The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE GREATEST GIFT

Delivered 2/1/04
Text: I Corinthians 13
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Familiar words. We hear them at weddings all the time. Love, love, love. They follow Paul's discussion of spiritual gifts in the previous chapter and are the answer to any question you might have as to which of the gifts Paul thinks is most important. Some folks say that this is their favorite chapter in the entire New Testament.

"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." A characteristic of heathen worship, especially the worship of some of the Greek deities, was the clanging of cymbals and the braying of trumpets.(1) "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love," I may as well be a heathen! OK.

"And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing." Can I simply preach to you by dangling you over the fires of eternity and literally scare the Hell out of you? Paul says that kind of preaching is worth ZILCH! I agree.

"If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing." As one commentator has it, "To give as a grim duty, to give with a certain contempt, to stand on one's own little eminence and throw scraps of charity as to a dog, to give and to accompany the giving with a smug moral lecture or a crushing rebuke, is not charity at all."(2) The apostle says it is NOTHING.

Here Paul explains what he DOES mean. Love is not some warm-fuzzy feeling. Love means some very practical things:
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.
No sentimental journey there. This is where the rubber meets the road. Yes, this passage is read over and over again at weddings, but not because its subject is related to romance. "Love is patient," even when he leaves his dirty socks in the middle of the floor after you have asked him gently to pick them up ten previous times. "Love is kind" even when the dinner she cooks for you would be top-rated in the annals of heartburn history. "Love does not envy" when she gets a raise and you don't. This list goes on and on. Practical stuff. And if husbands and wives routinely treated each other like this, we would not see one out of two marriages ending in divorce.

Do you want a good gauge of how YOU measure up to this high standard? Substitute your own name at the appropriate places in the list, then listen carefully to see if the passage rings true. "David is patient; David is kind; David does not envy or boast or act arrogant or rude. David does not insist on his own way; David is not irritable or resentful..." Get the idea? Does that sound like you? Is there some work to do? Probably.

Now Paul explains the importance of what this emphasis is. And remember he is writing to a church that has had its ups and downs. These folks in Corinth had more problems as a congregation than any you or I have ever encountered. To be honest, if it were not for the fact that the church belonged to the Lord and NOT those people, it would have folded long before Paul ever wrote. Here he makes an intriguing statement: "Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away." Do you hear what he is saying? He is pooh-poohing religion! That's right. Religion...or at least our human expressions thereof. Good for him. Some of the meanest behaviors the world has ever seen are over religion: the crusades, the inquisition, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. Congregations are torn apart because people want to fight about theological details. We still do - check the newspaper. Mark Twain said we have "made a graveyard of the globe in trying to ease our brother's way to happiness and heaven." Paul says STOP IT! Please! Grow up!

"When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." What the Apostle is offering is no less than a religion for a "grown-up" church. Even a church that does not see as clearly as it once did (give me those bifocals): "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." Mature. Seasoned. Grown-up. The Corinthian congregation does not qualify as of this writing. Perhaps First Presbyterian does.

Do you like being a part of a growing church? Our growth is not happening by simply opening the doors. It IS happening as people come in here and see a warm and winsome, and obviously loving fellowship. When folks see it, and find that they are welcome to join in and experience that love for themselves, we grow, and we will keep on growing. Keep up the good work.

Let me tell you a story.(3) A family is out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon, and they relax at a leisurely pace down the highway. Suddenly, the two children begin to beat their father in the back: "Daddy, Daddy, stop the car! Stop the car! There's a kitten back there on the side of the road!"

The father says, "So, there's a kitten on the side of the road. We're having a drive."

"But, Daddy, we've got to stop and pick it up."

"No, we don't."

"But, Daddy, if we don't, it will die!"

"Well, then, it will just have to die. We don't have room for another animal. Our house is a zoo already. No more animals."

"But Daddy, are you just going to let it die?"

"Be quiet, Kids, let's just have a pleasant drive."

"We never thought our father would be so mean and cruel as to let a helpless little kitty die."

Finally, the mother turns to her husband and says, "Dear, we are going to have to stop."

So, reluctantly, Dad turns the car around, returns to the spot and pulls the car off the road. "You kids stay in the car. I'll see about it." He gets out to pick up the little kitten.

The poor creature is just skin and bones, sore-eyed and full of fleas; but when Dad reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy, the little kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw. Ssst! He picks the kitten up by the loose skin of the neck, brings it over to the car and says, "Don't touch it; it's probably got leprosy." Back home they go.

When they get to the house, the children give the kitten several baths, about a gallon of warm milk, and intercede, "Can we let it stay in the house just tonight, please, please, please? Tomorrow we'll fix a place in the garage."

The father says, "Sure, take my bedroom; the whole house is already a menagerie." They fix a comfortable bed, fit for a pharaoh.

Several weeks pass. One day the father walks in, feels something rub against his leg, looks down, and there is the cat. He reaches down toward it. When the cat sees his hand, it doesn't bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress. Is that the same cat? Is it? No, it is NOT the same as that frightened, hurt, hissing kitten on the side of the road. Of course not. And you know as well as I what has made the difference.

As we come to the table, remember this: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

Amen!


1. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

2. ibid.

3. Fred Craddock, "Praying Through Clenched Teeth," in The Twentieth Century Pulpit, Vol. II, James Cox, Ed., (Nashville, Abingdon, 1981), pp. 51-52

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