Agape: A Still More Excellent Way

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“And I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31b).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
If there’s ever been a part of the Bible that’s been used, misused, and abused, it’s our Epistle for today, 1 Corinthians 13. We’ve understood it in so many different ways we’re not even sure what point Paul is making, except that it’s something about love. To understand what Paul was getting at, we need to know why he wrote the great love chapter in the first place. That means backing up a bit.
Paul originally wrote this epistle to help heal and restore unity to a divided and bickering congregation. The church at Corinth was dysfunctional. They were splintered into factions. They tolerated gross sin within their midst. They offended their weaker brothers by their unwillingness to forego eating meat sacrificed to idols. They even abused the Lord Jesus’ great gift of His body and blood as they partook of Holy Communion in an unworthy manner. Each of these problems was symptomatic of a lack of love.
In all his Epistles, Paul consistently taught that faith in Christ crucified is always “active in love.” His admonitions to love have as their heart Jesus’ command to “love one another” (John 13:34), which is indispensable for the life of the Church. We should not make the mistake of equating Paul’s concept of love with the modern sentimental notion of love, which often becomes an excuse for sin. The love romanticized and glorified by the world is rooted in the self and its own emotions rather than in the needs of one’s neighbor. Even in the Church, the concept of love is devilishly twisted. The condemnation of popular sins is considered “unloving,” while a libertine accommodation of sin is said to be “showing Christ’s love.” A resolute insistence on biblical truth is called “unloving,” while doctrinal error is tolerated “in the Spirit of Christ’s love.”
God had blessed the congregation in Corinth. He had given many within it different spiritual gifts. But instead of using those gifts to live out the unity of the faith, they began to brag about the gifts they had. I suppose some wanted to show how superior they were over others, that they could do what others could not. Certainly if God had given some folks more gifts than others, obviously He must love them more, right? Otherwise, why would He have given them more gifts?
But Paul had nothing but scorn for that sort of sinful thinking and attitude. Our gifts and abilities mean nothing if the love of Christ does not move us to use them properly, from a heart of love. It’s true, some in Corinth were prideful and arrogant in their abilities and skills, and used them to show off. They would often disrupt the worship services. Instead of speaking with one voice, they spoke with many, dissonant voices, sounding like a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And so their worship services looked more like a circus freak show, than something that strengthened and unified the body of Christ.
What is it about us that makes us want to feel like we must draw attention to ourselves, that we must advance ourselves at the expense of others? It’s our old Adam rearing his ugly head, always seeking our own self-interest, and not that of Christ and our fellow Christians. That’s why after exhorting the Corinthians to “earnestly desire the higher gifts,” St. Paul adds, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” If seeking higher gifts, if developing our gifts, and employing our gifts are to please God, one thing is necessary: love must be the mainspring and the guiding force. The still more excellent way is Christian love.
The Greek word Paul uses for “love” is agape. Agape is the highest kind of love, far removed from the erotic love and passion that saturates our culture. It is also higher than affection or personal liking or the attachment of friends. It is love like God’s love for the world in John 3:16.
God looked down and saw this foul world reeking of lust and hate and greed and rebellion and blasphemy, a cesspool of guilt and shame, a world completely unworthy of any kind of divine love, and God loved us anyway. Although He clearly saw all of our depravity, He devoted Himself to man’s welfare so deeply and intensely that He “gave His one and only Son.” Agape is a giving of self, a giving that sees no sacrifice as too great that others might live and know the love of God. Our love is to reflect this divine love. In our love for our neighbor, we are also to rise above our feelings and emotions and devote ourselves to his welfare, even if there is nothing lovable about him… even if he repels us and his conduct outrages us or disgusts us. This is the still more excellent way.
1 Corinthians 13 glorifies this kind of reckless love. All other gifts pale in comparison. Without this agape love even the greatest gifts and noblest deeds have no value. The Corinthians were extremely proud of their gift of speaking in tongues. But even if they could have spoken in the tongues of angels, it would have been no more than an impressive display of sound and noise if they used this gift without Christian love. Even if they could prophesy like Isaiah and preach like Peter at Pentecost… even if they could fathom more mysteries and knowledge than God permitted Paul… even if they had “faith, so as to move mountains” … or turned everything over to charity or gave their lives in martyrdom… all of these glorious achievements would be worthless if agape were not motivating them.
