Finding an old computer disk is like finding a time capsule. It’s always fun to see what kind of projects I was working on, what else was going on in my life, and what kind of memories it brings back.
Recently I found some old emails that my now-wife and I wrote in college. We all had email accounts at school (but it was all done from a plain-text terminal window and you didn’t use a mouse for any of it) and my wife had a compuserve account. (Her address was a bunch of random firstname.lastname@example.org — I think that was standard with compuserve. Ah, the personal touch.) We were just learning how to use email and were excited that we could read each other’s words the same day, rather than after the four days it took for our letters to travel from Seattle to Indiana or vice-versa.
I was on such a treasure hunt today and came across this file. It’s a message I preached in October 2001 at the church I grew up in. I mention it in the message, but it was shortly after my mother died, and it’s interesting to read it now, knowing where I was at in the grieving process when I was putting it together, and so soon after 9/11. More after the jump.
I am here today because I have been through a lot of learning experiences in the last few years and especially in recent months, and as I consider you all family, I want to share with you some of the things I have learned. I want to talk to you today about love, and if you are new to this church you’ll soon find that this is a topic familiar to this congregation. The motto here is “We love you first, and then we get to know you,” and my wife and I have visited many churches in the last few years, and nowhere have I seen God’s love modeled in a more genuine way than in this church family. Love is one of those things that this church knows in a way that they make it seem effortless.
But sometimes circumstances call for us to review even that which we know by heart. Sometimes life calls those things into question. And in recent months, things have happened in my life which cause me to reexamine the promise of God’s love from an entirely new perspective.
Some of you share with me these challenges in a personal way. Some of you have been faced with similar challenges. Some of you are dealing with issues that no one else in this room knows about. As a congregation, you are dealing together with many of these challenges. And certainly, as a nation, we are finding some of our most basic routines of life called into question.
Our scripture passage today was written to a group of believers in a world that may seem entirely different than our own. And yet it is a piece of writing that seems as timeless as the love of which it speaks. It is one of the most well-known, most frequently read portions of scripture, and even those who are entirely unfamiliar with the Bible are likely to recognize this passage. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’ve probably heard it. And some have said that to examine this scripture piece by piece is like cutting apart a beautiful diamond or pulling apart a beautiful rose, petal by petal. But there is an important message here–one that we cannot afford to pass by in our present circumstances.
Paul was writing to the church in Corinth to settle some issues that had been causing chaos. Because of some internal disagreements, the normal order of things in the Corinthian church had been turned upside down. This is relevant to us today because our world, your world, has suddenly become a bit more chaotic in many ways.
And so it is that such a word from the Holy Spirit, preserved in writing by the apostle Paul, so fittingly addresses our current situation. It is a perfect description of God’s love for us and in us, and I want to examine today how this passage can make a difference in our lives, in the way we view the world around us, and in the ways we deal with these challenges, for God’s love can carry us through all of the unanswered questions of life.
Our world has changed. America is not the same place it was just a few short weeks ago. We have gone from a common hope of seeing the Mariners reach the World Series to a nation afraid to open its mail. We have been transformed from people who complained about long waits at the airport to people who instinctively look up every time we hear an airplane. September days of beautiful sunshine, baseball games, new school clothes and preparation for a return to the routines of fall and winter were yanked away from us and replaced by unimaginable horror, daily reports of infections we long regarded as science fiction, demand for gas masks and antibiotics and suspicion of our neighbors who fit a certain physical description, as we wonder what could be next.
Five months ago my mother died, quite suddenly, and many of us were left wondering why. She was so young, and so strong and healthy, and such a great witness of God’s love, why would God not answer our prayers for her physical healing? These questions remain unanswered in a definitive way.
Some of you are dealing with illness yourselves, or the threat of layoffs, or family struggles. Perhaps a loved one is acting in a way you just can’t explain. Maybe someone here, like me, has found that the circumstances in your life have pulled you down so that you feel sometimes like you are absolutely unmotivated to do anything, maybe you cry for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on, and the things that you once enjoyed just don’t bring the same sense of satisfaction.
And before I start sounding like a commercial for a little purple pill, I want to point out that these are the types of questions that humanity has struggled with from the very beginning. And the description of God’s perfect love as found here in the scripture provides a way of sustaining us through even the most difficult moments of life.
