Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Greatness

On Greatness

Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: January 31, 2010

I Corinthians 13:1-13

“...and the greatest of these is love.” So ends probably the most often-quoted chapter of what is arguably Paul’s most well-known letter in the New Testament. This passage – a hymn to love within the community of believers – is frequently referred to in a rather shorthand way among pastors as the “wedding passage.” I’m sometimes asked to read “that passage from Corinthians” by couples making wedding plans. Of course they are speaking of this text from I Corinthians, there are, as you know, two Corinthian letters in the New Testament.

It’s odd, in a way, that it carries that familiar association with weddings, marriage services. Though it is a perfectly great passage to read and meditate on at any time – including wedding services – and many of us have heard it read at numerous weddings, it is not addressed in any sort of primary way to marrying couples. The church, the community of believers, is the primary addressee. Paul carried a burden to teach believers to sustain the church’s call to reflect the love of Christ. It is that love which is – not to make it sound too much like a modern cliché – the greatest.

Just before declaring the supreme greatness of love, Paul wrote about three especially important words for believers: “And now faith, hope and love abide,” he said, “these three.” He said love is the greatest of the three, though no community of believers can really exist without the other two. It is a trinity of sorts: faith, hope, and love.


Think first on faith. Reinhold Niebuhr declared that in all three of these terms there is some childish quality which must be overcome or outgrown to come to maturity.[1] After all, it was Paul who brought up the subject of childishness when he compared maturity among believers to the growth of children:

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.

The Bible’s view of faith is not, as the mythical Sunday school child once declared when pressed on the issue, “Believing what you know ain’t so.” It is not about the suspension of reason or a dependence on probabilities: “What are the odds that what we learn about God from the Bible is true? 20 to 1? 10 to 1? Even odds?” No, that kind of arithmetic is childish. Faith is encapsulated in the word “trust.” What are the odds that your mother will love you, that your kindness will be returned, that a good deed brings a reward? These are the sorts of questions that adults set aside because the subjects of a mother’s love, the rendering of kindness, or doing good deeds are about more than probabilities, they are about the assurance of trust. Trust stands behind all our fragmentary understandings, all our partial knowledge, even our science. The scientific method plods on in its quest for truth because of trust, trust in an orderly universe. Because the world has been known to produce consistent results in experiments in the past, scientists set about looking for trustworthy consistency in their experiments today. If someone should prove the universe totally random, inconsistent, and untrustworthy today, all scientific discovery would collapse like a house of cards into a jumble of partial, limited assertions.

Those who have deep faith know that in the midst of their trust they run into periods when the apparent meaninglessness of existence seems to be overwhelming. If we do not admit to the times when life seems void of meaning, then we turn our faith from matters of trust into blind allegiance, or we fall back to cynicism. The world in which God has involved himself was not created for our personal security, but for God’s own sometimes unfathomable purposes. The Bible declares that the ultimate purposes of God can be trusted, and provides examples such as the Exodus from Egypt, and the resurrection of Jesus to demonstrate God’s past trustworthiness. To depend on such things is the heart of faith.

Over the course of my 35 years in ministry, it has been my solemn privilege to preside at the funerals of a long list of members of the congregations I have served. I missed each of them in their usual seats in those church sanctuaries, some of which – I think they would be happy to know – came to be occupied by folks newly arrived in those congregations. For most of these saints there was no lobbying God for special favors as death neared. Several of them trudged through their last days in considerable pain, deafness, blindness, sometimes all three. A childish faith begs exceptions, wonders at the fact that they must go through what every creature must experience, and that is that life has an ending. It is part of what gives life its urgency. One dead-pan comedian said once, “I’m planning to live forever; so far so good,” but that is only funny because we all know how childish such a thought is.

Faith looks deeply into the record of God’s past dealings with humanity, and there finds reason for faith that this same God will not cease being the God who liberated slaves and raised Jesus from death.


Think next on hope. Hope emerges from faith, projecting it into the unknown future:

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face.”

The future may be unknown in its specifics, but this word from Paul speaks of hope in a way that while it may not be fully known, it may be trusted absolutely. Hope as the New Testament expresses it is not just wishful thinking, as when we may express a hope for a good grade on a test when we know we have no right to expect one, or when we say we hope Jimmy won’t come home late from his date again tonight. These are wishes, not hopes. They are immature expressions masquerading as hope. Mature hope knows fully that the future in its specifics cannot be known, not by the mortal mind. But it is also possessed of an assurance that whatever the future may be, it is encompassed somehow by God, and God’s purpose will win out.

Paul’s phrase is perhaps more familiar to those who committed scripture to memory in their youth as “now we see through a glass darkly.” Remember, Paul was not writing of a glass window pane or mirror as we know them today. Such glass was unknown in his day. His metaphor called to the minds of his first readers a polished metal mirror. Modern mirrors – especially scientific mirrors – can be expected to produce a nearly perfect image. The hand polished bronze mirrors of Paul’s day, on the other hand, were probably more often like the image distorting mirrors in the fun-house at the state fair.

The metaphor is helpful, then. We can only know anything – even our own faces – only in a vague, distorted sort of way in this life. Much less can we fully see into the future. But Paul’s assurance calls forth a mature hope which knows that while today may be partially understood and the future clouded in mystery, the day will come when we shall see “face to face,” and “will know fully,” even as we “have been fully known.”


Think last of all, on love:

Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.

Love also can be beset by immaturity. When we speak of love, maturity becomes even more important or else we fall into sentimentality passing itself off as love. There are three New Testament words for love:
  • eros, which refers to physical, erotic love, a love that sets our hearts beating faster;
  • phileo, which refers to the kind of love which finds expression in families, as in love of one brother or sister for another. “Philadelphia” uses this Greek word in its name and so, not coincidentally, its motto is the “city of brotherly love”;
  • agape, which refers to the kind of hard-headed love about which Jesus taught, a love that insistently wills and works for the good of another, even if that other is an enemy. It is the love that singer Amy Grant once called “Love of Another Kind.”
Only a person of mature faith can fully turn in life toward agape. Agape love means that life has no meaning except in terms of responsibility: toward family, toward city, state, and nation, toward the world – a big place which, of course, will include our enemies.[2] It means people who have no children at home – or never did – will love others’ children who are not their own, love them enough to pay taxes to see to it that there are schools for them; it means working to assure adequate health care for all, of which we may never need to take advantage. It means all those now-unpopular elements of the old “social gospel” which called for agape-love for others regardless whether it is convenient, expedient, or useful. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is the summary statement of the ethic of the New Testament.

Our lives as believers are made up of this threefold reality: faith, hope, and love. It is a matter of finding them in their proper relationship to each other. Love is the superior mark of the believer, because without the present reality of love, all the historical faith in God’s gracious acts in the past, all the future hopes for God’s powerful acts in the future, will mean nothing. This is because none will receive a present-day manifestation without the greatest, without love for one another. Paul wants us to remember the priority. The greatest of these is love. Without love, all our faithfulness becomes humorless, all our hope turns inward. Without love, we are like noisy trash can lids slammed on pavement. But with love, ah with it... well, that is the greatest life there is to live.

[1] “We See Through a Glass Darkly,” Justice and Mercy: Reinhold Neibuhr, Ursula Niebuhr ed, Harper & Row, 1974, p. 29 ff.
[2] Ibid., p. 35.