Preached February 10, 2013
1 Corinthians 13:1–13
St. Luke 18:31–43
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today we come to the last Sunday of Pre-Lent, Quinquagesima, meaning fifty days. It is actually forty nine days before Easter, when Sundays are included in the count. In the middle of the coming week, we will come to Ash Wednesday which officially begins Lent, we often hear described as “forty days before Easter.” How can this great arithmetic error be reconciled? The answer lies in the fact that, in counting the days of Lent, we do not count the Sundays, because every Sunday is a re-creation of Easter. When we drop out the six Sundays in Lent, including Palm Sunday, and the first part of the current week, we come up with the forty days of Lent. Perhaps it is because Ash Wednesday will be so soon upon us that the Church has only asked us to reflect on a single crowning virtue for the few days that remain before the beginning of Lent itself, the virtue of Charity, also known as Love.
A short while ago, you heard the Epistle lesson for the day read from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. What we have read as “charity” is often given in other translations as “love,” and it is probably for this reason that this is a favorite passage of Scripture to be read at weddings. It speaks of “sounding brass” and “tinkling cymbals” Doesn’t that bring forth images of wedding bells? It says, Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth, etc. That sounds about like the minister’s charge to a couple being married, does it not? And yet, that is not really what this passage is about at all, and in thus reading it, we miss the point entirely. We need to understand Love as a theological virtue.
There are always two sides to human Love. On the one side, there is our selfish desire to possess and enjoy the other person. On the other side, there is the selfless desire for the good and happiness of the other person. It is impossible to eliminate either of these from human love.
The object of Love as a theological virtue is God. We love God because He is the sum of all perfection, He is supremely lovable in and for Himself alone. It is in Him that we find our eternal life, our true peace and happiness. This is the selfish side of our love for God. The selfless side of our love for God is found in our desire to serve Him, to place His will foremost in our lives. There are three specific aspects to this: (1) it means rejoicing in the goodness of God, (2) it means constantly seeking to give glory to God, and (3) it means zealously promoting the Kingdom of God here on earth.
When we speak of loving God in this way, some will wonder how God responds. Is there an intensity of emotional response? There may be, or there may not be. An intense emotional response is a gift which the Holy Spirit bestows on some and not on others. The lack of this response is not a personal failure or cause for despair; we cannot command the Holy Spirit. What is required of us in this life is that we continue steadfastly to put God first before all else. We will get our due in Heaven if not before. The theological virtue of love is not an emotion nearly so much as it is an act of the will to place God first.
Love of God is a judgement of value much more than it is a matter of intensity of feeling. People may easily be confused because they feel a much more intense love for a friend or family member than they do for God. But that is not what loving God is about. To love God is to prefer Him above everything else, and consequently to avoid those things that offend Him while to seeking those things that please Him. Intensity of feeling arises much more from physical proximity than it does from actual value, so we tend to have much stronger feelings about those that are physically close to us than those that are remote, and God is in many ways completely remote even while remaining personal. Thus we can say of a child that we would prefer that he had some Godly quality rather than great wealth.
We are all familiar with the command that we must love our neighbor as our selves. While at first blush that sounds simple enough, all of us who have lived a while are aware of how complicated that gets at times. Unfortunate as it sounds, we know that we have to prioritize in some manner, we have to make some sort of choices at times. How do we do this?
The first thing we have to keep in mind is that the highest priority of Love is God. We should not do anything to help the need of another person that requires us to do something displeasing to God. To do that cannot be in the best interest of either the other person or ourselves. Notice carefully what I just said; you cannot possibly help another person by doing something displeasing to God. Thus you cannot steal to give money to someone in need, and so forth. It is all displeasing to God.
Secondly, and seemingly paradoxically, we have to love ourselves more than our neighbors. Since God is the primary object of love, we must not sin and thus offend God in order to benefit our neighbor. The only basis we have for helping our neighbor is that he too is made in the image of God and thus shares with us in God’s love. We cannot exclude ourselves from that love in order to help the other. To do that is to deny our own true love of God. This goes back to the previous idea; you cannot do evil to help someone else. It is an offense to God.
Thirdly, we are not to sacrifice our neighbor’s spiritual welfare for our own material well being. Thus if we see our neighbor in spiritual peril, we are obligated to intervene, even though it may cost us, either materially or perhaps personal injury. As an example, during time of war or natural disaster, a minister must not leave his people but rather must stay and minister to them despite the personal risks involved. This is not a far fetched example at all; there have been just such cases in civil disasters where ministers have deserted their people to their shame.
Let us turn specifically to the matter of almsgiving. There are many requests for assistance these days, more than any of us are able to fully respond to. What principles should govern our actions in this area of life? Briefly, there are three:
(1) First, spiritual needs have the highest claim on our giving before other matters;
(2) Those more nearly connected to us have a higher claim than those more remote;
(3) Almsgiving is only a duty to meet real human needs.
Considering the first item, a Christian is bound to pay particular attention to requests to support the work of the Church. Requests to support overseas missions, church planting, youth outreach, support for poor parishes, schools, colleges, and seminaries all must be given the most serious consideration. The spiritual ministry of the Church throughout the world is more important than attending to the material needs of people. This is not a popular idea these days, but it remains true. Many agencies exist to relieve their material wants, but only the Church exists to provide the word of God to them. No one but Christians will support the Church, so it is absolutely vital that this be a priority.
It is the duty of Christians to love the brotherhood (1 Peter 2:17). Thus our support should go particularly to fellow members of the Body of Christ. This accords with the second principle, that those more closely connected to us have a higher claim. By this principle, of course, our immediate family has the highest claim, followed by friends and associates. Similarly, the poor of our own society have a greater claim on our charity, not our tax dollars but our charity, than do the poor of the rest of the world.
We may very well receive solicitations to support things such as the building of a new sports stadium, a new library, a performing arts center, or similar facility. While there is nothing evil about any of these projects in and of themselves, we should not view them as Christian Charity. They do not rise to the level of meeting a need, only a desire. Such giving may win you esteem as a great civic benefactor, but it is not Christian Charity.
Now, let us return to St. Paul, with slightly modified words:
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not the love of God, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not the love of God, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not the love of God, it profiteth me nothing. 4 The love of God suffereth long, and is kind; the love of God envieth not; the love of God vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. 8 The love of God never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13 And now abideth faith, hope, and the love of God, these three; but the greatest of these is the love of God.
With this understanding of charity, let us pray again the Collect for the day which is derived from this Scripture passage:
O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without thee are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Just a note to say that I will not be posting anything for a while. I am moving across country, from Iowa to Texas, in the next several weeks. So for the short term, I will be away from posting anything here, although I expect to be back in a few weeks, after we get settled again. Please come back to see me later in Lent.