Living the Love
Synopsis: This sermon concludes the series on Paul. A fascinating insight from this series is seeing how Paul’s thought kept developing in response to new situations. This is something we can learn from him as we and our churches face ever new circumstances. Another unique aspect is that these are first-person letters that reveal Paul as a person—something unique in ancient literature. Finally, what was most basic for Paul was love of God and neighbor, or, as we might say, “living the love.”
I began this sermon series on Paul with a sermon titled “Who is the Real Paul?” Paul has been a controversial figure throughout church history. He is revered for his passion to take the Good News of Jesus to the gentiles—those outside his Jewish community. Accordingly, he argued fiercely that what mattered was faith or trust in Jesus and not keeping Jewish laws such as circumcision.
African Americans and women have had an especially hard time respecting Paul because of some of the things attributed to him such as telling slaves to obey their masters and forbidding women to speak in church. We saw that some of those most egregious statements were actually written in his name by people writing a generation or two after his lifetime.
Paul was adamant that Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free are all one in Christ. Even so, he was a man of his time. We are reading our own convictions back into his letters if we try to make him into a twenty-first century civil rights leader, gay-rights activist, or a feminist. And there are things he got wrong. The most obvious being his belief that Christ would return in his lifetime.
This is the first time that I did such a detailed historical and theological study on Paul. It was fun, and I really got into it! I read four different book on Paul and studied several commentaries on his letters. My previous New Testament studies in seminary and in my doctoral studies were focused on Jesus and the gospels. Some of this was, therefore, completely new to me.
What was especially eye-opening was the development of Paul’s thought throughout his letters, beginning with his first letter to the Thessalonians and ending with his letter to the Romans, which was his last letter. You can see how he kept developing and readjusting his thought in response to new situations. That can feel a little disconcerting.
Was Paul just making it up as he went? In a way, he was! It’s empowering to see how the Spirit led Paul and those churches as they sought to follow the way of Jesus where they lived. They had to work their way through some really messy situations in various matters.
We’re doing the same thing as we discern together and experiment with different ways of following the way of Jesus and being a Spirit led community of faith here in Fairfax. Hey, let’s try a family oriented fall festival instead of a worship service some Sunday morning.
Let’s plan a joint Christmas worship service with Table Covenant Church. Let’s discern how the Spirit may be leading us to serve our community through affordable housing and working with Daniels Run Elementary School in projects such as distributing fresh vegetables to needy families? Let’s respond to climate change by installing an electric car charging station, putting new electric solar panels on our church roof, and building a new fence around our church garden.
Can we envision goals for where we want to be in ten years from now and then think backward to what we need to begin doing now to get there? This is the work that our long-range planning committee is doing. Let’s think a bit outside the box. Might God’s Spirit be leading us to consider this as more of a joint effort with other smaller churches here in Northern Virginia such as Table Covenant Church, Hill City Church, and New Hope Fellowship?
What’s unique about studying Paul’s letters is that they’re actually personal letters responding to particular things that he and his churches were dealing with more than two thousand years ago. There isn’t anything else quite like that in world literature. As was customary, Paul wrote with the help of a scribe. We can imagine him pacing back and forth dictating to the scribe and then writing a few concluding comments or greetings in his own hand.
In this respect, they reveal Paul’s personality, including his strengths and his faults, unlike anything else in the Bible. In contrast, the four gospels are remembered teachings and accounts of Jesus’ ministry written by others after his death. In this respect, the human Jesus, including his personality, is farther removed from us. I learned to appreciate this in a new way as I worked on this series on Paul.
Yet another insight is that Paul quotes extensively from the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures called the Septuagint. It would have been impossible for him to carry big scrolls of those scriptures in his travels. He had instead memorized huge portions of it and had total recall as he argued different points in his letters.
A related matter is that Paul never directly quotes Jesus. We need to remember that the four Gospels were not written until after Paul’s death and would not have been available to him. Still, Jesus’ sayings would have been circulating orally in the churches. Why did Paul never refer to them? We don’t know. We do know that what was crucial for him was faith in Jesus and obeying the great commandment, “Love of God and neighbor.”
Paul told the church in Rome that love is fulfilling the law and warned against our tendency to judge each other. Only God can judge. Likewise, he told the Galatians that we have been called to freedom, which we should use to serve each other in love. If we, instead, use our freedom to backbite and ravage each other we will destroy each other (Gal. 5: 13-15).
And that brings is to the love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13. The church in Corinth was the Pentecostal church among the other early churches. They reveled in spiritual gifts, especially dramatic gifts such as speaking in tongues, healing, and miracles. They also loved charismatic, eloquent preachers. Paul tells them that all this is good, but he will show them a still more excellent way, the gift of love.
1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most beautifully written and inspiring chapters in the Bible. Paul tells the Corinthians that all their vaulted gifts and even sacrificing one’s own body are absolutely nothing without love. Listen to his words as translated in the Common English Bible:
If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophesy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains, but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.
These were all things that the Corinthians greatly prized, and Paul tells them that they’re useless without love. He then switches to a description of love. It’s the opposite of some of the behavior that was so destructive in the church in Corinth. As I read it, we might think of ourselves and the character of the relationships in our churches. I sometimes read it reflectively as a way to remind myself what love is and want it isn’t. Notice how Paul keeps gong back and forth, “love is—love isn’t.” For me, there are always areas that require some personal work.
Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love put up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.
This is all incomplete now. We’re living in a time between Jesus’ cross and when all things will be restored at his second coming. Where we live, in this space, we only know in part. We can’t see things clearly. It’s like seeing a hazy reflected image in a dull or steamed up mirror.
Paul concludes with one of my favorite verses, “Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.”
Faith is the trust we direct toward God who has kept his promises by sending Jesus for our sake and raising him to new life. Hope focuses our fervent desire to see our broken world restored by God to its rightful wholeness. And love is the foretaste of our ultimate union with God, graciously given to us now and shared with our sisters and brothers.
 Richard Hays, First Corinthians: Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 231