In the name of Jesus; Amen.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three…
St. Paul writes these words to the church in Corinth, sometime in the years AD 53-57, while he was staying in the city of Ephesus. Corinth was a major city of the Roman Empire, a major trading hub. It was a maritime city, what with ships coming and going between Europe and the Middle East, Egypt and farther flung places like Iberia, where Spain and Portugal are today. Corinth brought many people from many walks of life together, and it’s here that a Christian community sprang up.
The Corinthian church was, like all the churches that Paul worked with intimately, a hybrid of Jewish and Gentile Christians. At the time when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, believers in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, didn’t think of themselves as Christians. They considered themselves followers of the “The Way.” It was only later that the name “Christian” was associated with them, and it wasn’t at first an honorific title. And so it’s in this context that Paul’s writing his letter—the context of a bustling economic and cosmopolitan trading hub. In a lot of ways, Corinth would’ve been similar to someplace like New York City, or London, or Hong Kong, or Los Angeles today. It’s to people who live in this context that Paul writes these words—“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three…”
There were issues in the among the Corinthian Christians in their lives lived together, and therefore also issues in their lives lived with God. The primary issue was disagreement between Gentile and Jewish Christians, particularly about expectations of behavior. The same kinds of behavior associated with bustling economic and cosmopolitan hotspots today, everything from greed to sexual exploitation and corruption to insatiable materialism ran rampant—all that was going on in Corinth, and a lot of it within the budding church. And it was creating issues.
Word of these disagreements gets to him in Ephesus, across the Aegean Sea from Corinth, and he takes it upon himself to address the rising problem. For him, as with everything else, the bigger picture was what was at stake—namely, the grace of God given us in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for our sake. Whatever it took to drive that message home, that’s what Paul was going to hammer on. And to make that message clear, he had to bring the Corinthians back to the basics—faith, hope, and love.
Paul begins with faith. Now—we’ve visited and revisited what faith is. Faith is the name we call the special relationship, the special friendship we have with God. God chooses to have this relationship with us. “You did not choose me,” Jesus tells us in John’s gospel. “I chose you.” Faith is God saying he wants a relationship with us, a life lived with us. And he comes down, he con-descends, he descends with us, comes down with us in Jesus. For us and for our salvation, God becomes a true human being and lives with us in relationship—doing everything that human beings do with us, even dying. And so in a nutshell, that’s faith. This is foundational to anything in our lives: our relationship with God. It’s this relationship that also opens us to relationships with one another and with the world around us—because God has a relationship with the whole creation and so we as well have such a relationship. We are in communion with God, one another, and the whole world through faith.
Paul then moves on to hope. Hope is the expectation that God remains faithful—that God keeps the relationship he has with us. Hope is, really, more akin to what we might conventionally think of as belief, in fact. Hope is assurance, conviction, trust. Hope is a mindset. In some ways, we have hope because we have seen, unlike so many other things in our lives as Christians. We have hope precisely because God has been faithful, and we have no reason to believe that going forward God won’t continue to be faithful. We continue to recall the stories of faith, the stories of our relationship with God, so that we can be strengthened in hope. We remember how God was faithful before, and so even now God will be faithful, and God will be faithful for eternity. We have hope.
Finally, Paul moves on to love. And unlike the other two, faith and hope, Paul adds this when speaking to the Corinthians about love—“and the greatest of these is love.” And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three…and the greatest of these is love. Treatises have been written about love, and there’s no way this evening that a single sermon will do justice to love, particularly as Paul means it. But ultimately, love is the greatest of these three—faith, hope, and love—because love binds everything together.
Love holds all things together. Love moves God to relationship with us and with creation. Love fills life. Love sustains the relationships God has with us—even to the point of death and beyond. Love sustains our relationships with one another. Even when we can’t stand each other, love moves us to overcome our petty differences, or our graver estrangements, and bridges the gap that separates us. Love brings together. Love creates faith. Love creates hope. Love does this because God is love—the source of all life. Without love, there is nothing. And so, faith, hope, and love abide, these three…and the greatest of these is love.
Tonight, Jesus tells us, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus is telling us, in the same way Paul later will tell the Corinthians, what is greatest in our lives—love. To be claimed by God and to claim God as our own, love is at the center of everything. To call ourselves Christians, a disciple of Jesus, a follower of The Way, love must fill us toward one another the same way love filled Jesus toward us.
Love is patient. Love never gives up. Love is kind. Love cares more for others than for itself. Love isn’t envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut. Love doesn’t have a swelled head. Love doesn’t insist on its own way. Doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first.” Love isn’t irritable or resentful. Love doesn’t keep a tally of sins and wins. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love delights in truth like a vibrant bouquet. Love puts up with anything. Love never ends, never dies—because God is love.
Tonight, as we come forward to the altar, as we do every time we gather here around bread and wine, we take God, we take love that never dies, into ourselves. This love fills us and makes us its own and we become part of it—each of us. God’s own body, broken and poured out for us, love incarnated in such simple things as a bit of bread and sip of wine, become part of our living bodies, and love takes on flesh and blood within each of us. And so as this love lives within us, Jesus charges us, his disciples, to live the love we first received from him. By this they will know we are his disciples—by love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy. Amen.