The Greatest of These is Love

I’d like to tell you a story I heard several years ago about a church in crisis.  They were a relatively small church in a large, cosmopolitan city.  They were a young church, having only been planted a few years before, but had been around long enough to enter their second generation of leadership as their founding pastor moved on to another call and was succeeded by a popular, charismatic preacher.  The members of this church came from all across the ethnic and socioeconomic spectrum.  From the perspective of church growth marketing analysts, this place was set to be a gold mine!  They had everything: a prime location in a major urban center, a diverse membership, and a popular, dynamic preacher.  What could go wrong?  Well, as it turns out, there was a lot that could go wrong… and it did.

Now, my first thought would be: It must have been the pastor.  What did he do wrong?  He must have become embroiled in some kind of public scandal involving money or sex.  That’s all you really hear about from ministers in the media these days.  But no, it wasn’t the pastor.  In fact, their charismatic clergyman hardly shows up in this story at all.

In spite of everything they had going for them on paper, this church was struggling in reality.  In fact, things were going so badly, this church’s founding denomination was thinking about pulling the plug on the entire operation.

The reality was that this church was tearing itself apart from the inside out.  What started out as groups of like-minded friends had become rival factions in an all-out war for power and control of the church.  Their pious posturing was a thin veil over blatant hypocrisy.  This ongoing dispute between cliques became so all-consuming that the real problems facing the church couldn’t be addressed.

Newer members of the church were struggling with various spiritual and theological questions, but there was no one to help them search for answers.

Wealthy members of the congregation, primarily concerned with keeping up appearances, would intentionally schedule church suppers during times when they knew that the poorer congregants would still be at work.  By the time the latter group arrived at the suppers, there was often no food left for them.

At one point, it became publicly known that a prominent member of the church was tangled up in a scandalous affair (with his own stepmother, no less), but so much energy was being spent on dealing with the rival factions that the affair went unaddressed and this family was unable to receive the kind of attention and pastoral care they so desperately needed.

Outsiders and other church leaders were aghast when they heard about how bad things had become.  Some wondered whether this sorry mess of humanity could even be called a church anymore.  They were beginning to think that closing the church might even be the most compassionate option.

Instead of closing it down, the denomination decided to send in another pastor to help.  As it turned out the pastor they sent was the church’s founding pastor, who had left for another call some years before.  He had several insights to help them deal with their various crises, but the best thing he did for them was trace all their little problems back to a single big problem: Love, or the lack thereof.  The main problem was that these people just hated each other.

It was their mutual hatred for each other that consumed the members of this church from the inside out.  They couldn’t function as a church.  There was nothing anyone could do to fix that problem.  They had everything going for them: a great urban location, a dynamic super-pastor, and several wealthy financial supporters with deep pockets, but none of those things could make the church grow or stop it from dying if the members didn’t embody that single most important core value: Love.

None of it meant anything without Love.

Now, I want to pause for a moment and pull the curtain back on this church that I’ve been talking about.  I haven’t told you the church’s name or who the pastor was.  It’s not a church in our area or our denomination.  In fact, it’s not even a church that exists in our century.  The church I’ve been talking about is the first century Christian church in the Greek city of Corinth, founded by the apostle Paul himself.  He was that founding pastor who returned to help his former congregation in crisis.

The letter of advice he wrote to them is what we now call the book of 1 Corinthians in the New Testament of the Bible.  The most famous part of that letter is the section we read this morning: the Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13.  This passage is most often read at weddings, where everyone looks great, music is playing, and love is in the air.  Most of us probably heard those words this morning and let them breeze right past us because they are so familiar and so associated with saccharine euphoria that we miss their real meaning completely.

These words, when lived in reality, are radical and revolutionary.  They have the power to transform the way we interact with one another and rescue the future for a community that most people have simply given up on.  This beautiful love poetry was not written for a wedding.  It doesn’t spring up from the same part of human experience that inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.  There is nothing sweet or saccharine about these words at all.

These words about love arose out of conflict within a church that was bitterly divided against itself.  These words are Paul’s challenge to every rival clique’s claim to superiority over others.  Listen to his words again.  If you’ve heard them before, listen to their meaning for the first time:

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.

Can you hear the urgency in Paul’s voice?  He’s telling the Corinthians to stop acting like children and grow up.  These little spats that their cliques are having over church power simply don’t matter.  At all.  All their theological knowledge, their faith, their pledge cards, and their volunteer service to the church are rendered meaningless if they don’t know how to love each other.

Love and love alone makes a church.  And this love isn’t just some warm fuzzy feeling they get when they sing Amazing Grace or Kum Ba Yah.  This isn’t some hippy flower fest; this is the church of Christ.  In here, love only counts as real when it takes on flesh and blood in the actions of those who claim to possess it.

Love is patient.  Are you patient?  Love is kind.  Are you kind?  Love is not irritable or resentful.  Are you?  Love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.  Are you any of those things?  Love does not insist on its own way.  How often do you insist on getting your own way in a church conflict?

Is this making you uncomfortable?  It should be.  What Paul is talking about here is nothing less than a complete reordering of our priorities.  He’s not just trying to change the way we live, he’s trying to change the way we fight.

The Corinthian Christians had a rather skewed perspective on the fight that was tearing them apart.  They all saw themselves as heroes defending a battleground (i.e. the church) from dangerous enemies (i.e. their rivals).  In reality, they were not the heroes: they were the battleground.  God was the hero defending them.  And their so-called rivals?  They were not the enemy.  They were actually God’s allies in the fight for each other’s souls.

