That's what Jesus' blood accomplished on the cross for you. His blood cleanses you and me from all sins, wiping the record clean day after day.

“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” Love is not a wimpy pushover. Love hates what is evil and opposes what is false. It takes its stand against whatever does not measure up to God's standard of righteousness. It delights in God's truth. For only God's truth brings true goodness and happiness. Love knows that any short term pleasure that false doctrine, evil actions, or wicked thoughts bring only destroys in the end. So love wants nothing to do with any of that. For only God's truth, even if it may feel difficult at the moment, brings eternal joy and gladness.

So love protects and trusts, putting the best construction on what others do, taking their words and actions in the kindest possible way. It hopes and perseveres, This is not some sort of a dream for a brighter tomorrow. But it perseveres with that hope which is built on God's promises, knowing that no matter how good or bad this life becomes, his word never fails.

Therefore, “Love does not fail. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears” (1 Corinthians 13:8-10 NIV84). Spiritual gifts are only for his life. They are good and important blessings, but they are only for this life.

Just as a child is rightly busy thinking and doing what children do, so we busy ourselves doing what the Lord enables us to do. But just as adults have moved beyond the ways of children, so also in heaven even the spiritual gifts that were most important on this earth will no longer be needed.

For example, the Bible, God's written word, is so vital and important for our faith and life now. It's our light and salvation, our treasure and nourishment, the source of our hope, faith, and love. It truly proclaims to us all that we need to know and believe for our salvation. It truly equips us fully for every good work. Yet, looking at our God through the human words he caused to be written in the Scriptures is like looking at a reflection in the mirror. Don't get me wrong. There are no errors in his word, but there is so much we cannot see clearly. In heaven, though, we will see him face to face. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NIV84).

In heaven, spiritual gifts and even the Scriptures themselves will no longer be needed. But these three will remain: faith, hope, and love. In heaven we will continue to look to God in faith, trusting him completely. In heaven, even as our hopes are fulfilled there will be more hopes waiting us. We'll never feel that there is nothing more to see, do, or enjoy. And in heaven, love continues as we perfectly love one another and love our God and Savior above all.

“But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV84). Why? The Apostle doesn't explain it. He wants us to think about it. Consider how love is so closely related to who God is. “God is love” (1 John 4:16 NIV84), the Bible says. Consider how love imitates him and expresses our joyful fellowship with him. Consider how love fulfills God's law and governs all spiritual gifts. Consider how love proves that our hearts have faith and hope in Jesus. Consider how without Jesus there is no real love. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NIV84). Love makes the difference. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313