The Metropolitan Congregation

- serving and celebrating the LGBT communities of Manchester and the North West

Sermon - 10th February 2019


Scripture - 1 Corinthians 13

Walt Johnson

[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]

Last Sunday, we looked at St Paul’s First Letter to the very young church in the Greek city of Corinth, an important regional capital of the Roman Empire. The letter was written around 54CE, about 4 years after Paul had started the church during his second missionary journey.

The church community there had problems. Some people considered themselves to be more important because of the spiritual gifts they had and the role they had in the church. Last week, we learnt that all spiritual gifts are equal, and Paul used the metaphor of different body parts, diverse in their function, to make up the whole body, the body of Christ, the Church.

Today’s reading is the very next chapter in Paul’s letter: it is perhaps the most famous of all Paul’s writings, and the subject of it is “love”. At the end of Chapter 12, Paul describes love as: “a still more excellent way”.

You may have heard it many times. It is a favourite reading at weddings. As we hear it, remember the context: the words were written to a broken church; and the Greek word for “love” throughout the passage is “agape”: the selfless, sacrificial love of God.

The reading can be broken down into three sections.

Firstly, verses 1 to 3: they refer back to the spiritual gifts about which Paul was writing in the previous chapter. Paul’s point is that the selfless, sacrificial “agape” love must underpin everything that happens in the church. He gives three examples: the supernatural gifts (tongues, prophecy); the doctrinal gifts (knowledge, wisdom, faith); and the sacrificial gifts (giving money, time, one’s life).

Paul does not hold back on what he is saying: if we do the right thing with the wrong motivation, what we do is pointless. He harshly likens the person wrongly motivated to be as nothing, who gets nothing out of it, and who is nothing more than an irritating noise.

At this point, we may feel somewhat at a loss: what is it that we are meant to do? What is this sacrificial, selfless “agape” love?

Describing any abstract concept is not easy, and we need to fall back on comparisons and metaphors to help our understanding. The next four verses (vv. 4-8) offer us amazing, practical insight and direction as to what exactly “agape” love is.

Paul offers us a list of qualities that “agape” love embodies. In English (and the French), these are adjectives – describing words; however, the original Greek uses verbs – action words. I like to think that these qualities are not just passive parts of our character, but actions in our dealings with others which, like all muscles when exercised, become stronger.

The description begins by defining “agape” love positively as “patient” and “kind”, then goes on to illustrate which negative qualities do not comprise sacrificial love. It finishes by showing us the broad-shoulders, the endurance and the strength of “agape” love.

The final part of the passage (vv. 8-12) talks about the impermanence of aspects of our lives. Many Bible commentators understand Paul to be talking about the end of time, and Christ’s return. While early Christians believed it would happen within a few years, 2000 years later, each week we proclaim in our Communion service: “Christ will come again!”

Paul mirrors the three comments he made on the spiritual gifts at the start of the passage. Firstly, he tells us the supernatural spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy will have their end.

Then, he tells us that the doctrinal gifts of wisdom and knowledge are partial. Remember what it was like when we were children and we did not know much, but we learnt as we grew up. Imagine what the people of the 1st century CE would think if they suddenly found themselves in the 21st!

Here, Paul is challenging us about our spiritual growth and maturity. We are called to grow in faith. As humans, we are born as babies, grow into children and then into adults, and this should be reflected in our faith journeys, too! Think about a small jar of baby food and the size of a meal an adult human would eat. Just as it is absurd to think an adult could survive on a baby’s diet, it should be equally absurd to us if we starve ourselves on a spiritual diet of occasional church attendance, an absence of regular Bible reading and prayer. Paul writes these things not to scold us, but to encourage in us a yearning for a deeper faith and closer relationship with God.

This coming week contains 14 February, Valentine’s Day. If you have been blessed with a personal relationship you can celebrate this Thursday, or remember with fondness a relationship now past, you will know that a good relationship grows and deepens with time: it is something which is worked at together. The first-love that you shared with your partner is different to the love into which it grew. Similarly, Paul is encouraging us to develop and deepen our relationship with God.

In our congregation, we are blessed to see the youngest member growing. Ruth’s youngest son, baby David, was just a tiny baby when we first met him in 2017. We have seen him learn to crawl, learn to walk, and now he runs! The same human spirit we see in David to grow, explore and develop – this is the same thirst for the spiritual life Paul wants us to seek.

Having written about the things which change, the impermanent, Paul finishes this amazing chapter on love by reflecting on the unchangeable and the permanent: faith, hope and sacrificial “agape” love. Paul writes that the greatest of these is love. Remember that the core of Jesus’ teaching is love: Love the Lord your God… Love your neighbour…

Paul has shown us an excellent way forward, but how do we relate it to our lives today? Remember that Paul was writing to people in a church in a rich and powerful city: many believed that they were in someway superior. But the way of love which Paul describes requires no qualifications, no job, no money, no power. It is open to everyone, irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation: for we are all one in the Body of Christ.
This part of this sermon could be challenging. Let us take Paul’s definition of “agape” sacrificial love and apply it directly to ourselves, replacing “love is” with “I am”. How much do we recognise ourselves in this?

  • I am patient; I am kind; I am not envious.
  • I am not boastful; I am not arrogant; I am not rude.
  • I do not insist on my own way; I am not irritable; I am not resentful.
  • I do not rejoice in wrong-doing, but I rejoice in the truth.

Finally, a key theme in Paul’s message is change. Real love is not something fixed and unchanging. Have you ever had a pet, maybe a dog: there comes a point when you have to let it off the leash, and trust that the animal’s bond with you is strong enough that it will return. Or, as a child takes its first steps, the parent must let go and let the child literally stand on its own feet, even though we know the child will fall many times as it learns to walk and run! We can apply this metaphor to many situations and relationships, but we face the following:

The hardest part of love is the letting go.

Our experience of faith, for many of us, began in our childhood, and we have fond memories of the Bible stories we learnt. For many, our faith lives were stopped in their tracks by how we were treated by churches because of our gender or sexual identity. We hold on to our fear, and our faith stops growing and our love for God becomes a fragile relic.

The hardest part of love is the letting go.

When a relationship ends, whether that is romantic, or a family member, or a friendship, a career, we need to move on. The pain we feel, we call grief: another way of looking at it is to say grief is the “love left over at the end”.

The hardest part of love is the letting go.

As a congregation, over the years, we have welcomed several hundred people. Some walk with us for a short time, maybe a few months; others, for years. Recently, we received a farewell letter from someone whom we had not seen for a several months, telling us that they were moving on.

The hardest part of love is the letting go.

Whoever we are, and whatever our journey, if our hands are closed, holding on to what is past, we cannot welcome the new gifts God has awaiting us.

The hardest and truest part of love is the letting go.


[We will finish our time together with a Rite of Release. If you wish, as a sign of letting go, stand and make your way to the back of the church via the side aisles. There, you will find a pot of stones; take a stone and walk down the central aisle: this is a symbol of you walking with your burden. When you reach the front, drop the stone into the clear box filled with water, as a sign of release. Then, make your back to your seat via the side aisles.

During this Rite of Release, we would ask you to keep silent. Some music will play by the composer Stephen Schwartz, from his musical “Children of Eden”. This moving song is entitled “The Hardest Part of Love”.]

(Walt Johnson)

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