Good morning, Friends!
I chose today’s Scripture reading because I like to talk about love, and it’s coming up on Valentine’s Day. Usually, we save today’s Scripture for weddings. How many of you have ever heard 1st Corinthians 13 read at a wedding before?
Years ago, one of my teachers, Tom Mullen told me that when he and his wife Nancy were first married, Tom was in graduate school at Yale. Every night, before they went to bed, they would read 1st Corinthians 13 out loud to each other. It was their little bedtime ritual they had. It was really touching!
A couple of weeks later, Tom said the couple in the next apartment knocked on their door, and asked if Tom and Nancy please would read something else to each other before bed time. I guess the walls in the apartments were pretty thin, and this other couple were getting tired of listening to them every night. Tom said it kind of put a damper on some other activities, too.
But that wasn’t quite what I wanted to talk about this morning. What I’m interested in is the way Paul puts love along with faith and hope, as a kind of a special category. Faith, hope and love are the Big Three of Christian living.
We’ve been talking ever since New Year’s about what things are essential to a living church. The first week, I said that everyone can pray.
Everybody can pray! My prayers aren’t better than your prayers. I spend a lot of time praying, but every person here can ask God for help, or give thanks to God, or pray for somebody to get well.
The same is true for a lot of things, too. We talked about how everybody can welcome someone, each in your own way. We talked about peace one week. We talked about hope. Last week, I said that everyone here is a living stone in the church, which is a living building.
I’d like you to read today’s Scripture, not just as a warm, fuzzy statement about the love that happens between two people, but think about love as something we all do, together. Love is part of what makes us a church.
Whether I speak in ordinary, human tongues or the tongues of angels, if I don’t have love, I am only a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, if I have faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give everything I possess to the poor and give my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient. Love is kind. It doesn’t envy. It doesn’t boast. It isn’t proud. It doesn’t dishonor others. It isn’t self-seeking. It is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I grew up, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; soon we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.– 1 Corinthians 13
In the chapter that comes right before today’s reading, Paul says that the church is like a human body. The body needs all its different parts and limbs. You wouldn’t want to be without an eye, or an ear, or a leg, or any other part of your body. We need them all.
In the same way, Paul says that we all have specialized gifts. God calls each of us to serve a different special function.
God doesn’t make anyone the same. We’re all different. And that’s wonderful! It’s as if God has created people with gifts like a rainbow, with every color imaginable.
And God likes it that way! God doesn’t want us all the same. That would be boring! And God doesn’t like to be bored any more than anyone else.
The list Paul gives in I Corinthians chapter 12 is just a starter list. It’s so that we get the idea. There are so many other gifts that God gives, so many wonderful vocations that God calls us to.
We need great writers. We need great cooks. We need teachers who can make ideas come alive. We need people who can write great new hymns. We need peacemakers. We need people who can bring vision and integrity to the world. We need artists and actors and scientists and counselors and people in hundreds of other disciplines. We need them all!
But in 1st Corinthians 13, Paul is making a different point. Instead of talking about the variety of spiritual gifts, Paul is talking about the gifts we have in common, the gifts we all have.
Faith, hope, and love. Those are the building blocks. Those are the foundation stones in a living church. Faith, hope and love are the basic gifts, which everyone needs to have. Do you see the difference?
One kind of spiritual gifts are unique. They define our individuality. The other kind of spiritual gifts are universal. They define our commonality. Both kinds of gifts are essential. But it’s the second kind we’re focusing on this morning – the common gifts. OK?
There are some activities which we willingly leave to specialists. If I want a house built, I call a contractor. If I want my teeth worked on, I go to the dentist. There are lots of times when you call for an expert.
The flip side of specialization is commonality. Faith, hope and love are the common language, the common experience, the common but essential gifts that every
person who has come in touch with God shares.
Prayer isn’t a specialty. Everyone prays! Whether we use a lot of words, or just a few words, everybody prays. And you know what? Sometimes, the best prayers come from people who really have to reach for their ideas. Sometimes, the best prayers are short and stumbling. But every person in our meeting is able to pray. It’s not a specialist function. It’s one of those things that all of us can do.
I’ve been in congregations where, when they take up an offering, the worship leader calls for one of the members or one of the elders to give thanks. Or at the end of the service, the worship leader calls at random for someone in the congregation to give a blessing.
In some families, the youngest person at the table says grace. In some churches, when it’s time to visit sick people in the hospital, the pastor goes out together, with two or three other people from the church. When it’s time to pray, the pastor will ask one of the other people to pray for God’s presence and healing.
Everybody can pray. We may not be used to it, but that’s just a matter of shyness and experience, not a matter of function. God hears everybody’s prayers.
In the same way, I want to make a case that faith, hope and love are things which all of us possess and exhibit to some degree or another. They’re not limited gifts. They’re universal gifts.
Faith is the first of the Big Three. And I want to remind you that faith not the same thing as ideas in your head.
Faith is a decision. It’s an attitude. It’s a discovery.
Faith is a decision we make, to trust God. I will trust God, no matter what the circumstances are. I will trust God, to be here with me, whatever is going on.