Today I want to examine how God’s love can carry us through these difficult times by bringing us closer to God through a relationship with Christ; by taking its proper place in our lives; by instructing us in how to live; and by remaining when everything else has passed away. First, let’s look at how God’s love can carry us through these difficult times by bringing us closer to God through a relationship with Christ.
This passage is recognized as one of the greatest descriptions of love in all of the writings of human history. Paul’s words here are read at weddings, esteemed by the church, appreciated even by those who do not follow Christ, but as we begin this discussion of love, it is important to note that the source of this love is God Himself. Paul can tell of this love because he knows this love–he knows it through a personal relationship with the living God.
And before we get into the text of the passage, I want to explain what Paul is talking about when he talks about love. He’s talking about God’s love, and we know that from the words he chooses, from other places that word appears in scripture, and from Paul’s own experience.
One way we know this is through Paul’s choice of words. In the Greek language of the New Testament there were three words for love–eros, meaning romantic love or passion, phileo, or brotherly love, and agape, a selfless, spiritual love (get definition).
Throughout this passage the word love appears 9 times, and if you look at the original language, you’d see that in every instance he’s specifying this agape love. Agape identifies a rare, selfless, committed love–love by choice, not by obligation or temporary feeling. This type of love is rarely mentioned in the literature written around the same time as the New Testament, but many of the bible’s key passages relating to love use this form of love to describe God’s love and the love we ought to have for each other in Christ.
This is another way we know this love comes from God—the ways that this word is used in other places in scripture. This is the love described in John 3:16–“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This is the love Jesus commands from his disciples in John 13:35–“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Paul writes of this love in Romans 5–“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And on.
We also know that Paul knew this love in a very personal way because we read of his conversion in Acts 9. Saul was a vicious persecutor of Christians, hunting them down and bringing them out of houses and even presiding at the stoning of at least one believer, when Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Saul changed his name to Paul and became one of the greatest missionaries the world has ever seen.
Paul’s conversion is a very real account of the transformation of the heart, and a vivid illustration of one of Paul’s points in our scripture today–Paul was a very well-educated Jew, knowledgeable and confident in the Jewish laws of the day, and knew about God and God’s working throughout the history of the Jewish people.
But God transformed his heart and his personality through a very real relationship, which began with a personal question from Christ–“Why do you persecute me?” Paul’s relationship with the love of which he writes was not one he had learned solely from others, though it was nurtured by other believers; it grew as a result of an encounter with the living God.
We can know this love, too, and many of you do–that’s why you’re here today. This love enters into our life and carries us through the times when the burdens we are dealing with seem too heavy to bear. It begins as a spark and is born within us, and grows each day. It’s not just a simple understanding of an idea, but it is the reality that the God who created the universe–the God who is greater than all of these mysteries–is with us, is in us, and slowly, steadily we come to greater understandings of what that means, and how that love should be manifested in our lives.
I have a two-year-old son, Jake. I love that kid–even before he could respond to me, I loved him; even before he was born, when he was just a blurry black-and-white picture I showed to my friends and family, an alien turning somersaults in my wife’s stomach, I loved him. He was not aware that I even existed, and I loved him. When he was born, he slowly came to realize who mom and dad were, and I loved him. Then he started interacting–smiling, laughing, talking, teasing, hugging, kissing, and I loved him. Now he’s two, and growing smarter every day, but still just knowing a little bit of the things he will learn–oblivious to my mother’s death, oblivious to the things happening in our country; knowing that daddy goes to work but not knowing what that means or what I do or what car loans, property tax, budgeting, or anything else like that are–and someday I will teach him those things, but right now we’re just working on the abc’s (there are only 11 letters in his alphabet: abcdhij, wxy and z) and numbers and how to put your shirt on.
That’s the way love is in us: It does not arrive in its fullest form, but as a spark, something that grows at times slowly and at times by leaps and bounds, and no matter how long we live it will never cease to grow in us, it will never reach that point where love has grown all it’s going to grow. We will always have something to learn of love.
And because love is always growing, and because love is central to our life in Christ and our life with other people, it is vitally important. Seeing what this love means and how it grows out of a personal relationship with Christ, let’s look at our passage–Paul knows this love, and his first point here is to show how vital that love is in our Christian life.
In the first three verses, Paul is talking about spiritual gifts, and how love is greater than any of these abilities. Paul is not only talking only about things we do but even the things that are God-given are nothing without love. Even though these gifts are given by God, love is what gives them their value.
Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Love is greater than any ability to speak to others or to reason, greater than any eloquence, greater than any description we can come up with. All of these things, with love as their center, are great. But the words we speak or the volume or persistence with which we speak them are not important by themselves; it is only by the love behind them that they are made great.
Paul compares these things, without love, to clanging cymbals and gongs–loud, harsh and incapable of harmony. The opposite, then, is that these things with love are to the ears of heaven a beautiful sound, in harmony with the very music of heaven. To put it in perspective, love is the difference between the London Philharmonic Orchestra and 150 junior high boys in a room full of percussion instruments.
In verse 2, Paul writes, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Prophecy can relate to an ability to see God’s hand at work, or to predict where God will move. And some people have an uncanny ability to understand that which seems mysterious to us common folks, or to retain knowledge that they can remember later when it’s important; those things are not bad, but without love, Paul says, I am nothing. He doesn’t say nobody; he says I am an absolute zero–nothing. These abilities give me nothing to claim for myself in God’s eyes. Even the faith to move mountains–literal mountains, personal mountains, political mountains: even if I could walk into Afghanistan and get bin Laden to say, “Man, I am so sorry; let’s go see what we can do to help Israel and Palestine get along peacefully” (that’s a mountain), I would have no grounds to say to God or to the world, “Look at me!” if I have not love.
I could know all about all languages, about art, about science, all about God and the teachings of scripture; I could explain God’s actions in ways that people would find acceptable; I could accomplish anything I set my mind to, even things that seem impossible, but these things are nothing without love.
There’s a pattern developing here: All these things, in Christ, with love, are good and can bring about growth and strength and unity in God’s kingdom, but without love, these things are worthless. Love is what gives them value, and those who can do these things with the love of God that comes from allowing God to use us, from putting aside the selfish desires within us and letting love grow, will be told when they reach heaven, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Love is what makes the difference.
Verse 3 says, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” I think the first part of this verse is pretty straightforward, and I want to look at the second part, because it’s a very relevant topic these days. The first night David Letterman was back on the air after the attacks on New York and DC, this man who takes nothing seriously and does not hesitate to make jokes about anyone or anything, looked into the camera, choking back tears, and said, “The people who crashed these planes did it in the name of religion, and if you live to be a thousand years old, will that ever make any sense?”
At certain times in Christian history, there have been those who sought martyrdom in order to make a name for themselves. And we see this today in the terrorists, in the suicide bombings regularly reported from the Middle East; these men believe they are doing great things for God and gaining special favors in heaven for their acts. But Paul here says, “I gain nothing.” There are examples in history—Jesus Christ being the supreme example—of people giving their lives out of love. Self-sacrifice can be a great thing in the right circumstances, but without God’s love, they gain nothing. God will deal with them, but for us, love is to continue to be our motivation.
We cannot convince our enemy with arguments; we cannot win with hate. Two quotes come to mind: Martin Luther King once said that “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And there’s a story that Mahatma Gandhi once remarked that if Christians really lived according to the teachings of Jesus, all the world would be Christian.” God’s love is powerful. It is stronger than the gifts of tongues, prophecy, wisdom, it is stronger than any earthly charity and greater than sacrifice; Love is greater than all these things and is more than able to carry us through whatever we may face. And when we allow love to take its proper place in our lives, all else will take on a proper perspective, and love will carry us through whatever we may face.
So what does this love look like? Paul gives a very detailed description here in verses 4-8, and it is a description that instructs us how we who have God’s love in us ought to live. In fact, the ultimate goal of God’s love in my life is to bring me to a point where I can substitute my name for the word “love” in this passage. Paul is patient. Paul is kind. ____ does not envy, she does not boast, she is not proud. ____ is not rude, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. ____ does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. ____ & ____ always protect, always trust, always hope, always perseveres. ____ never fails. Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear someone say these things of you? Would that be a blessing?
This passage in itself is instruction. This is our aim. And as God’s love, through a relationship with him, will carry us through anything life can throw at us, the instruction within that love will lead us through anything we encounter. Repeat this. And the greatest example of this instruction is Jesus Christ—God coming to earth in human form to show us, by example, how we ought to live.
