The Greatest of These Is LOVE?

By Rev. Dr. Theodore Hopkins

Editor’s Note: The following sermon was preached on February 3, 2019 at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Milan, Michigan. The text was 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13. The sermon was mentioned in Season 2, Episode 12 if the Next Step Podcast, and Dr. Hopkins graciously agreed to let The Next Step Community reprint it here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. At the end of our epistle reading, Paul writes, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: but the greatest of these is…”

Among faith, hope, and love, the greatest has gotta be faith, right? After all, that’s why we are Lutherans. Justification, how a sinner is made right with God, is by faith, not by works, not even works of love. In fact, just last week, on Tuesday, I asked my Lutheran Confessions class what they thought it meant to be Lutheran, and more than half said something related to faith. The most common answer was justification by grace through faith, this central truth that God saves fallen, sinful human beings by his grace alone, and we receive this salvation by faith alone. It seems like faith must be the greatest because faith is the instrument by which God justifies his human creatures and makes us right with him.

Let’s take a look back at our text: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: but the greatest of these is… love.” Love? Did you hear what Paul said there? The greatest of these is not faith, he says, but love. Puzzling. How can this be? What does Paul mean by this? Let’s explore, understanding both what Paul does and does not mean by this statement that the greatest of these is love.

One possibility for what Paul means by this is that love is always greater than faith no matter what we are talking about, inside of the church or outside of the church, in justification and sanctification, in our relationships with other people and in our relationship with God. If we did this, we would conclude that faith must be fulfilled by love; faith can only become what it should be by being shaped and formed into love. In this view, faith is a good and necessary thing, but it doesn’t mean much until it is fulfilled by love.

As we’ll see, this isn’t biblical when we are talking about our relationship with God, but there is a certain logic to this view. For instance, all of us have met people who say they believe, but their lives do not reflect their declared faith. In high school, I knew a number of people who regularly talked about being Christians. They were in the Christian groups at my high school like Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Sometimes their words were Christian, but I also heard them brag about their weekends. They weren’t bragging about their youth group paintball events but the kind of parties movies are made of. There was this disconnect, this gigantic gap between what these people said they believed and what they did. They claimed to believe in Jesus, to have faith in him as Savior, but where was it in their lives? Where was their love for God on the weekends? Where was their love for God’s people? Many of us were trying to avoid sin, but they were inviting all of us into the middle of it. Their words were missing a life of love.

Listen again to Paul, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a nosy gong or a clanging symbol.” Even if you or I were a great evangelist who could preach as elegantly as Paul about Jesus, but we had no love for others around us, our charismatic words might as well be replaced by the braying of a donkey. Paul’s point is that our words need to be paired with a life of love. Words without love ring hollow; they sound meaningless. Without love, what most people hear sounds like the parents in Charlie Brown: just noise.

I think this is particularly important in today’s world that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar with the Christian church. Love is a prerequisite to gain a hearing for the Gospel so that someone will not hear a clanking gong or a braying donkey. Within a life of love, your words can begin to sound real and feel real. Your life doesn’t make the words true. Jesus is the Savior of the world even if every person were a liar, but a life of love does open up space for others to hear your words and consider them to be true rather than dismissing them immediately.

Can you see how this might make a difference too in the ministry of your church? Your love for your neighbors, for your family, for your community here in the Milan area is almost as important for the work of God’s mission as speaking the Gospel. If you love those around you, simple words about Jesus will be heard, and the Holy Spirit has promised to work through those same words of the Gospel to create faith and bring people to Jesus. Our words need love.

Although it is true that our words should be seasoned with love, it would be a mistake for us to conclude that faith is less than love when it comes to our salvation before God. It would be a mistake to think that faith can only save when it is completed by love. Love is essential when it comes to our relationships with others, but our love gets us nowhere before God. When it comes to relationship with God, my love and your love mean nothing because our relationship with God does not depend on you or me; it depends on God and God alone.

Have you ever seen an infant staring up at her father while being held in his arms? It’s a glorious thing to watch an infant who is enamored with her father’s face. She can’t stop looking at him. There could be a party going on with twenty people talking, music blaring, and TV’s on. The adults are looking every which way, but the little baby is looking only one place. The infant cannot take her eyes off her dad’s face. Why is that? Because he loves her. Her dad has changed her diapers; he has fed her bottles; he has tickled her feet, and kissed her head. He loves her, and she cannot take her eyes off of him. She trusts him, and she loves him because he loves her.

That’s like our relationship with God. We are the little infants who cannot take our eyes off our God. He created us down to our little toes. “He gives us our bodies and souls, eyes, ears, and all our members, our reason and all of our senses, and still takes care of them,” as Luther reminds us. God sent his own Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins, and he sends us his own Holy Spirit to bring us to faith in Jesus and dwell in us. God created us, formed us, redeemed us by the blood of his Son, and inhabited us by his Holy Spirit. And we fear, love and trust in him because he first loved us. We have been reborn in the waters of baptism to be children of God who cannot take our eyes off the face of our Heavenly Father. We have been reborn to listen intently to his Word amidst the clanging and clamoring of the world. We have been reborn to fear, love, and trust in our God. It’s not our faith or our love that created this relationship with God; it’s God’s love for us. We trust in him because he first loved us. And through this faith, God calls us his own beloved children.

