The Greatest of These
Sermon for March 29 “The Greatest of These”: 1st Corinthians 13
Since I was supposed to be on vacation last week, and because I thought we would be meeting for church this week, I didn’t spend as much time preparing a message last time. I was also hoping more folks would respond so as to feel more connected, but that didn’t happen. So this week I will provide a more typical sermon, although I still invite your responses and ask that you provide them to everyone (“reply to all”). As I put the final touches on this sermon, I stand at the pulpit of a church full of empty pews, but I am not alone. I can see you all where you usually sit, see those from previous churches, as well as those who have gone to be with our Lord, some for many years. Wherever we may be, alone or by twos maybe, we stand together as a crowd of witnesses worshipping the God of love and eternal promises, all as one in the Spirit.
It is difficult right now to feel connected and hopeful. Stuck at home, not much to do. Having our routines broken and put into limbo makes some of us irritated and uncertain, especially when you are cooped up with the same people all day. It starts to seem like the annoying things they do are all that they do. As your heart aches for those you can’t be with, you turn your stress onto those you are with, instead of being more loving as they deserve and need right now. Perhaps you also find yourself looking inside and seem to only find the annoying things there. We need to love ourselves now, too. In addition, we have all the anxiety about what is going on, who will get sick next, when will it end. For some of us, we have lost access to our favorite ways of destressing and relaxing: no going to the gym, no visiting friends, no sitting and getting waited on at a restaurant, etc. There are just a lot of “noes” right now and few “yeses.” Even those of us who generally don’t mind being alone are going stir crazy and maybe just plain crazy. We need to feel connected again, with each other, and with God. We need the love(s) that sustain us more than ever through this difficult time.
We are continuing with Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians. After many chapters of dealing with problems, Paul teaches us about the nature of the Church. Although there are many different people, each has been given different roles and callings within the church, called and gifted by the Spirit. No gifts should be scoffed at, and the greatest of gifts is love. We are bound together in the Spirit, using our gifts to advance the Kingdom of God and growing in Christian maturity. As we walk through this current dark valley, we follow the light of Christ, abiding in his love, hope and security for now and eventually into eternity in a place that he has prepared for us. Until then, we rely on each other for strength, encouragement and love in Christ. Paul writes:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. (1Co 13:1-3 NAS)
We may have gifts, talents, treasures, or whatever, but in the kingdom of God, they mean nothing if they are not used with love. Why? What does it mean to use them with love? Unselfishly? Freely? Without the right hand knowing what the left is doing? If they are used “in the Spirit” are they not to be used for the building up of the church as a body and for the individuals? If all that we do is for the glory of God, how can we not act lovingly, since God is love? Is it not loving to put others before ourselves, as Paul has told us to do, and be willing to be humble and let the other person have their way even when we know we are right and our way is better? How can we act in a loving manner when we are angry, resentful, frustrated, or in some other foul mood?
Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (1Co 13:4-8 NAS)
Even most non-church folk have heard this, shouldn’t we be known for acting according: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Joh 13:35 NAS)? Our Lord commands us to both love one another, love our neighbors, and love our enemies (that’s just about everyone, right?). And yet we fail again and again: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Gal 5:13 NAS). Perhaps it will take this time of “social distancing” to realize just how much we need love: how much we need to love others and to be loved in return. We are commanded to love all people, not just those who look like us or believe the same things. When we stop loving, that person often is no longer even human to us: they become a number, an object, a problem, something to be reviled and/or ignore. The true follower of Jesus is the one who can even love the unlovable. Paul continues:
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. (1Co 13:8-10 NAS)
Interesting that Paul has the long view in mind here, when we are more likely to be thinking about now or the near future, or maybe a little farther out, if we have our kids and grandkids in mind. But spiritual gifts have been given for the building up of the church in this present age: once this age is over, after Christ’s return or before then if we have already passed into glory, they most likely will no longer be needed, for Christ will be all we need. We will be one in Christ completely, and there will no longer be a need for the church. The church is a place for worship and hearing the Word; in heaven we will need no such place. We will be perfect in Christ and will not need the church to teach us. Such spiritual gifts are also necessary now for combatting the forces of evil, as well as the disappointments and challenges of life. Love gets us through the tough times. Someday all bad things will be overthrown, and there will be no more sickness or tears, and we will be fully clothed and awash with God’s love in his Son. For now, we get a partial taste of this love, one day we will be complete and fully alive and abiding in God’s love forever. We shall see things clearly, and fully understand that love.
When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1Co 13:11-13 NAS)
Why is love “the greatest of these”? Faith is crucial, for through faith in Christ we are saved. By faith we like Abraham are deemed to be righteous before God. Yet love is greater? Our hope in Jesus sustains us, as we await the fulfilling of God’s promises, a full and fruitful life in Him, and our long-awaited but assured entrance into Heaven. Love is still greater? Our love is often fickle, yet is still what binds us together. Only through love is anyone able to give themselves for others (“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (Joh 15:12-13 NAS) Jesus also taught that the way to eternal life is to: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luk 10:27 NAS) Love is where everything started: “And now I ask you, lady, not as writing to you a new commandment, but the one which we have had from the beginning, that we love one another” (2Jo 1:5 NAS) and “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1Jo 3:11 NAS). Love brings healing and reconciliation: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (1Pe 4:8 NAS) We are to love one another as God first loved us: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1Jo 4:7 NAS) And finally, although there are many more potentially good quotes: “be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” (Eph 5:1-2 NAS) Human love is a wonderful thing but is only a foretaste of the full glory of God’s love in Christ. God’s love is indeed the greatest of things, for now shared by us as best we can, but one day fully and completely.
Right now, being bound together is difficult with “social distancing” but we are also joined spiritually, especially in prayer. Email and Facebook are helpful but not enough, and many of our church members are not even online. Snail-mail and phone calls can touch our hearts, but it is not the same as looking into someone’s eyes or sharing a hug. How I treasure the memories of shared laughter and connection. That twinkle in Shirlee’s eyes as she smiles. Gordon asking if I have been staying out of trouble. Dale sharing his struggles this week with his aging body, yet still so strong inside. Jane sporting her headscarf with the blue and red dog-bones print. Walt scratching his fiddle, Ray sending warm vibrations through the floor with his gutbucket. So many others still here and those in Heaven. Even though we are currently apart, let us be thankful for the love we share in Christ: may it give us courage and peace. The Spirit has brought us together, let us stay connected in the Spirit, a connection that will last beyond this lifetime. Let us always remember each other in our hearts and minds, praying for each other and checking up on each other, even if it can only be by phone. Let us pray for each other’s health, the safety and health of our loved ones and our neighbors, and that we will be able to come together in Christ’s love as a church soon. Our world will certainly seem very different when we get through this current crisis, it already does, and hopefully we will have gained a better understanding of what is truly important and meaningful and be more loving to all people. Love is a holy thing. Love brought us into this world, love endures beyond death. Love binds us together even when we cannot be together physically. May this dark time help God’s people be even stronger, more forgiving and patient, and more unified, bound together firmly and forever in His love. Amen.