First Corinthians 13:1-13
Saint Luke 18:31 – 43
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Well it has finally come. This is the weekend commonly known in the secular world as Mardi Gras, and we stand on the verge of passing into the season of Lent. And nothing makes this any more plain than the words of our Gospel lesson where Jesus says Luke 18:31b Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. Our Lord’s announcement makes it very plain that we must now prepare for the journey.
But before we get into the Gospel lesson, we must give some thought to the Epistle lesson. The Epistle for today is the famous passage from First Corinthians that is so popularly misused at weddings. In verse 1, and repeatedly thereafter, we hear the word charity – St. Paul says “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity,…” as it is translated in the Authorized Version (KJV). The major difficulty comes in the word agaph, (which transliterates as agape’) the word which the Authorized Version has translated as charity. Many more modern translations (TEV, NIV, NEB, etc.) have translated this word as love. Now both translations are correct as far as they go, but they communicate differently to a modern English-language speaker. In the original Greek in which St. Paul wrote the word agaph means love, the unique spiritual love that exists between God and His people. Most significantly, this is the love of self-sacrifice. This is in contrast to eros, the type of sexual love that exists between a man and a woman, and also in contrast to phileos, the sort of affection and fellow feeling that exists between friends and family members. In this respect, the Greeks had a more precise linguistic capability than we English speakers have. So what ever translation of the Bible we read, when we read this passage, we must be certain that we understand the word translated from agaph to refer specifically and only to the self-sacrificing spiritual love between God and His people.
At the end of the Epistle lesson, St. Paul tells us that charity is the greatest of all the virtues because it endures forever: 1 Corinthians 13:13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. This is certainly not to denigrate the virtues of faith and hope, but simply to observe that charity, that is the true love between and among God and men is the virtue that endures even into eternity. When we get to Heaven we will not have faith because faith is a trust in something yet beyond our reason and grasp, and in Heaven, the thing desired will be ours. Similarly, we will no longer have hope because hope is also based on something to come in the future, but in Heaven, that future will have arrived. But charity will remain, because charity is the mutual love between God and His people, a virtue continuing throughout all eternity.
In our common everyday use of the word charity, we tend to think of alms giving and not too much more. But in verse 3, St. Paul makes it clear that charity must be much more than that. 1 Corinthians 13:3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. St. Paul is here telling us that merely giving alms does not rise to the level of charity but is something else altogether. He also says that alms giving, done without charity is of no value whatsoever. Thus we see that our usual understanding of the word charity, and the self-satisfied feeling that we associate with alms giving, are in fact not charity at all.
The development of agaph love, or charity, whichever words we choose, occurs within man in four steps. Let us consider each of them.
The first step is when we learn to love ourselves. This happens when we become sufficiently self-aware to realize how important our own welfare is to us. Before that point, we love no one or no thing, but when we come to appreciate our own welfare, we naturally begin to love ourselves. This is the first love, the germ of our understanding of charity. Now you may think that this is so elemental as to be trivial, but it is not. Think about all the people you know who, in fact, hate themselves. Some will admit this while others will not but their desire for self-destruction shows that this is in fact the case. We are surrounded with people like this every day, people who do not see themselves as having value, either in their own minds or the eyes of anyone else. Thus learning to love ourselves is indeed, a significant first step in the development of charity within each of us.
The second step comes when we discover that our own welfare is directly dependent upon God who provides for us. All who are truly Christians understand this, but the world is filled with people who do not recognize their dependence upon God, and therefore find it easy to ignore or deny God. They certainly do not love Him because they have not yet recognized their own need for Him. As long as anyone thinks themselves self-sufficient, able to provide for themselves by their own devices, they most certainly will not achieve the second step in the development of charity.
Those who have accomplished the first two steps, who appreciate their own welfare and to understand that their welfare is directly dependent upon God, will gradually move through the third step. This is when we become better acquainted with God, come to know who He is, and come to appreciate His nature. This is when we come to see Him as He truly is, the sum of all perfections and supremely lovable in and for Himself alone. In the third step, we have moved past love based on what we receive from God, to a love based purely on the nature of God Himself. This is the appreciation of God as all beauty, all knowledge, all power, and all goodness in Himself. When we come to love Him simply because of who He is, then the third step is completed.
