Feast Day: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Love is the greatest says St Paul in the familiar passage that we heard this morning. Indeed, we might say that the way of the Christian life is the way of love and that learning to be a Christian is primarily about learning to love. As such, love is necessary for the Christian life. But what is this love? Can we assume that we know what it looks like? How can we discern its shape? And why is it the greatest after all? Together this morning I want us to hear this passage and to consider three things: the necessity of love, the character of love, and the permanence of love.
Love is necessary. It is the only way that leads to the destination, the path that surpasses everything else. You can speak in the tongues of angels? You preach and teach? Good. But apart from love you’re simply making a lot of racket. You have prophetic powers? You have deep spiritual insight and understanding? You have unshakable faith? You serve on the advisory board? Very good. But if you have not love you have nothing at all. You are exceedingly generous and courageous? That is to be commended but it will be of zero benefit to you apart from love because love is the one thing that is absolutely necessary. You can have everything else, wealth, every spiritual gift, but if you lack love then none of that matters. If you have everything but you have not love then you have nothing. But if you have love then you have everything.
All of these other things are good, of course. It is good to give generously, it is good to serve, it is good to pursue spiritual gifts. But Paul’s point is that love is what gives the Christian life its distinctive meaning and flavour. Our love for one another is how people will know that we are followers of Jesus, (John 13:35).
Love is necessary, therefore we should make it our aim. We should pursue it above all else. But what is love’s shape, its character? What does it look like? “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.”
For St Paul love is…not abstract. It is not some idea or feeling that motivates behaviour but rather is itself a behaviour. To love is to act and to act in a particular way towards others. You heard the things that Paul mentioned. At best this image of love seems like a noble ideal but not really something most of us would assume for ourselves. At worst it describes a way of being which in the eyes of the world would be foolish and potentially hazardous. Nevertheless Paul insists that this love is essential for the Christian life, especially for the life that we share together here at St Paul’s/John’s.
Close your eyes for a moment and think about the ways in which you see this love in yourself. Alas, maybe you do not see much of it in yourself. Think now about what it would look like, practically, if you were more like this. What is one baby step you would take today if this love was your goal?
I don’t know if you are feeling good about yourself right now or frustrated at your lack of growth in love. Certainly when it comes to the Church there have been times when our life has been an example of this love and other times when our life has been a scandal to the gospel. There is the legacy of beautiful cathedrals, of care for the poor, of schools and hospitals. But there is also the legacy of residential schools, clerical sex abuse, and in some countries church-sanctioned laws that criminalize gay and lesbian men and women.
But now I want you to think about the ways in which you see this quality of love in Jesus himself. Maybe it’s a story from the gospels or maybe it’s a personal experience of his love that you have had in prayer. “Jesus is patient; Jesus is kind; Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, he endures all things.”
You see, the love that St Paul is talking about, that he says is necessary for the Christian life, is similar but different than our usual experience of human love. If our usual experience of love is like the heat and light of a candle then the love that Paul is talking about is like the heat and light of the sun. Because the love that Paul is talking about is the love of Christ himself and that love is entirely self-giving, entirely sacrificial, entirely for the sake of others, so much so that it leads to the Cross. That is the character of love.
Do you want to know this love more fully? Allow the Holy Spirit to lift your eyes in prayer so that your gaze falls on the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. For it is only when you behold the one who is love that his invitation to enter into that love and to share it with one another can be heard not as a burden but as a delight. And with your eyes fixed on him you may ask him for the grace to grow in love—to think differently, to speak differently, to act differently—and so avoid falling back into the patterns that you are used to, patterns that do not reflect his love.
Paul is writing to the Church in Corinth, a community that is beleaguered by strife and infighting and jealously and he is saying that only this love can bring you healing and restore order. It is easy to love someone or some group of people that you are not confronted with in reality. Anyone can do that. But you are called to love the actual people that are right in front of you today.
That might seem challenging, perhaps even impossible, but Paul wants us to know that this way of life is within reach for each one of us because it is the life of Jesus himself, the very life that the Holy Spirit shares with us initially in the sacrament of baptism and then renews in us each week in the sacrament of holy communion.
To pursue this love is necessary because it is the greatest of all that will remain. Love is permanent, it is eternal. All other spiritual gifts that build up the body of Christ in this world come to an end but love never ends says St Paul. It goes on ahead of us into God’s future. Love is not just our duty but our destiny and even now the risen and living Jesus Christ is drawing us forward into the never-ending love of God. In fact, wherever Jesus is, there is the never-ending love of God. Even here this morning, as we come to the altar, even here is the future love of God come into the present in Jesus.
Faith looks at the God who we meet in Jesus and trusts him. But in the words of that old hymn, one day faith will vanish into sight. Hope looks ahead to God and what he will do in the future, a reality which the resurrection of Jesus already guarantees. But one day our hope will be emptied in delight. Love, however, love in heaven will shine more bright as we finally know and are known, embrace and are embraced by the living God.
What do you pride yourself on? Do you pride yourself on that which is fading away or that which will last? Do you pride yourself on love? Paul wants us to understand that love is the way, love is the goal, and love will never end in the new world that Jesus is bringing to us.
At the end of our reading St Paul uses a metaphor to describe what it means to live in Christ’s love. He says it is like growing up from childhood to adulthood. This morning Jesus is inviting you to put an end to your childish ways. How much of your life is child’s play compared with the love of Christ? Don’t you want to grow up? Don’t you want real spiritual, emotional, and personal maturity? Don’t you want to be more fully who God has made you to be? Then take hold of that which God has given you, take hold of that which will last forever, take hold of love, take hold of Jesus Christ and let him lead you. That is the one thing necessary. That is the better way.
To quote Bishop Tom Wright, “Love is God’s river flowing on into the future, across the border into the country where there is no pride, no jostling for position, no contention among God’s people. We are invited to step into that river here and now, and let it take us where it’s going,” Friends, this morning let us step into the river of God’s love that it may take us where it is going.
 N.T. Wright