1 Corinthians 13
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. 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. 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.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Our scripture for today is something that we all know well. If a person has never read the Bible they can probably rattle through a few of the characteristics of love. They may fall off after “insist on its own way,” but patient and kind, everyone knows that! Beloved in and out of the Church, the way Paul talks about Love here carries an amazing amount of weight. Everyone knows what love is and we all strive to be loving people. Love is the crown of human experience, more important than being strong or smart or talented, there is the ability to love.
We have spent our Lententide looking at the virtues. Courage, Temperance, Prudence, and Justice. All these things are found behind every good action which we take part in. Still, there are three virtues which are lifted up above them all, these are the virtues of faith, of hope, and of love. Without these three, the other four are left inert. There is no point to being courageous, if your courage is not in hope of something else. There is no true prudence that does not hold faith in the outcomes of our discernment. Most of all, there is no justice which is not rooted in love of other people.
Faith is the foundation of our lives in Christ. We talked in February about how faith justifies us and equips us for all the works which God has put before us. The two are not competing impulses in our life, but work hand in hand to see us perfected. There is more to faith than just simply believing what we have been told about God. Any person can say that they believe in God, any person can say they have faith in Christ. Faith is instead a combination of belief, commitment, and above all trust. To have faith in Christ is to have trust that Christ will see us through. To have faith in Christ is to accept the life we are called to live. To have faith in Christ is much more than reciting creeds and memorizing scripture.
Faith in Greek is pistis, (πιστις) and comes from a word meaning, “to convince.” Yet, that convincing is not about making arguments that cause someone to agree with us, instead it is about bringing someone into a place of trust. One of the biggest gripes I have about how ministry was taught to me in High School, was that it focused on having the right answers for people when they came to you asking questions or picking fights. Sometimes its good to have a few answers up your sleeve, but no one has ever converted to Christianity because they heard a really good argument. Instead, we accept Christ into our lives because we have been given a reason to trust the good news, and that trust begins when we trust those who tell it to us.
One of the things we have lost in the Church is the trust of the average person. Some of that loss of trust is unfounded, sure, but a majority of it we earned fair and square. People see the Church as a greedy thing, restricting people’s lives while squeezing them of every last penny. They see the people in the pews as judgmental and cruel, and they doubt the sincerity of the love they give when it is so often tied to a conditional – “but!” The Church is shrinking for many reasons, but one is that we are unable to convince people we are trustworthy, and so we make it hard for them to trust the savior who sent us.
For those who do find that trust, there blossoms yet another gift of God. This is hope. When we trust God, we hold onto the promises God has made and do not give into despair. That’s not always easy to do, not when the full weight of the world bears down on us. Even Christ, in the midst of his passion, cried out asking why God had forsaken him, yet he knew that the resurrection was ahead of him. Hope, that furtive force that sustains us in the midst of all our troubles, is something we exercise just as much as we exercise any other capacity of our being. We become better at holding hope when we learn to hold it out no matter what comes our way. That does not mean we deny reality, even hard realities, but it means we believe God can make the hard things of life into something new and beautiful.
I am fairly open about my persistent depressive disorder, and anyone else who struggles with mental health will have their own stories they could tell. Hope is an even harder thing to grapple with when thing that sorts out all our emotions and perspectives is actively taking us down far less helpful roads. How do you hold onto hope, when your brain lacks the chemicals to see a happier outcome? How do you manifest a vision of a better future, when the wires just won’t connect to imagine such a thing? Willpower isn’t enough – only good friends, good therapy, and maybe a few milligrams of medication here and there can break through that wall. For me, Hope is an endangered thing without my Lexapro to lean upon.
Yet, small as it can be amidst the constant beating on the walls which has defined our past few years, hope never disappears. I have an image in my mind, from a book about Greek myths when I was a kid, of Hope floating out of Pandora’s Box. The illustrator chose to show hope as a small wisp of smoke, pinkish purple, forming the shape of a butterfly as it drifted out into the world. I think that that captures something of what hope is. It does not always bowl us over, frequently we barely even notice it coming into the room. Yet, when we feel it flutter onto us, we know that we can keep going, it sustains us through even the toughest days of our life.
Yet, Paul is clear that even these two things are not eternal. There will come a day, when we all are together in the New World that God is bringing, that we look out to the future and know that there is no darkness to fear, and so we have no need to hope of what will come later. Likewise, we will not need to have faith in anything, for we will trust out of what we know to be true rather than out of anything we have to reason or be convinced of. We will trust simply because there is no other reality than the goodness of God present in all things.
There will be no need to be temperate with the many gifts of God, nor no evil to stand up against, no fearful thing to be brave in the face of, not a single injustice to be righted. In the world that is to come, the utility of our virtues is transformed into something else. In a perfect world, there is only a single thing which transcends the needs of a person and define the very essence of a person. That is the virtue, the pinnacle, the absolute immensity of love. When all is said and done, the universe will not be composed of any force except for love. God will pour out the Spirit and all the world will be bathed in the communion it was always meant for, no separation between you and me, but only the knowledge that in Christ we are all one.
Paul makes clear in our scripture today that if we want to be good at anything in this life, anything that is really important, we should practice being loving first. A person who loves another person is not going to treat them poorly, a person who loves another person will stand up and take risks when necessary for them, they will fight for their justice, they will ensure all the right steps are taken to see them through this life. When we hear that “God is love,” or that, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” we should take that seriously. No other metric matters in this life as much as our ability to love one another – even and especially when we love the difficult people in our life.
Over time I have fallen in love with different parts of our Methodist liturgy. Lately, it’s the assurance and pardon which we give during communion that really tugs at my heart. “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love toward us.” When we go into our life, we have faith that this is the case. We can truly have hope that Christ cares for us. We know all this because God has proven God’s love to us, again and again, and again. Let us join God’s work and let us love one another. – Amen.