January 31, 2016

Love Never Ends

Passage: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30
Service Type:

Love never ends. … And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

If you had a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine in one hand and the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church in the other it will become quickly evident, upon reading, that these two publications mean different things in their use of the word “love.” Part of the reason for this is that our English word love is used to mean many things; we use it to express fondness for food, appreciation for a movie or musician, the nature of special friendship, of conjugal relationship, and of dedication of life to God.

In the Greek language—the language in which Paul’s letter was written—there are three words that in English are translated by the one word “love.” “Eros” was the word that denoted the sexual act, “philos” the word that denoted friendship, and “agape” the strong word for love that denoted a kind of selflessness. It was this word “agape” that Paul uses here in the Corinthian letter and Christians used to speak about God’s love, in particular the self-forgetful self-giving of God in the Son on the cross.

It was the word “philos” that was elevated in Greek antiquity. “Philos” was far more common in other literature at the time Paul was writing his letter than the word “agape.” It was this idea of friendship (philos) that Aristotle had written on so extensively. This kind of love was, according to Aristotle, based on usefulness, pleasure, and respect for character. It is important to note that when Paul writes of love in what we know as 1 Corinthians 13—dubbed by the church as the love chapter—he does not use the word “philos” (friendship) that was elevated as the highest form of love in Greek culture. Paul—and in fact our Lord—in the choice of words points us to something else; agape. So when we read this chapter on love it is important to discern the sort of love Paul has in mind.

So what sort of love is Paul speaking about? It the love of God for humanity on display at the cross. In this Corinthian letter Paul reminds them that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” We are in the season of Epiphany which means “revelation” or “manifestation”. The kind of love that will prove to be an epiphany of Christ to the world is very distinctive.

Unlike the love idolized by the world today, this Christian love is not sentimental or sexual. Christianity is not, of course, opposed to the kind of sentiment experienced in family or good friendships (the classic Greek philos) or the kind of passionate sexuality experienced most beautifully in the marriage bed (the Greek eros). The love commended here in 1 Corinthians is the agape that moved God to send his Son to save a world that fled the family circle to become a prostitute with other gods. It is the self-forgetful self-giving of the Son and the Father in order to welcome a wayward humanity back home. It is this love—the love of God—that, for the believer, lifts, informs, and shapes all other loves.

1. It is this love that the Apostle says is essential for our lives. I once had the privilege of being in Rome in St. Peter’s square on a Sunday when it is the custom of the Pope to come to a window overlooking the square to offer a greeting and bless the people who gather. Thousands of people from various places in the world were there; some held up banners with a message for the Pope other groups even had their own band of musicians. It was a noisy gathering. When the then Pope Benedict came to the window a silence came over that crowd such that you literally could hear a pin drop on the pavement stones of that square. Pope Benedict was fluent is several languages and as he looked over the crowd he offered his greeting in the languages he detected made up the crowd that day.

I marvel—and am a bit envious—at those who are fluent in many languages. Such knowledge of languages reveals the rich meaning of words and allows us into the world of how people thought and think in other cultures. As a person whose profession has much to do with word craft I would love to have that sort of command of other languages. The Apostle wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love (agape), I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Such skill or giftedness, to be sure, is not denigrated by Paul. But skill by itself is like a noisy gong. I recall how warm the Pope`s greeting sounded even spoken in other languages; it was in the tone of the voice; you cannot fake the sincerity of love—of this self-forgetful self-giving posture.

In research on the words translated “noisy gong” one scholar argues that what is being referred to is brass or copper resonating jars strategically situated in houses or halls of the era that amplified sound—used as we do appropriately placed speakers. The picture is that without love no music is heard—all we are is a reverberation, an empty sound coming out of an empty, lifeless jar. Noise. I remember as a teenager my father’s question about the music I was listening to on the radio—what’s that racket? (In hindsight he was not wrong on more of it that I care to admit.) The love sung about in much of today’s music in not agape.

But Paul says more here than merely that people puffed up by their skill or knowledge grate us the wrong way. He wants to say more than something like “truth spoken without love is hard to hear.” That is true but Paul goes further. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

“I am nothing.” Paul is speaking about what it means to be human. What is at stake in this love is our very humanity. We live in a culture with competing visions of what it means to be human. Is the human simply the outworking of DNA? It sounds so grandiose to tell young people that you can be whoever you want to be or whatever you feel you are; at the same time it suffers from the curse of no parameters for knowing how one can make such a determination.

For Paul, our capacity to flourish as human beings is realized to the extent that we can live in the love of God revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. We were created for such love but turned our backs on the very thing crucial for being human. Such is the essential nature of this love.

