Love’s Power

The text of the sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 13.1-13, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, January 30, 2022.

Note: The title, Love’s Power is my purposeful double entendre, meaning love is (a) power and the power of love.

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I love Pontheolla! I love Spartanburg, South Carolina! I love our Clevedale home! I love you, my St. Matthew’s community!

The English vocabulary is rich. A treasure trove of more than a million words with over 5000 words added each year.[1] Yet it is impoverished with only one word for love. This makes the conception and the communication of ideas confining and potentially confusing. For I do not and cannot mean the same thing about my wife, my locale, my domicile, and you.

The Apostle Paul, in praise of love, had the advantage of choosing among four Greek words. Each with its own adjectival meaning. Thus, whether spoken or written, each eliciting the response: “Oh, that’s the kind of love you’re talking about!”[2]

Paul, writing to the Christian community in the ancient Grecian city of Corinth, uses the term, agapé, meaning unconditional and impartial benevolence, which perfectly describes God’s nature and action, being and doing.

Paul doesn’t tell us what love is. He does tell us that love is great. Greater than the omni-linguality that can speak every earthly and heavenly language. Greater than an all-mystery resolving, all knowledge-retaining prophetic ability. Greater than a faith that transcends any and all trial and tribulation.

For Paul’s definition of love, we must go back to chapter twelve (which we have read over the past two Sundays). There, Paul discusses spiritual gifts.[3] Capabilities bestowed by the Holy Spirit that enable us to do something. Never for ourselves. Always for the sake of “the common good,” the community. At the end of chapter twelve, Paul gives examples of spiritual gifts; sometimes a given ability and sometimes as the role or responsibility that the gift empowers. Then he writes, “Strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”[4]

Now, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love…” Love is the greatest spiritual gift. For two reasons. One, because God is Love.[5] Therefore, the greatest gift that God can give is God’s Self. Two, love is the one spiritual ability given to all. Therefore, all of us possess the power to be and do as God is and does.

Paul then describes what loving like God looks like: “Love is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.”

To highlight the unconditionality and impartiality of agapé’s benevolence, I refer to this first attribute. Patience, which means more than tolerance of insult or injury, more than forbearance amid hardship.

Ancient folk, knowing how easily words could be misconstrued, striving for the goal of understanding, told stories. This was a classic story associated with the word, makrothumia, translated patience: (1) Someone who has wronged you in the worst way, (2) against whom you want revenge, (3) the power of which you possess, (4) is standing next to you, and (5) you choose not, indeed, refuse to exercise your power.

Through the ages, as the story was told, it became clear that this rejection of vengeance was no one-time, but a continual act or non-act. (For in many first century cultures, one’s offender, often a member of one’s family or clan, stood nearby for a lifetime. Hence, no one-time suppression of the urge to retaliate would serve the purpose of maintaining the community’s welfare.) Thus, over time, a sixth part was added. In the repeated doing of this “more excellent way” than lex talionis or law of retribution, often stated as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,”[6] the natural yearning to strike back was redeemed by the desire to forgive.

Love is spiritual power to be patient and kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, insistent on one’s own way, irritable, resentful, or rejoicing in wrong; but rather, rejoicing always in truth and bearing, believing, hoping, enduring all things.

The only limitation or conditionality of love, as in the case of any of our abilities, is our choice to love. For we can choose not to love. Yet we, as followers of Jesus, have been redeemed by Love to love. Not primarily feeling in love (as emotions wax and wane), but acting in love; the truth of which we demonstrate this morning.

“Faith, hope, and love abide…and the greatest is love.” Why?

Faith and hope involve our confidence in the existence of something unseen. For example, I have faith, conviction in your word that something will happen. Therefore, I live in hope, expectation of the fulfillment of what you have told me.

This morning, believing that “church” would happen in this building, we, acting in faith and hope, came. Once arriving, we no longer needed faith and hope. Nevertheless, for community to be present, real, we still needed, still need love; being and acting, beyond merely feeling, in love.

The constant necessity of love is its greatness. Love is not, as the old song declares,[7] what the world needs now. Love is what we always need to do and to be.

© 2022 PRA


[1] According to The Global Language Monitor (https://languagemonitor.com/category/number-ofwords/).

[2] The distinctions among the words, depending upon usage, are not wholly precise, though generally they are eros, erotic, sexual love; philia, the love of friends or (as) siblings; storgé, the tenderness or affection of parents and children; and agapé.

[3] 1 Corinthians 12.1-12

[4] 1 Corinthians 12.31

[5] 1 John 4.8b

[6] See Exodus 21.22-27, Leviticus 24.19-21, or Deuteronomy 19.21. Fairly stated, at the root of the principle of lex talionis was the intent to provide equitable retribution for an offended party. The law sought to define, hence, restrict the extent of the reprisal, so that the punishment might fit the crime.

[7]What the World Needs Now Is Love” – a 1965 popular song, lyrics by Hal David and music composed by Burt Bacharach.

2 thoughts on “Love’s Power

  1. Thank you Paul!! I’d been anticipating these words this morning! As I sit next to my Mom on what is one of her final days on this earth I am reflecting on our Love as mother and daughter….”Love is always what we need to do and to be”. She was patient and kind for my entire life, and she WAS LOVE as she sat for years by my bedside holding my hand when I was in pain or in joy as I endured surgery after surgery. After surgery number 10 I remember her boss coming to the hospital to see for herself if one person could have so many surgeries or if Mom was making it up to avoid work . I could tell Mom was exasperated with the boss yet she calmly said “and if she has 10 more I’ll be here for those too!” The embarrassed boss just nodded and left. That for me was mom being Love! As I sit here with all of the Faith, Hope and Love I can muster I have pledged to her that I’ll continue on with this work that we started together… to be Love for all the families struggling with caregiving and with this devastating disease called dementia. I’ll be here, doing this work til my end because for me that is how to be Love.

    Much love to you and I appreciate your words so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your mother, blessed Doris, was…is incarnate love. You are a blessing to her and she is a blessing to you. And because of you — each and both of you — you, each and both of you, are blessings to all who know and who have been and are touched by the power of your presence. Love

      Liked by 1 person

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