This sermon focuses on a Beatles song called “The Word,” which loudly proclaims that “the word” is love. As I say in the sermon, the Beatles got it mostly right: according to another, more famous John, Jesus Christ is the Word. The Word is God. And God is love. So the word is love—so long as we understand what and, more importantly, who the Word is.
The apostle Paul places the same priority on love in 1 Corinthians 13 that the Beatles do in the song. Without love, Paul says, we’re nothing. As Paul makes clear, however, this kind of love is difficult and costly. Fortunately, we have a Savior who paid that cost on our behalf.
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
[Please note that there is a short glitch in the video at the 18:00-minute mark.]
The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.
When I was 15, I was at a Wednesday night youth Bible study. We had just returned from a youth retreat the previous weekend. Chuck, my very best friend in youth group, had a powerful conversion experience on the retreat. He publicly recommitted his life to following Jesus. Like me, Chuck loved the Beatles, but unlike me he also loved heavy metal and hair metal. In the wake of his retreat experience, he wanted to offer a testimony at the Wednesday night meeting about what the Lord had done for him. So he did: He described how his life had gotten off course, in part, he said, because of his obsessive interest in rock and roll. So he resolved to change. And he was ready to prove it. He pulled out his stack of records. One by one, he smashed them over his knee and threw them in the trash. Now, this didn’t bother me much when he was pulling out records by Motley Crüe, Quiet Riot, Judas Priest, and Ozzy Osbourne. But when he pulled out a pristine vinyl copy of the Beatles’ Abbey Road—one of the greatest albums ever—I was like, “No! Give it to me!” But he broke it and threw it in the trash.
Even as a young, impressionable Christian teenager, who read the Bible and prayed nearly every day and was very involved in church, I just couldn’t go along with Chuck on this. I knew, by their own admission, that the Beatles weren’t Christians; I knew they used drugs; I knew John Lennon once got into trouble saying that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. But four years earlier, when I bought a prerecorded cassette of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the wake of John Lennon’s murder, I fell in love with the band. They helped instill within me a lifelong passion for music. I knew that their music was good—and good music, like all good things, is a gift from God. Besides, I also knew that their songs often spoke to deep, spiritual longings. In fact, I would argue—as I will argue in this sermon series—that at times their songs pointed in the direction of the God revealed by Jesus Christ—even if they didn’t intend them to.
Theologically, I now know that isn’t an accident—I know that the Holy Spirit is very resourceful; and he can even work through things like Beatles music to reveal Jesus Christ to the world.
Earlier, the Vinebranch Band did a Beatles song called “The Word,” which comes from their 1965 album Rubber Soul. It was the first Beatles love song that wasn’t about a boy-meets-girl or boy-loses-girl kind of love. It wasn’t about romantic love at all. It was about a love that was deeper, more profound, more universal. Paul co-wrote the song with John. Paul gave an interview around that time in which he said: “[‘The Word’] could be a Salvation Army song. The word is ‘love,’ but it could be ‘Jesus.’ It isn’t, mind you, but it could be.” The word could be Jesus. Of the four Beatles, Paul, a nominal Catholic, had the least amount of exposure to church and the Bible. But I wonder if he could appreciate just how close he was to the truth.
After all, the song echoes the writing of another, even more famous, John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This same John identifies the Word as Jesus, who is God. Elsewhere he even says that “God is love.” So, according to the Bible, Jesus Christ is the Word. The Word is God. And God is love. So John and Paul got it right: the word is love—so long as we understand what and, more importantly, who the Word is.
The song goes on to say that the Word is “the way” to salvation. Similarly, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The song compares the Word to sunshine and light. Similarly, the Bible says that the Word is the “true light, which enlightens everyone.” Several times the song says that the Word will set you free. Similarly, Jesus said that his disciples will know the truth, and “the truth will set you free.” And now, having been set free, what is the singer eager to do? Three times the he says he wants to spread the word. “Now that I know what I feel must be right,” he sings, “I’m here to show everybody the light.” The song speaks of the importance of evangelism.
So the song gets all of this exactly right: The Word is love, and love—the love by which God became fully human and suffered and died on the cross to save us—is the way to salvation. If we want to experience abundant and eternal life, by all means, we need to embrace this love and be embraced by it. We need to live our lives with this kind of love. We need to share this love with others.
The apostle Paul would certainly agree with the Beatles about love. Christians at the church at Corinth were failing to love one another. As Paul discusses in the previous chapter, there were some Christians in the church who thought they were better than other Christians because they had what they believed were more important spiritual gifts, more knowledge, and greater faith. And in the first three verses of chapter 13, Paul puts them to shame: In so many words, he says, “I don’t care if you can speak in the tongues of angels, or prophesy, or have the faith to move mountains, or give all your possessions to the poor, or even sacrifice your life for the sake of the gospel—if these otherwise good things are motivated by something other than love, they’re worthless!” Like the Beatles said, the word is love—and don’t forget it!
What strikes me about Paul’s words in verses 1 through 3 is this: Paul concedes that it’s possible for these Corinthians to perform and accomplish remarkable and even miraculous things for God’s kingdom even while failing miserably to please God. Right? Because please notice what Paul is not saying. He’s not saying, “Well, these Corinthians aren’t behaving in loving way, therefore they can’t really be speaking in the tongues of angels; or they can’t really be prophesying authentically; or they can’t really be working true miracles; or they can’t really be accomplishing great things for the poor; or they can’t really be sacrificing their lives for the kingdom.” No, Paul says… They might be doing all these amazing things, but these amazing things are not evidence that they’re being faithful Christians.