2. Paul goes on to speak about the effectiveness of love; about what love effects in our living. These few verses are often heard at weddings and familiar to many even if the source is unknown. We treasure its familiar sound, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

Most English translations render the Greek as if it used adjectives to describe the nature of love “timelessly”, e.g. love is patient; love is kind. But the nature of love is expressed by Paul in a series of verbs the active character of which may not be fully indicated by adjectives. Love (agape) is something you do. So if we were to read this text in its verbal structure we could translate it this way, “Love waits patiently; love shows kindness. Love does not burn with envy; does not brag”, and so on. It is seen in the character of our conduct towards the other.

Just before Paul pens this explication on love Paul had reminded the Corinthian church that “you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) The church then is to exhibit the character of the One whose church it is. This love Paul has in mind is self-forgetful self-giving. Each of these affirmations—love waits patiently; love shows kindness—touches on what this self-forgetful self-giving looks like. Love (agape) denotes above all a stance or attitude which shows itself in acts of will as regard, respect, and concern for the welfare of others. Love is to be for the other.

There are few thinkers more profound than Augustine. Born in the year 354 and living until 430, he was philosopher, theologian, political theorist, cultural commentator, and all of these at once; and not only all of these at once, but all of these superbly. He wrote much about love, approaching the topic of love the way an appreciative jeweller approaches a gem, glowing over the different lustres it radiates as light shines on it first from one angle and then from another. I think that Augustine captures brilliantly the heart of love’s interest when he wrote: “Love means ‘I want you to be.’”

Would it not help our marriages if each spouse was determined to live this way towards the other, “I want you to be?” Think about our business relationships and workplaces—I should think that productivity would increase if you knew that those around you wanted you to succeed. Perhaps, like me, you find that self-interest is always lapping at your heart. What motivates your kindness towards another is in some measure driven by what is in it for you; I am motivate by how I want others to think of me. This self-forgetful self-giving is not natural to us—though it is our Saviour’s nature who indwells and empowers.

We remember that in our Saviour’s life poured out for us is that love that says “I want you to be.” The gospel discloses that it is our sin that clogs and disfigures our true humanity. Christ comes to us to restore us to our true nature—to be the human being God intended us to be.

We might be wondering in all this self-forgetful self-giving for the other—what about me? Isn’t this the sort of thing that leads to burnout or loss of myself? First, I note with you, that our Lord did not lose who he was in giving himself for us—in fact it was the very disclosure of who he is. Secondly, though it seems counter-intuitive it is as we give ourselves for the other our true self emerges. Jesus said that those who cling to the life lose it but those who give it for his sake find life.

The third thing I point out is that we are influenced but the individualist thinking of our era—the era of me and my space. When Paul says “you are the body of Christ,” the “you” is plural. There is a together-with-others aspect to our lives. Love (agape) implies as much for it assumes someone to love. In the church then, there is to be this reciprocity of love—freely given, never demanded. After all did we not first have to receive the love of God before we could in fact reciprocate with love for him? I point out that receiving love is important too. We want to be the givers of love which sometimes is motivated by a self-interest—look at me being all agape all the time! Is it not a good thing to acknowledge when someone has been patient with you? When someone offers an act of kindness our first response often is—you didn’t have to do that! Of course they didn’t—that was hardly the point of their kindness. On the other side of this we need to be sure we aren’t showing kindness in order to obligate others in some sort of quid-pro-quo.

3. Love is essential, effective, and now Paul says, eternal. Love (agape) never ends. It is an often repeated phrase in the Psalms; “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever.” A phrase repeated at least 40 times in the Psalms. Carry that word as a shield that guards your hearts—his steadfast love endures forever. In the middle of Babylon’s devastating occupation of Israel and destruction of Jerusalem the prophet Jeremiah writes his book Lamentations and in the middle of that Lamentation is that beautiful, often-sung assertion: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

Love never ends. Love never collapses or falls apart. God is love, wrote the Apostle John. And because God is eternal then so is his love. Love never comes to nothing. Every act of kindness, showing of patience, turning away from testiness, refusal to be resentful—all of this is to participate in the eternal love of God. God’s promise to the believer is that all of this is blessed by God as he weaves that tapestry of redemption now which will give way to the kingdom of light where it will all be perfected and of this kingdom there will be no end.

Love is that quality which distinctively stamps the life of heaven. There are things that abide said Paul. We do take some things with us; faith, hope, and love abide. But the greatest of these is love for love abides as the character of the existence that the scriptures describe as the new heaven and the new earth. This is what Paul has in mind when he said—then we will see face to face; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Recall for a moment a time when you were caught up in the joy of the company of friends; conversation was easy and proceeded from one joy to the next. Such moments give us taste of the exponential power of love that simply moves from blessing to greater blessing. Now imagine an existence when nothing will inhibit love. No resentment to be overcome, no cruel putdowns to be forgiven, no harm to deflect or hide from. Every new person will in fact be a friend whom you just haven’t met yet; an existence where love only gives way to more love. All of this is in the promise that love never ends. Amen.