Sunday Before Lent – 8 a.m. – 1 Cor.13:1-13 & Lk.18:31-43
Our first reading, 1 Corinthians Chapter 13. It’s probably the best known passage in the Bible these days, because of its common use at weddings. Our version though replaces the usual word ‘Love’ with the word ‘charity’ – this is because the Greek word used for love is a special one – the word ‘agape’ – which Paul was using for the special quality of love that ought to exist between Christians.
Love should be the lifeblood of the body of Christ -love should be the defining characteristic of any church. But though this passage is very familiar, it seems to me it very often ignored by Christians who insist on being divided by matters of doctrine or church practice – the very things that Paul was directly addressing.
The Christians in Corinth – as far as Paul was concerned – had a few wires crossed over what it is to be a Christian. They thought it was all about being really religious – speaking in tongues, for example – it seems many Corinthians believed that you had to speak in tongues to be a proper Christian and they looked down on those who didn’t.
But Paul says if I can speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am nothing. Speaking in tongues is nothing. Similarly having prophetic powers, power to perform miracles and move mountains is nothing. It matters not to God. Giving away all your possessions and living as an ascetic – giving up worldly pleasures – another manifestation of religion, then as now, is nothing without love.
Understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge of spiritual matters is similarly nothing. But how many Christians insist you must believe all the right things about God and Jesus – hold a correct set of opinions in your head without doubt or deviation to be saved? Paul says this too is nothing. When it comes to God, we can know only in part, and see “as through a glass darkly”. To understand that you need to realize that 1st century glass technology was somewhat different to ours. Glass was thick and let through light, but you wouldn’t expect to see much detail through it. Such is our knowledge of God. To insist that you must believe the right things perfectly is a nonsense, and Paul says as much. You won’t get to, or be shut out of, heaven by correct or incorrect beliefs and opinions about God. Paul says as much for he says knowledge will come to an end.
What Paul is saying, pretty much, is religion will come to an end. All religions and denominations and styles of worship will come to an end. But faith, hope and love won’t. What makes a church live and grow is not its style of worship or how well organised it is, it is love. There can be any number of styles of worship. I may have my preferences but they are not important – but love is important. I personally can put up with or even enjoy any style of worship. The one thing I can’t stand is people falling out over it, and I’ve seen churches that do that and churches that don’t. I’ve seen churches where they really enjoyed swinging the incense or ringing the bells but simply laughed about it if the procession all went wrong and they got confused and tripped over each other, and I’ve come across churches where they will tear into each other for not doing the smallest things properly. The difference here is love.
No church will stand or fall by innovations in worship or by redeveloping its building or even closing it – a church will stand or fall by love and love alone. We could push down an evangelical line or a catholic line, or middle of the road – more all age services or more traditional ones – these things are significant, but, Paul would tell us, they will pass away. If our building fell down and we had to meet in a school for example, what would determine whether the church survived or not? Love and only love. If it was the building that was important to you, well you wouldn’t come any more. But if it was love for one another…? The loss of the building wouldn’t change that. Love will keep us together, or lack of love will stop us meeting. Or, conversely, we could have a wonderful well kept building and churchyard but ultimately only love will help the congregation stay together and grow. Without love we would end up with a wonderful building but have no one worshipping in it. There are lots of difficulties churches can have, but the only thing that can destroy a church is failure in love – if we have not love we are nothing – we are not a church at all.
If love for God and one another is more important than anything else, that will make us give financially to sustain our community life. Love will make us put ourselves out for one another – love will make us give of our time and energy, serve on the PCC, clean the church, make the tea, be a churchwarden, or a sidesperson, or whatever involvement might help sustain our church life. Indeed this sort of thing is what love is – love is not a feeling – it is being prepared to give of ourselves to God and one another. A thing I often quote, but it’s true – ‘How do children spell ‘Love’? T – I -M – E. No other way. How do we spell our love for one another? By being prepared to give time and effort to one another and our church life together. Paul says nothing about love being a feeling – it is an act of the will – a determination to love one another. It is not being irritable and resentful with each other – it is not insisting on our own way so far as the direction of our church is concerned – but finding a common way.
Love is the only way our church (or any church) will grow. People will not join a community where they don’t find love. People are not, by and large, starved of religion. Lack of religion may lead to a certain emptiness, but lack of love is what really does the damage. People are not looking for religion, they are looking for love. Will they find it among us?
Three things, writes St Paul, abide – they can endure forever – faith and hope and love – but the greatest of these is love. In the end neither conservative nor liberal will be proved right – no belief system will be proved right. No direction we try to go as a church will be proved right or wrong. The only thing that will be proved right in the end is love.