“The Eternal Virtue”
Quinquagesima Sunday Sermon| February 22, 2009| 1 Corinthians 13:13
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:13
In today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus tells his disciples about his impending death. It will not be an easy death. He will be betrayed, mocked, insulted, whipped, and killed. He will then rise from the dead on the third day. While his words were clear enough, St. Luke records that his disciples did not understand what he was talking about. It made no sense to them.
This world doesn’t know what love is. We think that we are loving someone when we do something for him that makes us feel good about ourselves. Our feelings about ourselves become the standard for true love. How good did Jesus feel when he was mocked, spat upon, beaten, and crucified? And yet, according to St. John, it was precisely in the suffering of Jesus that God most clearly revealed his love for us. We read in 1 John 4:10-11, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
God’s love does not float here and there landing wherever we give our consent. God’s love is purposeful. It is strong. It is an almighty and creative thing. Yet this world – so in love with itself that it is blinded to God’s pure love – sees God’s love and simply cannot take it in. It turns away in horror because God’s love is revealed in the suffering and death of His Son.
What does this world know about love? While singing about love, it deals out wars, violence, cruelty, greed, and every kind of vice imaginable. This world cannot teach us what true and lasting love is. Ibsen’s character, Brand, speaks for us Christians when he says:
Of what the paltering world calls love,
I will not know, I cannot speak;
I know but His who reigns above,
And His is neither mild nor weak;
Hard even unto death is this,
And smiting with its awful kiss.
What was the answer of God’s love
Of old, when in the olive-grove
In anguish-sweat His own Son lay
And prayed, O, Take this cup away?
Did God take from him then the cup?
No, child; His Son must drink it up!
God is the source of love because God is love. God’s love can be known only in Christ. We learn to know Christ in His suffering for us. For there and only there it is that the hatred within our hearts is forgiven.
When we know Christ we know love. St. Paul beautifully states for us what true love is all about. Let us turn to these words from God to us to learn the value of love, the nature of love, and the permanence of love. St. Paul writes:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Love is of incomparable value. Nothing else even comes close. People are naturally religious, but that doesn’t mean that their hearts are filled with love. People use religion to elevate themselves. In the early church God gave certain special gifts that were quite impressive. Christians received supernatural abilities. Some could speak in languages they had never learned. Others received prophetic revelations of future events. Some had special knowledge of divine mysteries. None of these wonderful gifts could compare with having love.
Jesus told His disciples of the power of faith. He said to them: “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will . . . say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done.” (Matthew 21:21) God is almighty and he is our Father who governs all of nature for our benefit. Consider the power of faith! But having access to God’s almighty power over nature is not as valuable as having love. We need nothing more than we need love. If we were to offer all that we are and all that we have to help the poor, it would pale into nothingness without love.
Simply put, with love we are wealthy and have all things. Without love we are impoverished and have nothing at all. Nothing is as valuable as love.
What is the nature of this love?
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love is valuable because of what it does and suffers. Love is not an emotion or a feeling. Love does and love suffers. The Apostle describes the nature of love mostly in negative terms. He says what love is not and what love does not do. But when we look at the list of what love is not, what do we see? We see ourselves. We envy those who have what we want but don’t have. We parade our own good works before the eyes of others in order to gain praise. We look out for ourselves first and become angry when we don’t get our way.
Love does none of these things. Love puts us with whatever it must suffer because it is genuinely kind, even toward those who mean us harm. Love finds no joy at all in the suffering of others, even when it is well deserved. Love finds joy only in the truth. Love is willing to be taken advantage of. It never gives up. Love is willing to be considered a sap and a fool if it will help our neighbor. Love always puts the best construction on what others do.
The value of love and the nature of love are impossible to know without knowing the One who is love incarnate. The hymnist says that he was begotten of the Father’s love before the worlds were made. The Father loved the Son and the Son loved the Father and so it was, is, and ever shall be. It is an eternal love. There was never a time when the Father did not love his Son. There never was a time when the Son did not love his Father. This love is eternal because God is eternal and God is love.
But there was a time and a place when this love was fully revealed so that if we look there we can see it. We can see its value. We can see its true nature. I am speaking of where the pure love of Jesus confronted all of the hatred, bitterness, violence, and lies of humanity. He suffered long. He was patient. He responded to threats with blessings. He spoke with humility and respect, even when He was treated with contempt. In so doing He fulfilled the righteous demands of God’s law. He did what He told St. John the Baptist He would do. He fulfilled all righteousness. By bearing the hatred of all sin and overcoming it with His pure love, the requirements of love were finally and fully met.
This event stands at the center of all history. Love confronted all hatred. In the sacred body of Christ – Son of God and Son of Mary – love defeated all evil.
And so love remains, even as the world is on its way to oblivion. Only love remains. Everything else fails. As the Apostle wrote:
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away 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 just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Love is not one virtue among many. It is the only virtue. It not a part of something larger. There is nothing larger, greater, or more valuable. This is because love lasts forever. Even as God is eternal, love is eternal. We are not eternal. There was not a time when God did not exist. There was a time when we did not exist. God cannot die. We are mortal because of our sin. But when Christ’s love comes to us in the gospel we are embraced by a love that will change our mortal bodies that they may be fashioned like Christ’s glorious body. This love brings forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. The power of God’s love in Christ is almighty and it lasts forever.
This is why we treasure it so. This is why we love one another. We must not confuse our love with God’s love. His love is perfect. That is to say, His love fully meets its goal. It brings us today what will remain when everything else is destroyed. Our love is not perfect. It is filled with all sorts of sins. Just consider the nature of the love described in this chapter and compare this love to the love we show to one another. No, our love has not met its goal.
But there will come a time when we will love purely. There will be a time and a place when every bit of selfishness, vanity, envy, and pride will disappear from our hearts. What is now dimly revealed to us as through a glass that is covered by soot will then be crystal clear to us. We will then know God’s pure love. It will flow through us forever. Faith will be replaced by sight. Hope will be fulfilled by our experience of the fullness of God’s love forever.
There is only one way to prepare for that day and to have confidence that it will come. That is to look to Jesus who was delivered up to the Gentiles, mocked, insulted, and spat upon, scourged, and crucified. And there, in the shame our dear Lord endured for us all, find that our shame has been removed because all of our sins have been washed away. There is the love that will take us to heaven. Amen
Rolf D. Preus