The Greatest Gift

Message preached January 28, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon 1 Corinthians 12:31 - 13:13

Order of Worship

I do believe I will always associate this chapter about God's Love with a dear sister in my last congregation. Her name was Lena Acker. Six months after I began my ministry there Lena suffered a stroke, from which she never really recovered. She, however, had such a strong, yet gentle spirit about her. Even laying in bed, her left side paralyzed, she was able to keep that fruit of the spirit flowering within her; the fruit called Love.

Sure she got discouraged, terribly discouraged - at a throat which resisted swallowing, at a hand which resisted clenching, at a leg which resisted walking. But no matter what her discouragement, she always had me read her favorite chapter in the Bible - 1 Corinthians 13. When aches and pains, frustrations and disappointments come, it's so easy for those of more seasoned years to become cynical and ornery. My friend, my sister in the Lord, Lena, was not immune to this. Yet there was also a deep yearning, a bud pushing open to flower within this crippled woman. You can't suppress something like that.

Every time I read 1 Corinthians 13 from her well-worn King James Bible, it was like her spirit was in tune with the words. I'd struggle with all the "eth"s, you know, "profiteth, suffereth, envieth, vaunteth, abideth," language with which I was not raised. But even amid my own crippled reading, this woman, who herself struggled to speak, would resonate with those words. Every time she would ask me to substitute the word "LOVE" for the word the KJV used - "Charity."... It was only fitting that when we celebrated Lena's entrance into glory at her funeral, this chapter was read.

Love... such an overused and misunderstood word. Yet love is so central to what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is all about. For all the "love" we see displayed on our television and movie screens, this is still a pretty "love-less" world. People desperately need love, love that is not a sorry imitation of the real thing. Each generation comes up with it's own distortions of love. Some have confused it with mere sentimentality. Others have mixed it up with security ... safety. Some misunderstood it to be tied up with "things," objects we can give and receive. My generation distorted it to mean merely a sexual act, an ecstacy enjoyed only by those young enough to perform it.

Love... so easily confused, confounded, mixed up, misunderstood, distorted, in a Ďlove-lessí world. It's not that love doesnít involve sentimentality, security, things given and received, even sex... But it's so much more than the sum total of its expressions. Love... people are dying out there for lack of love. They search for love wherever they can find it. And finding none, they die - inwardly and outwardly.

Love... such an overused and misunderstood word. Yet love is so central to what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is all about. The apostle Paul called it greater than faith, greater than hope, which in no way undermines the necessity of faith and hope for a Christian. We must have faith in God - a living, active relationship with the One who is faithful, who is true to his promises. We must also have hope in God, endurance, perseverance against all odds, knowing in whose hands our future belongs. We must have faith and hope. But as great and important and necessary as these are for living the Christian life, they are far surpassed by Love. Mind you, it isn't a multiple choice question, picking option "c) Love," since Love is the greatest of the three. All of them are necessary, but without love everything else comes to nothing.

Everything that we say and everything that we do amounts to little more than a bag of beans if God's love isnít central. This old world is dying for love, and if we donít have that main ingredient, that greatest of Godís gifts, everything we cook up, everything we construct, will do no good. Love must be at the core of who we are as Christians. It must influence, it must color everything. Otherwise we are not being true to who we are.

Love.... itís a mandate for a Christian. Itís a command. "Love one another as I have loved you," Jesus said. That's a pretty heavy responsibility. Love led Jesus to a cross. In Jesus we see the greatest expression of this greatest of gifts called love. Love, the Jesus way, has something to do with not grasping for love but emptying, becoming a servant, dying to selfishness, going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, giving the extra coat, sharing the cup of water. Love, the Jesus way, is by far one of the most difficult things to be done that we ever can do. It is not an easy road, no mistake about it. And yet it is so central to our life in Christ.

We must love... We should love... We ought to love... That's a pretty hefty burden. It isnít easy to love in this old world. Thatís why love is such a scarce commodity. People all too often choose other, easier ways which, in reality, are harder ways in the long run. We know that love, the Jesus way, is necessary, itís a commandment. But it seems such a burden. And sometimes it appears as an impossible ideal. Nobody can love the way Jesus loved. That's true. Nobody can.

But, you know, while the Bible speaks in terms of commandments, there is a grace that covers every page. Love is listed in Galatians 5:22 as one of the fruit of the Spirit. I like that way of looking at it. The simplest of lessons is that you don't take an apple seed and command it to be an apple, expecting it to suddenly turn into this fruit. I've never seen it happen that way, have you? It takes time to nurture, develop, and grow. The same is true of that fruit we call love.

