The Greatest of these is Love

The Greatest of these is Love

Glynn Cardy January 30th 2022

1If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 

There are people who talk and write beautifully, who are a joy to listen to and read.  There are people who talk persuasively and knowingly, in a way that makes you want to believe in what they are saying and to follow them.  There are people who speak wisely, whose words touch our hearts.  Yet without love – the big expansive type of love that leaves no one behind – all those words, and the people who say and write them, are just noise.  Jarring noise.

2And 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. 

Religious people over the centuries have valued spiritual gifts.  Some can insightfully intuit the present and how it will likely impact the future.  Some can pray in such ways that lift our hopes, and refresh our tired souls, so that the mountains before us seem to shrink in size.  Some have remarkable sensitivity, remarkable wisdom, and remarkable learning.  Yet without love – the big compassionate kind, whose nature is to give – then all these spiritual gifts are worth nothing.

3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Generosity is a window into a person’s faith.  Similarly, the ability to go without, to make do with less, to willingly give up our gains.  People who spend their lives giving to others often exemplify the best in Christianity.  Yet without love such service, such self-sacrifice, such benevolent faith is worth nothing.  It is just religious noise.

4Love is patient; love is kind;

Love waits.  It is patient.  It is not pushy.  Its power is in its patience.  It does not impose itself, impressing others with authoritative words.  It waits for the right time, for the time when the other is ready and willing to risk opening themselves to something different.  It encourages, rather than coerces.   

Love is kind.  It meets you with a warm smile.  It thanks.  It praises.  It notices and compliments.  It goes out of its way to help.  Particularly to help those whom others have forgotten or ignored or wish to ignore.  It has a bias towards the little and the least.

love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 

There are attitudes and actions that don’t sit comfortably with love.  Envy – wanting what another has – is very common.  Some would call it a necessary motivation to succeed in our world.  But the world of love is steeped in gratitude.  Love holds both a spirit of contentment and thankfulness alongside a passion to see each and every person (ourselves included) experience security, love, and fulfilment.  This is a very different definition of success.

Doing wrong to others is the destructive pastime of fostering insecurity (through poverty, violence, inequity, and the like).  Doing wrong to others is to cage their dreams, to curtail their hopes, and to corrupt the word ‘love’ – making it into something that has to be earnt, something that is conditional.

As for truth, Pilate’s perennial question, it is not a right doctrine, a right thought or attitude, or even a right action.  It can’t be packaged as a creed, or proclaimed as a denomination, religion, or political philosophy.  It is not the sum total of all knowledge and all wisdom.  Indeed, it defies our attempts at definition.  It is a jumble that we stumble through, and then are surprised by.  Pilate, if you remember, didn’t get an answer in words.  Jesus simply looked at him.  I’d like to believe that Pilate saw a look of lovingkindness and was shocked by it.

7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

It is a grave mistake to imagine that in a situation of domestic violence, or child abuse, or any abuse, that love requires that the victim bears it and endures it.  Such is not the nature of love.  Love speaks out against injustice.  Love builds up and restores, it doesn’t pull down and destroy.  Love acts to change the world, to change the very nature of the world, to care and to heal. 

And it is in the context of that mission to change the world that love bears, believes, hopes and endures all that is hurled against it.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 

Who knows what and when the end will be?  Will this planet go the way of all planets and someday cease to exist?  If so, is permanence something to be sought?  Or is that just a vanity, wanting our name and deeds to live on?  Many people of faith believe in an afterlife where individuality and personality endure.  Again, is this just our vanity? 

Maybe love – this big transformative healing love that I’m talking about – is all that endures?  We plant seeds of this love, which others might water, fertilise, and tend, and the energy of which enriches the whole far beyond the length of our lifetimes.  Will that love energy come to an end?  Probably, eventually, yes.  But it might be billions of years away.

11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 

A child needs love in order to grow and flourish.  So, love meets their need.  At the same time, they are learning how to give love.  As they grow, hopefully they will learn that love isn’t a transaction – that is, giving in order to get.  For an adult hopefully knows that love is really all about giving away without considering any return, that mature love is not given conditionally but unconditionally.  As adults we also know that love is not just for the benefit of individuals but for the building up of the whole community.  Love enriches the air we all breathe.  It is very socialistic.

But none of us have arrived at this adult place of unconditionality, of freely giving without expecting or wanting any return.  Some days we love conditionally, and other days unconditionally.  The journey of loving takes a lifetime.  Some days in our need we are children.  Other days we surprise ourselves in our unfettered generosity.  On that lifetime journey we come to know love and be known by love.

13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

These words from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian community in the 50s remain as confrontational today as they were then.  In the first years of that millennium Paul’s audience at Corinth valued the individual gifts of members.  Gifts in worship, in knowledge, in wisdom, and in leadership.  And Paul encourages the individuals with those talents to see themselves as part of a whole community, a whole body, and use what they have for the benefit of all.  A version of ‘service above self’.  But Paul goes further, telling the talented Corinthians that their gifts, and even their faith, are just clanging noises, or worth absolutely nothing, if they as individuals and as a community are not steeped, soaked, in love.

Today our cultures celebrate the gifts of individuals.  Some who are artists, entrepreneurs, musicians, managers, mentors, teachers, healers, political leaders, spiritual leaders…  We celebrate their gifts and encourage them to use such gifts for the betterment of the whole community, which many do.  But we also as a society slip into the fallacy that ‘gifts’ correlate with ‘worth’, and mark this with the giving of money, prestige, and other rewards.

Today’s text is a corrective to such thinking.  Without love, without compassion, without unconditional selfless giving, all that giftedness and hierarchy of value our society has created is worthless.  And it won’t last.  Only these three abide, faith, hope, and love, and greatest of these is love.