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06.05.16 Love of a Different Kind 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Sermon Summary

by on June 6, 2016

There are many ways to love God; maybe as many ways as there are people. And there is one sure way NOT to love God.

Summary Points

  • The Cornelius and Peter ways of loving God
  • The new way in the Spirit
  • What love’s got to do with it

Few episodes in the early church depict the New Covenant in Jesus Christ more effectively than the meeting between Cornelius and Peter. The passage is so powerful, it has been used throughout the church’s history to extend its welcome not only to non-Jews, but to non-whites, non-males, and non-heterosexuals.

In the passage which reports the events, Cornelius is described as a “devout man who feared God.” In this context, “fear” refers simply to the seeking of God’s will. This is why Cornelius “prays constantly” and “gives generously.” These are the ways Cornelius loves God: Devotion, submission, prayer, and generosity.

Peter also demonstrates various ways to love God. He also prays, and the passage suggests that he is fasting at the same time. When the time comes to break his fast, he has a vision that tests his fidelity to his religious tradition: He is invited to eat unclean food. In addition to loving God through prayer and fasting, Peter is committed to upholding the tradition as a way of loving God. It is then that the Spirit invites him to a new way of loving God.

The new way of the Spirit involves first opening oneself to God. The Spirit commands Peter not only to eat the unclean food, but to welcome some unclean people into his house—the very people Cornelius has sent to Peter. In obedience to the Spirit, Peter next opens himself to others. He gave lodging to the emissaries, then followed them and received lodging. It is unimaginable that Peter, the faithful Jewish disciple of Jesus, would dine with a centurion of the empire that occupies the Promised Land and crucified Jesus. Yet, there he is.

In a word, the new way of loving God is hospitality: First one hosts God in the new way of the Spirit, then we host those God brings with him.

As a side note during this month of Ramadan, note that four of the five Pillars if Islam are attested to in this passage: salat (prayer), zakat (generosity), sawm (fasting), and hajj (pilgrimage). Only the confession of faith is different between Christianity and Islam. The practices for growing closer to God are the same, and we find them in other religious traditions as well.

Paul’s ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13 recognizes these ways of loving God. The Corinthian churches were extraordinarily gifted by both the world’s and God’s kingdom’s standards. They were intelligent, wealthy, and of high social standing. They also had a lot of pride, a lot of ego. Spiritually they were gifted as well, and Paul comments specifically about their fascination with the gift of tongues (the Spirit-enabled ability to speak and/or understand other languages). Much of the letters to the Corinthians is dealing with the ego problem, and especially the “love chapter.” (No, it was not written for weddings.)

In this chapter, Paul acknowledges the value of Cornelius and Peter’s ways of loving God. He refers to “faith so great as to remove mountains,” and “giving away one’s possessions, even one’s body,” and “prophetic powers, knowledge, and understanding mysteries.” These are all related to loving God. But Paul makes this extraordinary claim: They are valuable, but they amount to nothing without love.

For Paul, love is the purpose and power of the Spirit. It is the role and direction of the Spirit. Love is the foundation of God’s gracious hospitality towards us, and of our hospitality towards others. As in the passage from Acts, here the new way of loving God paves the way for hospitality, even among the Corinthians who were so hostile towards one another.

“Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,” Paul writes. Peter could have been all these things, and with religious justification. “But love is patient and kind,” Paul continues, and “does not insist on its own way.” Rather than on insisting on his own way, Peter followed God’s Spirit, even though it was not the way with which he was familiar.

Paul writes, “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Peter discovered this also. He followed the Spirit to where truth could be found, even when at first it appeared to be wrongdoing (like eating unclean animals and welcoming unclean people)—even when it was to the home of a Roman Centurion.

Those who love God, in other words, follow the Spirit on a journey. We grow from “childhood faith to adult faith,” to use Paul’s testimony. This maturation can’t be hurried, but neither can it be avoided. Faith evolves—we must welcome it and not fight it. Later Paul writes that we are, “transformed from one degree of glory to another . . . by the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

“Now,” Paul testifies, “we see in a mirror dimly.” Looking in a mirror, what we see is the image of God in ourselves. But eventually, Paul promises, we will see “face to face.” We will see God not in our own face, but in the face of another. We will see God face to face, but we will also see God in the faces of others.

How can this be? Paul continues, “Now I know only in part, but then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.” As Paul grows in the assurance that God knows him fully, Paul is able to know others fully. They are different, but he no longer sees them as a threat. Difference is not a threat to his ego. He is able to love them, even as God loves us. This is the key to resolving the Corinthians’ conflicts. And it is key to our own spiritual growth.

And so, Paul concludes, “faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.” Why is love the greatest? Because faith evolves and culminates in knowledge. Where there is knowledge, there is no longer a need for faith. It is obsolete. And because all our hopes will be realized someday, and so hope becomes redundant.

But love—the very nature of God, the very definition of God—is greatest because it is eternal.

A lot is at stake. Listen to these words from Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking:

The dirty energy of fear, prejudice, supremacy, inferiority, resentment, isolation, and hostility is cheap, abundant, and familiar. That’s why our societies run on it, even though it’s destroying us. More than ever before in our history, we need a new kind of personal and social fuel. Not fear, but love. Not prejudice, but openness. Not supremacy, but service. Not inferiority, but equality. Not resentment, but reconciliation. Not isolation, but connection. Not the spirit of hostility, but the holy Spirit of hospitality. (p. 217)

We all love God in various ways, and if we are faithful, those ways evolve. So there are many ways to love God, but one sure way not to, and that is refusing to show hospitality, refusing to show grace to those God has called us to love.

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