A sermon for Quinquagesima Sunday (February 27, 2022).
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I had a wonderful conversation this week with someone who turned to me at one point and asked, “Does your ministry have a goal?” I’ve been thinking about that question a little bit, and I think behind it there lies a deeper question that we’re all asking: Does my life have a goal?
The prayers and readings today form the beginning of an answer. Our Lenten pilgrimage begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, but really it begins today. Even now. This Sunday orients us towards the goal of Lent. The prayers and readings place a compass in our hands and give us the coordinates for the destination so that we know where we are going.
And what is the goal? What is the goal not only of Lent but of the Christian life? It is charity – love – apart from which everything else we do or accomplish is worthless. You can have all of the wealth and power and prestige that the world has to offer, but apart from love you have nothing. You can be intelligent and hard working, but apart from love you have nothing. You can be principled and hold fast to a strict moral code, but apart from love you have nothing. You can vote for the right candidates and have all the right opinions, but apart from love you have nothing. You can have all sorts of spiritual gifts, but apart from love you have nothing. In fact, the Collect puts an even finer point on it doesn’t it? Without love “whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee.” Apart from love we have no life in us at all. Think about that.
But what is love? More specifically the sort of love that Christians are called to, the sort of love that is our goal and end, what does that love look like? St Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, tells us.
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.
Can you feel the weight of that? Love is no trivial matter. It is not fleeting or self-interested. It is not primarily an emotion or feeling. Love is a resolve of the will. To love is to will the good of the other. Not the good of the self, but the good of the other. Love has only the other in view.
So, are you interested? Before you answer, there’s something else you should know. If you love like this you’re bound to end up on a cross. That’s the surprising message of Lent, isn’t it? That Love Himself is crucified. But that’s hard to get our heads around and we see that in our gospel reading. Jesus takes the disciples aside and explains to them that he is headed to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, beaten, and finally hung upon a Roman cross. “But they understood nothing about all these things,” Luke tells us. They couldn’t comprehend a love that looks like this.
The love that God is calling us into, the love that is our end, is not something that comes naturally to us. That is to say, this love is not human in origin. To be sure, there are forms of human love that point us in the right direction. For example, the love of family. If you’re a parent you know what it is to go without or go the extra mile for your children. Or the love of country. We’re seeing that unfold right now in the Ukraine. Young men sending their wives and children off to safety while they stay back and defend their homeland.
The common thread there is sacrifice. The willingness to suffer for the good of others. That’s love. Yet even at its best human love in its various forms is but a shadow of the Love that is our goal, the love of God. We’re quite happy to love those that we share a natural affinity with – family, countrymen, those that look like me or voted like me. But the scandal of the gospel is that we are called to love even those that we have no natural affinity with, those who may be unlike us in every way except for the fact that Jesus has called us together. An affinity of grace. To love even our enemies.
This love is Divine rather than human in origin yet it has come to us in human flesh, in Jesus Christ, whose whole life was for others – for you and I. A sacrifice that culminates in the Cross where Christ proves his love by dying for us not while we were his friends but while we were yet his enemies, says St Paul elsewhere (Romans 5:6-10). The Love that is our end and goal is Jesus Christ, and we approach this love in the sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist this morning.
Watch this. 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 wronging, but rejoices in the truth. He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Jesus never ends.
The Love that is our goal is Jesus Christ, he is our goal – to abide in him and he in us so that we no longer live but it is he who lives in us, that is our goal. And the goal of Lent is to bring us face to face with this Love in the face of Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem and finally as he is hung on the Cross.
That’s the love that our life is worthless without. That’s the love that we cannot live without. That’s the “most excellent gift” that we ask the Holy Spirit to “pour into our hearts.” And we do ask him, even now: Lord set us on fire with your love.
That’s the goal. How we arrive at that goal is the occasion for another sermon and for our reflection during this coming season of Lent. But it begins as we heed Christ’s call to follow him today – not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today. +