Agape love, God’s love, is without self-interest. Its opposite is Pride. Love is the ultimate of God’s activity; Pride is what made the devil become the devil. Love motivates us to love others; pride motivates us to love ourselves above all others. And so God’s love must work in us, instructing us and slowly leading us away from pride–the root of our sinful nature–and toward love. It is a difficult task sometimes, because sometimes there are lessons we don’t want to learn. We all know situations in our lives where we have brought upon ourselves “a lesson.” But the amazing thing about love is that even in our darkest times, even when we are hurting and God hurts with us, Love finds a way to instruct us in ways we could not find any other way.
Many of you know that I was involved in an effort to plant a church in Seattle about four years ago. It was a task that we were called by God to do, and we were excited about the possibilities of ministering in this way. Things happened, doors opened, that could not be explained any other way except to say that God was working to make this vision a reality.
But two years into it, the church folded. To that point, it was probably the most difficult thing I had faced in my life. My emotions were invested in that church; my understanding of God’s call on my life was entirely wrapped around what that would look like in the ministry of Crossroads Community Church. My closest friends were also on staff at the church. And in one Sunday night, it was all gone. My near future was a black hole. My emotions swung wildly. My friends moved across the country to take other jobs. And we were alone.
And yet, in the midst of that time of questioning, of frustration and pain and anger and sadness, I learned things about God that I could not have learned any other way. That is not to say that I would do it again, or that I believe that God caused it to happen in order to teach me those things; I don’t know why it happened. But I know that God knows, and in his love He is teaching me new lessons each day, and I know that someday it will all be clear; for now, I must be patient.
My experience with mom’s death has been very similar. I cannot explain why God did not heal her. And I do not ask why–at least most of the time. C.S. Lewis wrote of his experience of losing his wife in a book called “A Grief Observed.” And he writes of asking God these questions–why she had to die, why God didn’t save her–saying that it’s not so much that God doesn’t want to answer these questions, but that he can’t answer them, not in a way that makes sense to us. Because our grasp of reality is so limited that there is no starting point to that question–it’s like asking God, “What color is round?” or “What does a banana sound like?” Where do you begin answering these questions?
Or to put it in another way, my dad sent me a story in which a family is sitting around the dinner table and the mother and father are talking about certain financial obligations when their four-year-old son breaks in and says, “Daddy, what’s a mortgage?” How do you explain a mortgage to a four-year-old?
But this is not to say it hasn’t been hard adjusting to life without Mom. I miss her terribly. I would give anything to hear her voice on the phone, to feel her laugh, to smell her breath, to hear her sing. One of my strongest memories of her illness is of the last night she was in the hospital before we took her off the ventilator, and I spent an hour or two in her room in the middle of the night, seated at the side of the bed with my arms up on the bed and her hand in mine, and I fell asleep with my head rested on her arm. I knew she wasn’t there anymore, but she still felt like mom and smelled like mom and I am so thankful that I had the chance to do that. That was a gift.
I cannot explain why mom died. I cannot explain why the church folded. I cannot explain why men would crash airplanes into skyscrapers and send diseases through the mail. But I can stand here and say without any shadow of a doubt that whatever I have gone through, God has gone through it with me. And gently, God has helped me to learn from it, to see what life is really about and what I really ought to value and where I ought to spend my time.
And I know what the bible means when it says that God will work all things together for his good–it doesn’t mean that God causes all these things to happen, but that when we allow God into our mourning, into our fear, into our insecurity, into our anger, He will lead us through it with the gentle grace of his instruction in Love.
And God’s loving instruction isn’t lecture; it’s more like teaching someone to play baseball. You put on the glove and play catch with them; you stand behind them and hold the bat with them and swing together at the ball; you are right beside them, coaching them and giving them confidence and a love for the game. God’s instruction is of experience, gentle redirection and love for the life He gives. And love will bring a peace that passes understanding–a peace that remains regardless of our grasp on the world around us. God’s loving instruction will lead us through any challenges that come our way.
The third portion of this passage tells how love will outlast all earthly things and find its completion in heaven. God’s enduring love will carry us through because it is the only constant, the only thing that will remain when all is said and done. God’s love will carry us through by relationship, by taking its proper place in our lives, by instruction, and by its endurance.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect appears.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
There’s a promise here. The things of this world will one day pass away. And I bet that’s exactly how it looks from mom’s point of view: She didn’t pass away; the temporary things of this world passed away from her. And love remains. Regardless of what this world brings us, it’s temporary. Cheap. Disposable. Of course, from our vantage point, it doesn’t seem that way. Life can hurt. Life can be difficult to explain. Life can rob us of the freedom Love intends. But all those things are temporary, and Love will remain. Love can carry us through all of these challenges, because love will still be there when all else has passed away.