The first three steps are as far as things go in this life. The fourth step is accomplished only at the general Resurrection of the Dead, the time when our mortal bodies cease to be in conflict with our eternal souls. When this happens we will be in union with God our Creator, and at that point, we will finally be able to love even ourselves for God’s sake.
The concept of being in union with our Creator may seem a little bit obscure, but consider the way it is explain by CS Lewis in his theological novel, The Screwtape Letters. In his book, Lewis has the senior demon, Screwtape, writing to a junior demon, Wormwood, who is his nephew. Thus, in the words of the senior demon:
… But the obedience which the Enemy demands of man is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk of His love for men and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself – – creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His (Letter VIII).
What Lewis has identified for us is the fact that, in Heaven after the general Resurrection, we will be like God because our wills will be perfectly conformed to His will. When that happens, we will in fact love ourselves just as God loves us, and for God’s sake. This last point may be difficult to grasp, because it is completely beyond our capability in this present life. In that last step, we will no longer be concerned for our own welfare which has been a factor in our love for God at each step up to the last.
There is a tendency to confuse charity with emotion, but this is wrong. Charity is a clearly a duty when we properly understand the words of Christ John 13:34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another, where the word is translated as love is again a form of the word agaph. We see this again in Matthew 22:37-39 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, where once again, agaph is the root word. Thus we must understand that charity is not optional, but rather is an absolute commandment upon us. True charity consists in keeping the goodness of God paramount in our minds and being absolutely determined to do His will. This is far more than our usual, limited, modern understanding that identifies charity simply with giving alms. It is this limited understanding that causes us to confuse charity with emotion.
While an absolute commitment to serving God is the central characteristic of charity, charity does not allow us to neglect our fellow man. The second half of the Summary of the Law reminds us vividly of this aspect. We must always be concerned for the welfare of our fellows, remembering however, that this refers to their eternal welfare far more than to their temporal welfare. Thus we may not do any action, even those which may appear to improve their temporal condition, if it is in any way damaging to their relationship with God. Now that may sound a bit abstract, but it is actually very down to earth and concrete. Let me give you a few examples.
One of the hot button issues for our current day is the homosexual agenda and the “rights of homosexuals.” Society today is deluged with demands for “tolerance” which in fact turns into the endorsement, full acceptance and promotion, of the homosexual agenda. As Christians, we certainly must not call for burning these people at the stake, we must not call for their persecution, we must not do anything that is harmful to them. They are created in the image of God just as we are, and His Son Jesus Christ, died for them just as He died for us. It this last fact that compels us to be opposed to the homosexual agenda for acceptance and endorsement because we know that this lifestyle pushes them further from God. Our first and foremost concern for them must be with their eternal welfare, not their temporal welfare. It would be easier for us, and would make them immediately and superficially pleased, for us to simply accept their demands, ignoring the damage done to their souls. But charity, the mutual love between God and all of his people, compels us to oppose these evil ideas for their own eternal good.
To cite another example, consider the demands of the relativists that hold that all religions are of equal value, or some might say, of no value, and that we must therefore accept them all on that basis. As Christians we know this claim is utterly false, and a source of grave error, leading souls astray and away from God. We are therefore bound by charity, by our concern for the souls of those others, to point out this obvious falsehood and to demand that they look at the question again with rational minds rather than blank minds.
The modern Progressive agenda is based upon the idea of human perfectibility – “every day, in every way, we are getting better and better.” This is a complete denial of the fallen nature of mankind, and avoidance of the concept of sin, and an elevation of man to the role of God. Those who advocate the Progressive agenda readily put themselves in the role of God, quite prepared to enslave everyone else under the rule of a worldwide, socialist/communist government. This is an evil that seeks to destroy human welfare, both in this world and in the next. As Christians, charity absolutely compels us to oppose this great evil.
I could go on, but I am sure that it is evident to all who think about it that many of the issues that are presented today as politics, are in fact moral issues, subjects that demand our attention and action in charity. We may not address them, that is to say we are not allowed to address them, purely from the standpoint of self interest. The Gospel and the words of Christ Himself demand that we consider the welfare of others, most particularly their eternal welfare.
Thus as we begin the journey to Jerusalem, let us implore God the Father to fill our hearts with that most wonderful gift of charity, the true love of both God and man, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then we will be ready to travel with Christ.
+ In the Name the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.