Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany January 29-30, 2022
“Perfect Love” I Corinthians 13
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
I have a test for you. (And you thought that once you entered the doors of the church that you were safe from having to take a test. Think again). This test has to do with love – the very thing that you heard in our reading from Paul. Here’s the test:
- Would any of you say that you have never let anger get the better of you, or that you have never held a grudge?
- Would any of you here say that you have never lost your patience?
- Would any say that you have never spoken a lie to another?
- Can anyone say that you are completely selfless and not self-seeking?
- Would anyone say that when you have been wronged by others you have been able to put it behind you?
Maybe not, huh? Our love has so many holes. I have called the sermon, “Perfect Love”, and I know that my love for others, and I suspect that yours, is far from that. When Paul begins his message with, “And now I will show you the most excellent way” (I Corinthians 12:31b), he wrote to a church that really struggled with meaningful, practical love.
The church that he wrote to had conflicts and divisions. They couldn’t get along, they couldn’t get together and have a meal with one another without running into hard feelings and hurt hearts. They couldn’t find unity even when they came to the Table of the Lord and received Holy Communion. With anguish, Paul pleads with his congregation, “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual, but as worldly – mere in infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?” (I Corinthians 3:1-3) Perfect love? How about no love – except for those who were in your little clique?
Paul then addresses what they were so proud of – their spiritual gifts that were amazing, gifts that came from God for them – speaking in a language that they hadn’t even learned, allowing them to proclaim what God had done or even was going to do, having a faith that could move a mountain, or being so dedicated to God that you would give great gifts to those who were poor. But they were told that if they had all that, or did all that and didn’t love, all that they did didn’t amount to anything and they were nothing.
How is your love? Here is the standard that God sets, “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. It does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (I Corinthians 13:4-8a) What a brilliant word. This is the perfection that we seek but haven’t attained.
The test that I gave you was asking – how far do we have to go to have that type of love? A long ways, I imagine. But here is the second question to the test – How do we get there? Do you know the answer? I hope you do. I bet you do. You’re not going to get to this perfect love by yourself. You’re not going to get there by simply getting rid of your bad ways and replace them with some new and better ones. At least we’re not going to do this by ourselves. This work of perfect love is a divine work. This is the work of Jesus in us.
Perfect love before it is given, has to be received. Take God’s love in. John writes of this deep love, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (I John 4:9-10) Or how about this, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) How about this expression of perfect love? “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God shows his life for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
Every giver has to be a receiver first. You and I are called to live in the “most excellent way” – a life of sacrificial love – perfect love. It truly is the best way to be. But such a way is not easy. So, take love in, take God’s love in, and then let God’s love out.
I bet you have some great illustrations and examples of love that you have seen through your years. Maybe it came from a mom or dad, grandma or grandpa. Maybe you saw it in a friend or a neighbor. Carl Fickenscher put together this list of illustrations from the life of Jesus to show us what love is and does. Notice the lasting impact Jesus had with the gift of deep love:
- Jesus touches a man with leprosy – and restores him to his family and his place in the community.
- Jesus gives sight to a man who’s never seen his world.
- Jesus raises a young man from death and gives him back to his widowed mother.
- Jesus tells another young man, a rich one, exactly the hard truth he needs to hear.
- Jesus calls to a man up in a tree who’s long been an outcast from polite society – and then goes to be a guest in his home.
- Jesus forgives a woman who everyone knows has sinned much.
- Jesus weeps when he sees the sadness death brings.
- Jesus promises paradise to a criminal dying an agonizing death.
- Jesus takes everyone’s death upon himself so that we can live forever.
Do you ever get the impression that God has deep affection for you? On Saturday afternoons, here in our building, Curt Engle leads an amazing small group study on the Book of Romans. Recently he sent a devotion based on Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The devotion spoke such needed words, “The war is over. It ended long ago. We need no longer crouch in fear behind the bushes as Adam did. We need no longer hide from God. We need no longer worry about our sins or their penalty.” My – what news!! This is perfect love.
There was an old fellow being interviewed by a reporter because he has just reached his 100th birthday. “Yes, sir, I’m 100 years old and I don’t have an enemy in the world.” “Well, that’s wonderful. You must be very proud of yourself.” “Yes”, said the old man. “My last enemy died about a year ago.” Is that how we live a life of love to others? We just have to outlive our enemies?
No. Receive perfect love. Give perfect love. God’s Spirit, living in us, allows us to do what we, by ourself, could never do. Jesus was clear about that truth when He said, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself, it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5) Here is your direction from God, this is the word about perfect love, listen to it again, “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 rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” That is perfect love, right?
Receive it humbly and confidently. Then share it. What a transforming gift you give to others. It will change their life. It will change your life. Perfect love is this, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)
If you have never known God’s love, I pray that this is the day that it grips you. It is the perfect love from above. If you have fallen into a life where your love has died for others, let God, again, ignite it. Receive the love of Jesus and then give that perfect love to others. Amen!!