There’s another reason why our love gets us nowhere before God. Our love is never perfect, and that’s putting it quite mildly. Our love is always tainted, infected, contaminated with sin. Our love is more likely to be self-love than to be actual love that focuses on the other. We love in order that we can be loved in return. “I will love you if you love me,” we say, but so rarely do we love someone else for their sake. Too often, we are impatient and unkind; jealous of the love others share, and prideful when we finally get something right; we often insist that others have to accept love in our way. “You can’t decide how I am going to love. You have to accept my love in my way.” We become irritated and bitter when we don’t get our way. That’s not the kind of love that Paul was talking about.

Our text diagnoses this sin in us. Paul writes, “Love is patient and kind,” but are we? Paul says, “Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.” What about you? What about me? “Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” But you and me, that’s another story. If this is what we need to be like to truly love, do we even stand a chance?

But, what Paul describes for us here is not your love or my love primarily; it’s first God’s love for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. We might be able to better see this if we do what my vicarage supervisor once suggested, if we replace love with Christ in our text. Listen again to Paul’s words with this change:

“Christ is patient and kind.
Christ does not envy or boast; he is not arrogant or rude.
Christ does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Christ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Now, this fits; because though we are sinners, Jesus is love. Consider Jesus’ patience and kindness: The disciples never seemed to get Jesus or his teaching during his ministry; they were always doing or saying something silly, but Jesus didn’t forsake them. He kept on teaching them and bearing with them in patience. Jesus had every right to be proud and arrogant, to boast in his strength and power. In fact, his boasting wouldn’t even have been arrogance, as we usually think of it; his boasting would have been true, yet Jesus never once boasted in himself. He never once tried to attract others’ attention for his own popularity or money or power.

Instead, Jesus served in love, not even insisting on his way, but following his Father’s way in obedient love to God. And this obedient love led Jesus to the cross where he would be crucified so that you and I would be forgiven and right with God no matter our failures and our sins.

On the cross, Jesus would indeed bear all things, bearing all the sins of the world, yours and mine, past, present, and future. On Calvary, Jesus indeed believed all things, trusting in God his Father even while he was forsaken, feeling the full force of God’s wrath. Jesus indeed endured all things, suffering not only under our sins but enduring the pangs of hell and damnation for our sake. Jesus indeed hoped all things, hoping not only for his own resurrection but for yours and mine. In this love, Jesus saved you not because of works that you have done, not because of your love, but because of his. Jesus saved you in his love, and that is something to believe in, something to grasp hold of and trust.

As the whole of Scripture reveals to us, this faith is how we are declared and made right with God. God first loved us, and we come to trust in that love shown to us in his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit in the Word and the Sacraments.

How, then, can Paul say that the greatest of these is love? It isn’t because we need to love to be saved. We are saved by faith and faith alone. Still, love is greater than faith and hope in three ways.

First, as we have already talked about, Paul can call love the greatest because God is love, and all human love is only reflection of this divine love by which God first loved us. God’s love is the greatest.

Second, Paul calls love the greatest because faith and hope will both pass away; they will not last forever. Now, we live in the age of faith; we cannot see God face to face, but we have come to know him in his Son Jesus and by his Spirit. Now, we have come to hear his voice in the Word of the Scriptures, and we have come to know him where two or three are gathered together. Now, we know God by faith. But, when the trumpet sounds and the cry of command goes forth and the dead in Christ rise physically to new life, we will not live by faith any longer. We will not live in hope any more. Our faith will be turned into sight for we will see the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. Our hope will be realized when our mortal bodies put on immortality and the perishable creation becomes imperishable. Even though faith and hope will end, “love never ends.” In the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come, we shall know God fully and love him fully, just as now we are already fully known and fully loved.

Third, Paul can say that love is the greatest because faith and love cannot be separated in this age. Luther reminds us of this in Small Catechism. “You shall have no other gods.” What does this mean? “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Faith and love are interconnected. As we come to depend upon and trust in our Creator and Lord, we also come to love him. Faith and love go hand in hand. And our faith in God not only leads us to love God, but also to love others around us. In our horizontal relationships with others, the Holy Spirit moves each of us to reflect God’s own love in service to one another. This doesn’t look like moving mountains or giving up one’s body to be burned. This looks like patient forbearance with your children, not giving into whatever they want, but by endurance and kindness showing them the way of love. This looks like celebrating with a coworker when something good happens for him, and empathizing with him when the bad comes. Love also looks like taking seriously our vocations and serving others in them.

I got a picture of this kind of love in vocation just this week. On Monday, with the snow, I was in an accident on US-23, and in just a few minutes, the Michigan State Police were on hand. They were telling us to get in our cars and keep our seat belts on because traffic continued to weave through the 7 car pile-up on the highway. But those officers didn’t get in their cars. They put others first, protecting those of us in the accident and making sure everyone was safe and unhurt. Then, the medic came who braved the same dangerous roads and walked on the highway to each car, ensuring all of us were unhurt. The firefighters then spent half-an-hour out in freezing temperatures to sweep away the debris from the accident and help the tow truck drivers do their work. All of these people were just doing their jobs, and that’s my point. That’s love, serving others in normal ways. That’s love which reflects God’s own love even when people don’t see it. And when such work is done in faith, that is love that is pleasing to our Father in heaven.

Our love does not save; we are saved by faith alone, but faith never exists alone: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: but the greatest of these is … love.” Amen.

Photo by Inna Lesyk from Pexels.

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