1 February 2004
The Greatest of These is Love
“The greatest of these is love!” Such a familiar part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, this great hymn in praise of love. I wonder if we can find anything for it to say to us today?
Well, first of all, let’s put it in context. If you know Paul’s letters, you’ll probably remember that the passage comes during a discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In Chapter 12, Paul talks about some of the gifts that he has seen God bestow on people, and reminds the church that whatever our gifts, we are all part of one another, all members of the one Body, and as such, we all need each other. The most eloquent preacher shouldn’t be valued any higher than the person who cleans the loos – in fact, if anything not so highly; we can certainly manage without a full-time minister, but could we manage without Ben and June keeping our premises so clean and beautiful?
Paul says that we should strive for God’s great gifts to us, but the greatest gift of all is that of love. Then after this chapter, he goes on to discuss the proper use of prophecy and prayer in tongues in the Church. Sometimes, it almost feels as if chapter 13 is an intrusion in this, an irrelevance. We all enjoy the excitement of gifts of prophecy, or speaking in tongues and interpretation. We all love to sit at the feet of the great preachers, hearing them expound the word of God to us. We all love to see God at work in people’s lives, healing them and renewing them.
But Paul points out that without Love, all this is nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.
Now, as you know, we English are a bit deprived of words for “Love”. We say we love ice-skating, or we love strawberries, or we love our children, or we love God. All the same word, but with very different meanings. The Greeks distinguished several different kinds of love, at least, according to C S Lewis in his excellent book “The Four Loves”. There is “storge”, or affection, the kind of love you feel for your child or your parents; then there is “eros”, which is romantic love; “philia”, which is friendship, and “agape”, which is divine love, and the kind St Paul is talking about here.
One of the interesting things is that when Jesus reinstates St Peter after he has denied him, you remember, by the lakeside, when he says to him “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” he uses the word “agape”. Peter can’t quite manage that, so he, when he replies “Lord, you know that I love you”, he uses the word “philia”; in other words, “Lord, you know I’m your friend”. Then when Jesus again asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, he again uses the word “agape”, and Peter again replies using the word “Philia”. And then the third time, Jesus himself uses the word “philia” – which is why Simon Peter was so hurt. He’s already said twice that he is Jesus’ friend, why does he have to say it a third time?
Simon Peter found that committing himself to agape love, to God’s love, was pretty much impossible. I’m not surprised, are you? Let’s look at it again:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Well, I expect we are with some people, but not with all.
In his book “The Four Loves” – do read it, if you haven’t already – C S Lewis points out that all human loves can be desperately flawed, and need the leavening of divine love in them if they are not to go badly wrong. You might think that there is nothing more wonderful than the love between parents and children – but how easily that love can turn into wanting to dominate the child, to dictate how it should live, what it should do, who it should be. And you have all heard the old joke, “She’s the kind of woman who lives for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expressions!” The kind of person who, out of love, misguidedly tries to run people’s lives for them.
And I don’t need to spell out just how easily romantic love can go wrong, and become something of a battle for possession. Or in this day and age, more likely, a refusal to commit oneself to the beloved.
As for friendship, you would have thought it would be difficult for that to go wrong. People tend to be friends because of shared interests; Robert and I have a great many very dear friends whom we would not otherwise have anything in common with apart from our love of skating. That is the thing that we are friends about.
But sometimes friendship can be more about excluding the other person, not including them. Particularly among children, of course, but it can happen among adults. Sadly, we see it a lot in the churches – we exclude those who, perhaps, are not of the same denomination as we are, or don’t worship God in quite the same way. Or perhaps we are Evangelical and they are not, or vice versa, so we tend to be sniffy about their way of being a Christian, and exclude them.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Do you remember that film, “Fame”? And at one stage during the title music, someone goes: “Fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat!” I think pretty much the same is true of love. Love costs. It costs a lot to become the kind of person who is always loving, no matter what. If you look at the passage again, I reckon you could substitute the name “Jesus” for the word “Love”, couldn’t you?
Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. He does not envy, He does not boast, He is not proud. He is not rude, He is not self-seeking, He is not easily angered, He keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres
But the thing is, could you put your name there? I know that I could put mine there in all of the places some of the time, and some of the places, I hope, all of the time, but I certainly couldn’t put my name in all of the places all of the time. And I don’t suppose you could, either.
Of course, this sort of love is a gift. We aren’t born with it – small babies don’t know how to love. We don’t develop it naturally – our natural loves are apt to go wrong. It is a gift from God.
And St Paul says it is the most excellent of all the gifts.
Certainly it is the most difficult one. But it is the vital one, the one that underpins all the others. Jesus himself tells us that if we love him, we will obey his commandments. He tells us to love one another, just as he has loved us, and that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. Why, we are even expected to love our enemies, and pray for those who are foul to us.
And in his letter, St John tells us that if we aren’t loving our brothers and sisters, then we can’t be loving God. For St John, and I think for Jesus, too, loving God isn’t a matter of standing up waving our arms around, singing trite choruses while looking like a sick cow. It’s a matter of getting down and dirty where people are. And that can hurt. It can certainly cost.
Love hurts. It hurts when overtures of friendship are rejected. It hurts when someone you have learnt to love is ill, or suffering, or in pain and we can do nothing for them. It hurts when sometimes you have to, for instance, tell your child that they may not do or have something they want. It hurts worse when you have to tell someone that something is a bit wrong – and it’s awfully difficult to know whether you really are called to speak to that person, or whether you’re merely being officious, no matter how much you wrap it up by saying “I’m only telling you this in love!”
It costs when you had intended to spend the evening curled up in front of “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here”, and you find instead that you are spending the evening listening to someone pour out their troubles. It costs time and trouble to be looking out for people, making sure they are all right, while not interfering and being officious. It’s annoying when you miss a bus because you are buying a beggar a meal in McDonald’s, or whatever.
But then, what did love cost Jesus?
St Paul tells us that love is pre-eminent among all the gifts, and indeed it is a gift. It has to be. It shouldn’t be one of those guilt-producers that make us suck our teeth and reckon that we’re rotten Christians, then, because we’re not like that! Love, like faith, is a gift from God, just as is healing or tongues or prophecy. But love, like faith, also needs to grow. We need to practice it. We don’t have to be perfect, for it is God who makes us perfect. We do have to be willing for that to happen, though, and I rather suspect that asking God to make us perfect in love is a bit like asking him to give us more faith, or make us more patient – we find there are hurdles to jump that get progressively harder!
But then, what could be harder than the Cross? And we know that it was only love for God, and love for us, that led Jesus to do it. “Greater love has no one than this,” said Jesus, “that you lay down your life for your friends”.
Paul tells us that at the end, only faith, hope and love will remain. And the greatest of these, he tells us, is love. Amen.
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