Now note, I didn't say "Love is fruity," though I have seen some star-crossed lovers who appeared that way. And maybe once upon a time I have acted a little fruity when learning how to love. No, I didn't say, "Love is fruity." But, like a fruit, it takes time to develop and grow. The Grace of God's commandments comes in the nurture of the Holy Spirit. We grow into Godís love. We become like Jesus. Please hear: I said we "become" like Jesus. This implies that we are not there already, that we have not arrived yet. We are still "becomers."

Upon accepting the great gift of God's love for us and living with faith and hope in Him, God develops in us a spiritual seed which grows and eventually becomes the fruit we call Love. It's not that we can truly love only when weíve grown up enough to bear fruit. Itís more that as we grow, our love will be become more like the love of Jesus. Love, the Jesus way, is not an impossible ideal. It is a fruit that is growing in us.

Love.... How we need, as a people of God, to bear this fruit. The need is so great. Just as in the days when the New Testament was first being lived out, people who do not know Jesus Christ are drawn to him by the love they see in those who bear his name. "See how they love one another" ... "They'll know we are Christians by our love." It can't be stated any more simply. Real Love... God's love in us, is the more excellent way, the Jesus way, the greatest gift.

In the Spirit of that Love, allow me the liberty of a very freestyle paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13. Forgive me if it is too free for your taste.

            You know (says this disciple Peter), I might be able to preach so well that people would never tire of hearing my voice; and I might able be to weave together a worship around a theme, using a variety of musical styles to satisfy a diversity of tastes. But if God's love is not at the center of it all, it's just a bunch of noise. Likewise, I might be able to counsel people so well that every person would afterwards have no problems (yeah, right!); and I might be able to visit everyone with great regularity, and see the sick and elderly even more often, but if I have no love, all this - in light of the cost of gasoline - is no better than the sound of a thrown rod or a bent axle.

            I might have wisdom and a sense of vision, so that I feel on top of what's happening here, instead of underneath it all; I might faithfully address all the important issues of the day, and remember all the areas, great and small, that are in need of prayer; Furthermore, I might have the ego strength to give myself up to be burned in the fire of folks who disagree with me, and still feel good about myself. But if I have no love, all this is not worth very much.

            You see, love is patient, knowing that, for instance, when we say goodbye to persons who have dwelt close to our heart, God will bring (and has already brought) us together with others who will reside there also. Furthermore, love is kind, showing a gentle hand amid change, offering the other cheek when others say what they don't really mean, or even when they do mean what they say. Love is not jealous of what others are doing, or arrogant over what we are doing. Love does not insist on its own way, especially when that might save hours of discussion. Nor is it irritable when others do insist on their own way. Love does not keep a running score of how many times feelings have been hurt.

            Love is not happy with evil, whether it be in some distant land, or within our own home. Love, however, rejoices in the truth - even when it hurts, for in such pain is found freedom. To admit a failure is the first step in moving beyond it, and going on with life, journeying in the direction God is leading. By the same token, Love never gives up, no matter what the cost; it believes that God is at work even when things appear darkest. Love never ends. Itís tough! It goes the distance!

            There are great sermons, but (hopefully) they don't last very long. There are times when we feel so close to God that we sing with a strange sounding tongue, but those moments end. There are times when we believe we can see beyond the fork up ahead in the road, but they fade away. For all the gifts which God gives us are good, and we need to use them now and not waste them. But when we are united with our Maker, all these things will somehow not seem the same, and they will pass away.

            When I was a child, I was pretty normal for a kid my size. I behaved in some pretty dumb ways at times, embarrassing my parents. My thoughts and feelings were still developing, as was my speech. Well, now I have grown up (at least I hope I have at age 45). I've changed a lot over the years. There were many childish things that needed to be given up. There still are. So it is with us now, as a church. With all our knowledge and wisdom, we still only see so much of what should be, or what will be. It's kind of like looking through a window on a morning after a heavy frost. You can't see much at all but the beauty that could be if only you could scrape the ice off and see the scenery that is on the other side of the window. Someday, God will open the window and we shall meet face to face. So, my brothers and sisters; faith, hope and love remain, but, you know, the greatest of these is Love.

That's the gospel according to the apostle Paul, sister Lena, and brother Pete. Make God's greatest gift of love your aim.

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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