In 1st Corinthians 13, St. Paul says, “Faith, hope, and love, abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
Why is love the greatest? Love is the greatest because, of the three, it alone will last.
Hope will not last. In Romans 8:24, 25 we read, “…hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what we see? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
When we finally look upon the glory of God, we will no longer hope to share it; we will share it.
Likewise, faith will not last. In Hebrews 11:1 we read, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Eventually our faith in God will give way to sight, sound, touch, and experience. Once the object of our faith becomes real to us, then faith is no longer necessary.
Faith and hope belong to time which cannot last, for time has a beginning and an end. By contrast, love is rooted in Eternity and in the Creator God who has no beginning and no ending.
In 1st John 4:16 we read, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” No wonder the hymnist wrote:
Where divine affection lives, there the LORD his blessing gives.
There his will on earth is done; there his heaven is half begun.
Great Example from above, teach us all like you to love.
Faith, hope, love, abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Yes, love is the greatest, but how do we define it?
When much of the Western world considers love, it thinks first and foremost of romantic love. What we call “falling in love” is the subject of thousands of books, songs, movies, and plays. A lesser known poet declares:
Love is such a funny thing,
It’s shaped just like a lizard!
It works its way into your heart,
And wraps around your gizzard!
On the surface, that definition of falling in love is completely ridiculous; but, apart from that line about love being “shaped just like a lizard,” it is a near perfect description of what ROM-COMS call “falling in love” and psychologists call “a collapse of the ego boundaries.” By either definition, love is a strange condition that two people enter, often with little forethought and no conscious choice.
Unfortunately, the feeling of “falling in love” is temporary. It does not last. Perhaps you remember the immortal words of Nancy Sinatra: and Lee Hazelwood
We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout,
We been talkin’ about Jackson, ever since the fire went out.
Nancy adds “Good-bye, that all she wrote, I’m goin’ to Jackson.” The fire of falling in love eventually die down, Sometimes they go out altogether. The only chance at turning the unconscious experience of “falling in love,” into real and lasting love, is a conscious choice that leads to a series of actions, that never grow old or become outdated.
Christians believe the essence of real love is found in Paul sublime definition of 1st Corinthians 13:
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends….
- If we want a real friendship, or a lasting marriage, we need only live by these words.
- If we wish to live a life that will be remembered long after we are gone, we need only live by these words.
- Real love lifts those who practice it into the heights where eagles fly over mountains high.
- When life grows cold, love warms us.
- When everything else turns dark, love gives us light and hope. It inspires faith!
Jesus made love the center of life for all who follow him when he said that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and a second is like it, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
One of Jimmy Carter’s Baptists mentors once told the former President that there are only two loves. Love of God, and love of the person who sits across the table from us.
Neither commandment is easy. God is not a warm fuzzy. Those who draw near to God draw near a raging, and purifying fire, whose ways are not our ways and often past understanding. I have told you before and I will tell you again that the only God I can love is the God the New Testament calls, “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Likewise, it is hard to love our neighbor when that neighbor is as flawed as we are. It is relatively easy to love our neighbor, when our neighbor is part of the faceless, nameless mass of humanity. It is much harder to that neighbor when he stands before resenting us, disparaging us, and actively opposing us, while still expecting something from us. But that is what Jesus Calls upon us to do.
Most of you know the name of the great Christian Apologists, C.S. Lewis. He points out that the Greeks use (at least) four different words for love. These words are all reflected in the New Testament.
The first word for love is Eros. Every Valentine’s day the card companies remind us of that ancient Roman figure, Cupid. Perhaps you remember the song, “Cupid, pull back your bow, and let your arrow go, straight into my lover’s heart, for me, for me…”? According to the myth, Cupid’s arrows fly straight to the heart of all lovers and potential lovers. The ancient Greeks called Cupid “Eros,” and he is equally well armed and dangerous. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Eros in all (its) splendor may urge us to evil as easily as quickly as (it) urges us to good.” Eros leads some into love and marriage. Eros leads others into promiscuity and adultery. The Bible condemns promiscuity and adultery, but it extols the virtues of married love. In 1st Corinthians 7, St. Paul, though single himself, gives good advice for husbands and wives saying, “The wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise, the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.” One of my seminary professors once observed that James Bond who slept mostly with strangers, could not possibly have had a sex life as satisfying as two Christian partners.
