A sermon preached at Preston High Street Uniting Church on 26/1/26 for Epiphany 4 Year C, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” 1 Corinthians 13:1
Ouch. I am spending a lot of time – well, perhaps not a lot of time, but regular, concentrated time, on learning German on Duolingo and while perhaps German as spoken by me might sound a little like a “clanging gong”, perhaps it is a little harsh.
Of course, the point Saint Paul is making here is not about learning languages per se, but, rather what it is we say to one another.
In fact, even that is not quite the point. It’s not what we say, but why we say it. Like a lot of things in life – like using a computer for instance – it is relationship, rather than technique which matters.
The thing about this passage though is that you might perhaps have been surprised to hear it tonight because this it is one of the most popular readings at weddings, and this is not in fact a wedding at all.
What is Paul talking about here? Does this whole “love” language have a broader application than that between a married couple? And if so, what?
One of my favourite writers, C S Lewis, the great Christian apologist, and writer of the Narnia series, wrote a book entitled The Four Loves. In it, he explained how four different words for love in Greek worked. We, of course, make do with one word, which we qualify in different ways. We say something like “familial love” or “love of friends” or “sexual love” or “God’s love.”
This isn’t the place to go into an extended discussion about this except to note that Greek has a particular word for sexual or romantic love – the word eros – and that is not the word which is used in this passage. That becomes obvious when you look at the various qualities of love Paul points out. For instance, no-one who had experienced romantic love would describe it as “not jealous.” Jealousy – in the sense of not wanting to share the object of one’s affections with someone else – is precisely central to the experience.
Romantic love – eros – is a powerful thing. That’s why the ancients made her a goddess – Venus for the Romans, Aphrodite for the Greeks, and no doubt equivalents in other cultures with which I am less familiar.
But romantic love is only a god, not God with a capital G.
Romantic love can be in the service of God, or it can be a rival god. The technical name for putting something other than God in God’s place is idolatry. The better something is, the better an idol it is. Romantic love is powerful, so it makes for a great and terrible idol. But because it is by nature unsuited for our fundamental loyalty, it can cause terrible damage when we try to make it the fundamental way of organising our lives. You can’t base an entire life around complete devotion to another human being without, at minimum, being significantly unfair to other people. And some perversion of romantic love must surely lie behind many stories of domestic abuse. To make an idol of someone else – or of a particular feeling for someone else – is a fundamentally inadequate way to live.
There is a higher loyalty, a more excellent way. Which is what this reading is about. Put at the service of God, made into a god rather than trying to be God, it can lead to all sorts of good things. Which is, I guess, why this reading shows up in so many weddings.
Something similar can be said for other loves which attempt to place themselves in the place of God. As today is Australia Day, perhaps we might reflect on the nature of patriotism, of love of nation. It is good to love the nation who brought you up and keeps you safe, to be thankful for the gifts it has given to you, and to be proud of it. But when that means that you can’t hear a criticism of it, when it makes a play for the complete loyalty which belongs only to God, then it too is an idol.
Only God deserves our fundamental loyalty.
With so many competing ideas about love, and so many things attempting to take the place in our hearts which belongs only to God, where do we turn? As my evangelical friends used to often say to me back in the day, ah, yes, but what does the Bible say?
The Bible, in this instance, says a couple of things. Paul delivers what is technically known as an “encomium”, a piece of writing praising love, in this case by listing its attributes.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
So, clearly, love is not a feeling which overwhelms us – because we all know that those feelings do come and go. It is more like an attitude to life. An existential stance. A baseline for living.
In the previous chapter of the letter, Paul has been talking about spiritual gifts and their proper use for building up the church, the body of Christ. Next comes the famous passage working with the idea of the body of Christ as being like a body in which all the parts depend on one another. This context clarifies why the middle of the passage changes from being an encomium about love to the limitations of speaking in tongues and prophecy.
The main point he seems to be making about love is how it acts to build up the church. That is why, when he comes to sum up his discussion, he talks about three things: Faith, hope, and love.
The classical world which Christianity exploded into, thought there were four “cardinal” virtues – the virtues upon which everything else hinged. They were: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Into this mix, Christianity added in the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and love. They are called “theological” because they were introduced into classical culture by Christianity.
Faith, hope, and love. Without context they can seem a bit vague – what does “believe all things mean” for instance? Is it really in accordance with prudence to “hope all things”? In the context of this passage, they get some content.
Love relates to faith – faith in Christ, in the sense of trust in Christ rather than primarily believing particular ideas about Jesus. It provides the context to clarify what love really means – it’s the basis by which we see that romantic love, love of country, love of friends, love of family, love of anything really, has to come second to commitment to God. And it also shapes what love of the other looks like: it is, ultimately, to do with people’s orientation to God.
Love relates to hope. Not a sort of vague sense that good times are going to keep on rolling on, or that surely things are going to get better. But a hope grounded in Christ, his resurrection, and the church’s ongoing witness to that fact.
To love someone is to make yourself an ally of their best self. It is to want what is best for that person, always bearing in mind that it is hard to break out of our own preoccupations and self-interest. The main thing isn’t so much what we say, as the intention with which we say it and our ongoing relationship with the person we are speaking with. Or, as Paul might put it, unless we speak with love, we aren’t doing anything more than making a hollow clanging noise.
What does it mean to “make yourself an ally of the best self of someone else”? It means to play our part in their ultimate wellbeing – in their life defined by faith, hope, and love. It may not mean telling people directly about Jesus very often, but our vision of the good life, the best way of living, will ultimately rest in the witness of Christ to how God wants us to live.
Finally, there is a message for the church here. The idea that the best way of living in faith, hope, and love, is somehow summed up in the image of a condemned criminal being executed is so completely unlikely that the only context in which it can make sense is a community of people who believe it, and who live it out.
So this love which Paul talks about is not just something to do with marriage. It isn’t even primarily that. It is, instead, the key to how we should live as Christian disciples, both with respect to the outside world, but also how we behave with one another.
God is calling us to be a community defined by our love, conditioned by faith and hope. Everything else has to be in service of these three and the most significant of them is love.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
 I understand that current thinking suggests that the boundaries are perhaps a little clear cut than The Four Loves might suggest, but my Greek is no way up to having a worthwhile opinion about it.
 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
 1 Corinthians 13:1