That ought to give all of us pause—both laypeople or ordained ministers—as we consider our own lives and careers and ministries. After all, I could be leading people to salvation by the thousands like I’m the next Andy Stanley, but if I do so without love, I’m a failure in God’s eyes; you could be doubling the profits of your business, but if you do so without love, you’re a failure in God’s eyes. You may be the valedictorian, or the star athlete, or the best musician, or the most popular kid in school, but if you accomplish these things without love, you are a failure in God’s eyes. That’s a little scary, isn’t it—that motives mean more to God than results?
After all, we often think, “Without my achievements, my prosperity, my status, my position, my good looks, my popularity, I’m nothing.” God says, “No… Without love, you’re nothing. Put love first, and let me worry about everything else.”
Last Friday, Lisa, Townshend, and I saw the movie 42, about Jackie Robinson. After Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as their starting first baseman, Branch Rickey, the owner and general manager of the Dodgers, received a call from his counterpart with the Phillies, Herb Pennock. Pennock told him that when the Dodgers come to Philadelphia, the Phillies won’t take the field if Jackie Robinson dresses out for the game. “We’re just not ready for that sort of thing in Philadelphia,” he tells Rickey. And Rickey, a deeply Christian man—a Methodist, by the way—says, “Do you think God likes baseball, Herb?” And the Phillies general manager says, “What’s that supposed to mean?” “It means one day you’re going to meet God, and when he enquires why you didn’t take the field against Robinson in Philadelphia, and you answer that it’s because he was a Negro, it may not be a sufficient reply!”
In his own way, Branch Rickey was saying that love is more important than making sound business decisions. Love is more important than pleasing people. Love is more important than being sensible and practical and respectable. Branch Rickey understood that if it’s true that the “word is love,” then that love is going to cost him something from time to time.
Branch Rickey was willing to pay the price—not to mention Jackie Robinson. The question is, are we?
See, here, unfortunately, is where the Beatles get it wrong. They make love seem so easy. “Be like me,” the singer says repeatedly. “I misunderstood before, but now I’ve got it”—I’ve figured it out. Oh, please!
We Christians know that even if we’ve “got it”—in the sense that we understand the truth of the gospel, and we’ve accepted God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life, and we know we’re saved—that’s really just the beginning. That’s when the hard work starts—because we still need to learn to love with this costly kind of love that the apostle Paul talks about in today’s scripture. I don’t doubt John and Paul’s sincerity when they wrote this song, but history shows that they didn’t find it any easier to love than the rest of us! As Larry Norman, a pioneering Christian rocker from the ’70s, once sang, with sarcasm: “The Beatles said ‘all you need is love,’ and then they broke up.”
No… Love is hard!
I was on vacation last week with my family. We did a lot of amusement parks—Busch Gardens in Tampa, Legoland in Winter Park, and, for four nights, Disney World. Early in the trip, I noticed something important about myself: although my skin did not turn green, and I did not grow such giant muscles that my shirt and pants ripped at the seams, I felt myself being transformed into the Incredible Hulk—minus the “incredible” part. I became this stressed-out, irritable, and impatient monster. I was constantly snapping at my kids over the smallest things. When we were at Busch Gardens on Tuesday morning I posted this on Facebook: “My default mode with my children is to yell. MUST BE PATIENT!” A sympathetic pastor friend posted back: “Insanity is inherited from our children.” If only that were true! I replied back, “They at least bring out the insanity that’s already there!”
But I decided I didn’t want to be the Hulk anymore, so I prayed about it. In fact, whenever I found myself starting to lose patience, I prayed these little sentence prayers I’ve learned, such as: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” “Holy Spirit, breath of the living God, renew me and all the world.” I also prayed the Lord’s Prayer to myself. I also decided that whenever my kids asked me if I wanted to do something, instead of my natural response, which was to be a killjoy and say “no” to everything. I would say, “Absolutely I do.” Or “Absolutely I will.” “Do you want to ride ‘It’s a Small World.’ Absolutely I do. “Do you want to wait in this long line and meet the Disney princesses?” Absolutely I do!
I liked this more patient, less irritable, more loving version of myself.
That’s God’s grace. He enabled me to take baby steps toward the person I’m meant to be. I want all of us to take seriously the ways in which we fall short of 1 Corinthians 13 and pray about what we can do to change the harmful, ingrained habits that keep us from loving in this way. But as we do, let’s also hear the good news in today’s scripture: Paul promises that one day, on the other side of our own resurrection, we will finally and fully become these perfectly loving people.
I don’t want us to read today’s scripture and simply feel guilty about all the ways we don’t measure up to this standard of love. I want us to instead think about the only human being in history who ever did measure up: Jesus. In fact, wherever you see the word “love” in verses 4 through 7, you can substitute the word “Jesus” and these words are equally true. I especially like verse 7: “Jesus keeps no record of wrongs.” Jesus “bears all things” and “endures all things”—even your sins and my sins on the cross.
Why did God come to us in Jesus Christ and do all this for us? Because he just absolutely loves us. He loves you. And he loves me. Think about the intensity of the love you feel when you fall in love with someone. That person you fall in love with isn’t perfect by any stretch, but does it affect the way you feel about them? No. Think about the intensity of the love you have for your child. That child isn’t perfect by any stretch, but does it affect the extent to which you love them? No. Now multiply that feeling of love by a million or more. It’s no exaggeration to say that God loves us like that. You know, Paul says that one day we will meet our Lord face to face. And of course we look forward to that moment. But imagine how the Lord feels: He looks forward to that moment more than we do! After all, suffered and died on a cross to make that moment possible!
So we’re going to close with a love song that Paul wrote—the other Paul—for his future wife Linda, which is from The White Album. This song speaks of eternal love. It speaks of a patient kind of love. It speaks of a love that suffers and endures all things for the sake of his beloved. As we hear this song, I want us to imagine that the Lord singing it to us…