There is no time, and no place, where Jesus is not present in some way. That’s what he promised. God has light to shed on every situation. God can cope with anything. There is no situation, which won’t be improved by welcoming God into the picture, and asking God what we should do.
That’s a decision we make – a faith decision. It’s an attitude we carry, into every place we go. God will be there. And it’s a discovery we make – a wonderful discovery! Wherever I go, God has always been there. I am surprised by God, in the unlikeliest of places.
Jesus says that faith moves mountains. I don’t think he was talking about some kind of magic. Faith is seeing a mountain of prejudice, and saying, “God doesn’t go along with that. And I won’t, either.” Faith is seeing a mountain of hatred, and saying, “God can work here to change that.”
Faith is seeing mountains of ignorance and misery and suffering, and saying, “These things are real. But God is real, too. And I’m going to roll up my sleeves and do what God wants to do here. I’ve made my choice. And it’s a choice to put my faith in God.”
In the old Christian symbolism, faith is often shown as an anchor. Or sometimes, it’s shown as a rock. Faith is what gives us our place to stand. It’s what holds us steady, when storms are all around us.
What gives us our strength? It’s our faith. God is real. And God is here. God never leaves us alone. God will always be working here with us. There is no place we can go, where God will not be. That’s faith.
Hope is related to faith. But hope is a little different. Or maybe, hope is faith expressed in a different way. Hope says that because God is here, things will get better. Hope says that even when we can’t see God, we still believe. When things are dark, we believe that God is light, and that God’s light will shine.
When all of his friends were in prison, and when Quaker worship was forbidden by law, the early Quaker, George Fox said: “Sing and rejoice, ye children of the Day, and of the Light; for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt. And Truth doth flourish as the rose, and the lilies do grow among the thorns. . .” (George Fox, Epistle, 1663)
That’s hope. It’s believing all that stuff that Jesus said, about the life that never ends. Hope is believing that God can raise us up, when we’ve been knocked down and broken. It’s believing we can be forgiven, when all we see is our own failure.
Hope says that what we see isn’t all there is. Hope says there’s more. Hope says that God has something better waiting for us. Hope says, “I may not be strong enough myself, but I believe, I place my trust, in the power of Almighty God. The God who made this world, the almighty God who said, ‘Let there be light!’, and there was light, that same God still has more light for us today.”
Hope keeps us believing, even in the face of every disaster. Hope keeps us trusting, even in the very face of death.
And one reason that hope is a universal gift, one reason we all share it, is because none of us is all that strong. There are times and seasons for all of us, when hope runs dry. When that happens, we need to lean on each other. We need strength and hope from each other. When our strength is not enough, we borrow strength and hope from each other, and from God.
That’s why we all have it. Because we all need it. If I lend you some hope today, well, I may need to borrow it back, from you or from somebody else, tomorrow. That’s the way hope works. We share it.
And then there’s love. The last of the Big Three.
Most of you know that I’m a sucker for love. It’s the one thing that I preach about, all the time. Every August or September, at the start of each year, I do a special sermon about love, because I think it’s the foundation of our life together. I agree completely with the writer of 1st John, who said, “Whoever does not love, does not know God. . .”
In this morning’s reading, Paul says, “No matter how loud I speak, whether I speak in human languages or even the tongues of angels, if I don’t love, I’m just a big brass gong or a noisy pair of cymbals. If I speak like a prophet, if I understand all the great mysteries and know everything, if I have faith to move mountains, but do not have love, I’m nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and hand over my body to be burned, but don’t love, I gain nothing. . .”
Love, Paul says, is the best of the Big Three. Love is “patient and kind, rejoices in truth, bears, believes and endures all things. . .”
On the flip side, love is “not envious, not boastful, not rude, doesn’t insist on getting its own way, isn’t irritable, isn’t resentful. . .” If we find any of those things at work in us, then we’ve got some serious work to do.
Like faith and hope, love is meant to be a constant presence in our lives. Our love may be stronger or weaker at times, but it should never be completely absent.
Love may change the way it works in different situations – there’s tough love, and there’s tender love – but the goal of love is always the same.
The goal of love is always moving towards the best in ourselves and each other. The goal of love is for God to be more fully present and more fully real in every situation. Jesus’ commandment was for us to love each other, just as he loves us. To do to each other, as we would have others do to us. To show mercy. Not to judge. To give as much as God has given to us.
Love means living our faith. Love means living our hope. Love means hearing the good word from God, and then doing it. Living it. Sharing it. Showing it.
When people see our love, they will see Jesus Christ, and they will see God, who sent Jesus. They’ll look at us, and through us, they’ll see God.
That’s a tall order. But love is always lived first in little steps. Jesus said we would do great things in his name. But he also said that even giving a cup of cold water, because we’re trying to follow Christ, leads to a great reward. Even if love aims at great things, there are always little steps along the way. And we can never neglect the little things of love.
That’s really what I wanted to say this morning.
We all have individual gifts. But there are also these things we share in common – faith, hope and love. Those are the gifts that all of us have. And we all need to use them.
Our faith, our hope, and our love may not be big enough, or strong enough, at times. We have to lean on each other. And we have to lean on God. But those are the Big Three. Those are the gifts God gives to everyone. And the more we try to live them, the richer and deeper our lives will be.