In truth, the Love that Paul wrote about was already present in each one of their hearts.  They were members of the same body: the body of Christ.  What was good for one was good for all.  There was no point to the rivalry then, because they were trying to divide something that couldn’t be divided.  The sooner they realized this truth, the sooner they would get over their petty little squabbles and get back to really being what a church should be: a community of people so full of love that it just naturally spilled over and into the surrounding community.  That’s how you define a healthy, growing church.  The pastor, the size, the building, and the budget are all completely secondary concerns.  Our first job is always to embody the love of Christ within our own lives, amongst each other, and eventually flowing out into the larger community.  When the people in this lonely world see that, they will be naturally attracted to it and will come from all over to see what it is that we have here.

What might that transition from hate to love look like?

It’s hard to say. “Love,” as Han Suyin said, “is a many splendoured thing.”  Love looks different when it takes on flesh and blood in the lives of different people.  I can tell you the stories of a couple of times in my life when I had to make that transition from hate to love.

Hate is a strong word, and I don’t use it lightly.  But in these two cases, I can honestly say that I really, actually came to hate my enemy.  The first was one of my seminary professors.  The second was a co-worker at my first job after seminary.  In both cases, I was the one in the right.  My enemy had hurt and offended me with words and deeds that I found demeaning and humiliating.  Time after time, I tried to reach out in friendship, but was repaid with cold indifference.  Eventually, I stopped trying.  I left them to their miserable little worlds and went on with my life.

But they didn’t leave me.  Their hostile presence was still firmly lodged in my mind, even though we managed to avoid each other most of the time.  I learned what it felt like to grow hard and bitter inside toward another human being.  All of our public interactions were polite, but I seethed inwardly with a hot hatred I’d never felt before.  Mutual acquaintances quickly learned to never mention their names in my presence because of the sharp reaction it would provoke in me.  I had a problem: a problem with hatred.  Jesus said that to hate another person is to murder that person in your heart.  I get that now because I’ve felt it.

But the irony is that my enemies weren’t being hurt by my hatred, I was.  That fire inside was burning me alive without ever touching them.  My hate was keeping me from fully becoming the person I was meant to be.  Even though I knew I was in the right, that knowledge gave me no relief from the bitterness.  Something had to change.

I thought, at the time, that what I needed to do was forgive my enemies, just as Jesus had done to those who were crucifying him.  I tried and I tried hard, over and over, again and again.  I didn’t want to be a person who wallowed in hate.  I kept telling myself, “I need to forgive him… I need to forgive him…” but I just couldn’t.

And then, one night, it hit me.  I was standing on the balcony of my apartment in Vancouver, seething with more bitter thoughts about my enemy.  I said to myself again, “I need to forgive him.”  And then, it felt like I heard a voice whisper to me from the very back of my mind, “No you don’t.  You need to ask forgiveness for yourself.”  I believe now that what I heard was the voice of God, speaking wisdom to my heart.

The fact is that I was the one who had let my righteous indignation turn into bitterness, not my enemy who had hurt me.  I was the one who had allowed hatred to change me into the kind of person I didn’t want to be.  I had tarnished my enemy’s reputation with harsh words spoken behind the back.  I wanted the whole world to know what he had done to me.  I wanted him to pay.  But the irony is that I was the one who was paying the price and reaping none of the benefits of vengeance.  Beneath my anger, I was just as scared and hurt as ever.

After that initial insight on the balcony, I quickly realized what my next step needed to be: I had to face my enemy and ask him to forgive me.  I had to let go and throw myself upon the mercy of the person I hated.  It wasn’t fun, but it was the only remedy that could ease the searing pain in my heart.

When the deed was said and done, in both cases, relief came.  I never became close friends with either of the men I previously hated, but the war was over.  I found peace within myself.  More importantly, I discovered that an internal blockage had been removed from my heart and I was able to love much more fully than before.  I wasn’t just able to love my enemy more fully, I was able to love myself and world more fully as well.  Love was taking on flesh and blood in me, transforming me into Love’s hands and feet in the world.

Asking my enemy to forgive me, even though I knew I was in the right, is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but it was worth it.

I think that’s the truth that Paul was trying to get across to the Corinthian Christians, who were so divided and hateful toward their fellow church members.  Paul wanted them to know that love is worth it because love is what lies at the center of reality.  God is love.  Therefore, our efforts to love one another are what make God’s loving presence more palpable to the rest of the world.  That’s our mission, as Christians.  That’s our church’s reason for existing.  If we’re not doing that, then we’re not a church, no matter how nice our building, how big our budget, or how handsome our pastor is.  Those things don’t make us church.  Love makes us church.

That’s all I really want to tell you today: Love one another.

Because I love you, because God loves you, and because there’s nothing you can do about it.

5 thoughts on “The Greatest of These is Love

  1. mark

    Outstanding! Thank you so much. I, too, am going to forward this to our pastoral search committee. More importantly, though, I’m going to send a “please forgive me” message to one of my recent seminary professors. I doubt we’re talking about the same person, but you couldn’t have been more accurate had you been recording my words, actions, and thoughts. This sermon is exactly why I’ve felt called to ordained ministry. It’s the type of crucial message that I know needs preaching ALL THE TIME! I am just struggling if I can be most effective with God sharing it in the pulpit as a pastor, or in the world outside it. Peace and Love in Christ.

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