Obviously, agape is the highest form of love. It is worthy of some of the most poetic and most exalted words the inspired apostle ever wrote. No wonder, many a Christian has recorded them in his memory and heart. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Paul presents Christian love in a personal, “hands-on” way. We are part of the body of Christ. We have been baptized into Christ. We now bear His name. And because of that baptismal grace, we too are called to live lives, giving out the same love that we have received. Agape love reflects the nature of God Himself, and looks to the ways in which it can serve our neighbor.
That’s why such love is always patient. Having been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, the Christian is not short-tempered, but long-suffering with others. In this, we imitate God, who has always displayed long-suffering in His dealings with us. Love’s second characteristic is to be kind. Again it is God who sets the example by showing unfailing kindness in the creation, preservation, and redemption of His people. His kindness to us will bear fruit in our lives.
Having shown love’s most important positive characteristics, Paul then contrasts love with what it is not. First, “love does not envy.” The Corinthians had fallen prey to jealousy through their competitiveness and warring factions. Envy is “the green-eyed monster” which is never content with the gifts it has received, but must be eyeing what others have, even trampling over others for advancement.
Love also does not behave like a braggart or windbag. Apparently some of the Corinthians had fallen into that trap. Paul taught them about the vanity of the world’s false wisdom and not to be fooled by eloquence. He also urged them to avoid the closely related sin of arrogance. Inflated egos are totally incompatible with Christian love. They fracture the unity of the body of Christ.
Love is not rude. It is concerned for what is right in the Lord’s sight and also takes care not to needlessly offend others. Furthermore, love is not easily provoked. Christians learn to control their anger. Toward that end, love does not keep a record of wrongs. In so doing, it follows the Lord of love, who did not keep a record of people’s sins, but declares that He remembers them no more. Love does not nurse a grudge. It forgives, even as Christ has forgiven.
Paul rounds off his list of the destructive patterns that mark unloving behavior: “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing.” Love avoids the sinful human propensity not only to give tacit approval to wickedness, but even to delight in hearing about it and perpetuating it. Love rejoices in the truth of the Gospel, which means a break with unrighteousness that seeks to build up the character and reputation of our neighbor.
Paul concludes his description of love’s activities with four brief clauses about love’s tenacity. Such love “bears all things,” that is, it puts up with other people and circumstances that try its patience. It “believes all things.” That does not mean love is gullible and always believes other people, no matter what they do. Rather, faith generated by love remains steadfast in all circumstances, choosing to believe the best in others. Similarly, love has no limit to its hope. It never gives up on God. And finally, it “endures all things” as it perseveres under the cross.
After His almost lyrical description of love’s characteristics, Paul turns to love’s permanence and abiding value: “love never ends.” Just as the Word of God never falls to the ground ineffective but always accomplishes its purposes, so Christian love will retain its honored place throughout time and eternity. By contrast, the spiritual gifts so highly prized by the Corinthians possess only a temporary value. In this age, indeed, they still have their significance, but when the Last Day dawns, the gifts of prophecy, tongues, knowledge, and so on, will no longer be necessary. That’s why Paul concludes by asserting that far more important is the great triad of faith, hope, and love. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
That is agape, the love that is a still more excellent way. That is the love of God that we are called to emulate. But if you’re like me, you’ve found that you can’t live out this Christ-like love. You don’t have the ability. You can’t do it. In fact, your Old Adam doesn’t even want to do it!       
So what can you do? If it’s beyond your ability (and it is!), then you need something from outside yourself to give it to you. You see, to have the love of Christ is to have Christ. It’s that simple. You need to be filled with Christ. And where do you find Christ? In the places He has promised to be: In His Church. In His means of grace. In His Word. In His Sacraments.
In Holy Baptism, you were given the Holy Spirit, who calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies you, and keeps you in the one true faith. The Father has adopted you as His beloved child. You are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Through daily contrition and repentance, you put to death the Old Adam that the new man may arise to live in righteousness and purity forever. In His Holy Supper, Christ gives you His very body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. In His holy Word, Christ—the Word Incarnate—keeps His promise to be with you always to the end of the age. His Word of Law shows you your sin and your need for a Savior. His Gospel cleanses you of your sins, motivates and empowers you for godly living—for godly loving.
Through each of His means of grace, Christ forgives your failure to love as you ought. Through His life-giving Word and Sacraments, Christ replenishes your spirit with His Spirit so you may love with His love.
Come then to the Word of God to get more of Christ. Come then to the Sacraments of God to get more of Christ. For here in Word and Sacrament Christ comes to you, for you, that He may be Christ in you, that the Christ in you becomes the Christ through you. That you might be a “little Christ” as you go out in the world, serving your neighbor through your various vocations.
Live in the love of Christ: a still more excellent way. You are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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