Lewis says that there is a second word for love in the Bible, storge. Storge is the kind of love that family members and others who have found themselves bound together by chance and circumstance share. It is love between parents and children, brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles and cousins. It is the kind of love that soldiers share in battle and that the rest of us share with our co-workers and allies and companions anytime we are engaged in any trial of life that feels like a battle. Storge is the kind of love that motivated Robert Frost to write:
Home is the place, where, when you have to go there,
they have to take you in.
In Romans 12:10, St. Paul is describing this storge when he writes , “…love one another with brotherly and sisterly affection; (and) outdo one another in showing honor.”
By this definition, the church is our home and “we are family.” When people come to our church home and ask us to take them in, we have to do it with joy. Sometimes this is hard for our family attracts those who are troubled and broken. The church is not a showcase for saints; it is a hospital for sinners. We all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, we all have handicaps of one kind or another, and we all have gifts that compensate for all those handicaps. In the church we all need one another. Woody Allen once said that he would not want to belong to a club that would accept him as a member. We are grateful that our church accepts us as members of the one body—even when we cannot always accept ourselves.
Lewis says that the third kind of love is Filioque. Filioque is the love the best describes what we call friendship. Members of a family have to show love to one another. Friends are free to share love or not. Since the love of friendship is freely given it is often sweeter. “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother or a sister.” It has been said that marriage is two souls sharing one body. Thus, in Genesis 2:24 we read, “…a man leaves his mother and his father, and cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” It has also been that friendship is two bodies sharing one soul. Thus, in 1st Samuel 18:1 we read that the “…the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved (David) as (he loved) his own soul.”
Not every Christian will marry, and that is okay. Despite what we see on Netflix and Hallmark, God made each of us whole, and we continue to be whole whether we marry or not. However, we are never whole without friendship. Jesus fixed the cost and value of friendship when he said, “A new command I give unto you, that you love one another, as I have loved you.” The one thing I pray for every member of every congregation I have ever served is that all of you enjoy the friendship of Jesus—and that I have not been an impediment to this (The first rule of medicine and ministry is “Do no harm!), and that they all of you enjoy the friendship of at least one person who accepts you as openly and freely as Jesus does. The best definition of friendship I ever heard is that “a friend is one who walks in even after the whole world has walked out.” Jesus does that!
There is a fourth kind of love, agape. Agape is the highest form of love and the New Testament is filled with it. St. Paul helped define agape when he wrote that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” St. John helped define agape when he wrote, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” And Jesus absolutely defined agape when he said: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends—and then received us all into his open arms, stretched out upon the cross.”
Agape love is the kind of love that a husband has for his wife of thirty years when he looks across the table at her, ignores her wrinkles, and says, “You are more beautiful now than the day I married you.”
Agape love is the kind of love that a mother has for a daughter, when she sees an angry hornet in the car, and reaches out and takes the hornet in her hand, so it will sting her, not her child.
Agape love is the kind of love that a father has for his son, even after his son has wished him dead, gone into a far country, and wasted his inheritance in riotous living. When that son comes home, the father not only takes him back, he throws him a party, saying, “Bring my son a gold watch, and clean clothes, and new shoes. Fire up the Barbee and crack open a barrel, for this son of mine who was lost has been found. He was dead but now he is alive again.”
Whether he knew it or not, Shakespeare had agape love in mind when he wrote:
Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.
The bard goes on to say that “love bears us even to the edge of doom.” God does better. God bears us over the edge of doom, across the Jordan, and into the promised land. We may falter. We may quit on ourselves and on one another. We may even quit on God. But God never quits on us. Jesus said that God is like the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 safely in the fold, and goes out into the darkness of our darkest night to look for the one who is lost, and finding the one, he delivers the one from peril, lays the one on his shoulders, and carries us back to the fold, and to the place that he has already prepared for us. What more can we say of the love that God has for us? Only that it is an infectious disease—and when we have once been infected with it—it alters our lives forever.
Worth Geen, Th.M., D.Min.