Relying on anything but God’s love is like trying to drive from here to Boston on a single tank of gas. It’s going to run out. And I’ll be stuck. And who here would not say I was a few fries short of a happy meal for trying?
Yet we try to do the same thing when it comes to dealing with life’s challenges. We are pretty creative at finding things that will carry us through, but none of them have love’s endurance. We rely on alcohol, or drugs, or passion, or cynicism, or pride, or busy-ness, or all kinds of other things you could mention here. And for a while, they may work great. But they’re going to fail, and we’ll be stuck. There is no substitute for love.
Paul says, “when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” The love we now know is strong enough to carry us through because it will last–but imagine how much greater that love will be when all the imperfect things are done away with. I imagine it as having a little flashlight and shining it in the dead of night. No matter how dark it is, the darkness cannot hold back that light, and it will illuminate everything close by. But wait in that same spot for daylight to come, and at noon, when the clouds are gone and the sky is blue and the sun is warm, turn that flashlight on. There’s no comparison. That’s how love is now–it is stronger than any darkness it encounters. But soon, gradually, the dawn will come, and the darkness will be pushed away, and Love will remain.
Paul compares our current understanding to the ways of a child. I mentioned earlier about Jake’s understanding of the world. But when Love reaches its fullness, our current understanding will seem to us then as Jake’s understanding seems to us now. Or, to put it another way, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” The mirrors of Paul’s day were metal, like a rest-stop mirror. They were pounded out flat and if there was any scratch, any dent, any bend, it distorted the picture. This is what Paul talks about–not our glass mirrors. Imagine trying to do your hair in the back of a tarnished spoon. But even if Paul were talking about our mirrors, it’s still nothing compared to seeing someone face to face, in all their dimensions.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
There’s a reason that love is different from the other two. Faith is a trust in things unseen. I can’t prove them, I can’t show them to you in a way that can be tested and proved, but I have faith in things unseen. But some day, when we leave this temporary place and join God in heaven, when perfection comes, there will be no need for faith. Everything will be right there.
And the same with hope. There are things that I hope for–among them, a chance to see mom, to have her show me around and tell me about her favorite places; I hope for an end to the pressures of life, to the physical aches and pains of this temporary body, to allergies, to alarm clocks; and someday, those hopes will be realized. There will be no need for hope.
But love–love is the greatest of these. Love will only grow stronger and brighter and deeper. Love will always remain.
I am so glad that, despite the challenges of life, I have this love to lean on, and it will carry me through. In the last few months I have learned to rely more on my relationship with Christ; I am trying daily to allow love to take its proper place in my life; I am learning daily from and about God’s love; and I am seeing in new ways the endurance of God’s love.
I know this love, and I am just at the beginning of my understanding. But I have been learning it all my life. I know love because I am fortunate to have a family that excels in loving. They’re all honor students. And I know love because of this church–many of you have modeled this love for me and I would put your names in that middle section as my coaches in loving.
Some of you here today, I know you know that love, and maybe you’ve walked away from it, or maybe you just set it aside but you know it’s time to ask God to come alongside again and walk with you and teach you about this Love.
Or maybe you have never known that love, but the spark has been ignited and you’ve been wondering how to fan it to a flame.
Or maybe you’ve been walking with that love for a long time and lately some things have come before you that have really challenged your understanding and your faith.
Wherever you are, if you feel drawn by God’s love to be still and listen, to make a change or maybe there’s something specific that love is urging you to do that you’ve been resisting; now’s the time to listen. The altars are open and no one will think any less of you for coming forward; if you would like, there are folks here who would love to talk with you and pray with you. If you feel that God is just asking you to be silent and listen, please come forward or remain seated where you are, but please don’t ignore that request. God wants to do something in your life, to teach you about this love, to bring you to a new understanding of life and what it means to be part of God’s family. Wherever you are in this journey, God will wait for you. If he’s speaking to you today, come forward. Listen. Begin the journey so that you can say, from your personal experience, as Paul did, that Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Jesus said, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”