“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
It’s been nearly two years since I was last in Iran, but my last visit there was an especially memorable one for me in many ways. I spent about a week and a half there in 2014, meeting with faith leaders, peace activists and a variety of Iranian people who made a deep impression on me.
I had been warned by the organisers of the visit that I might be called upon to speak at some point during the visit, and indeed while we were still in Tehran I was asked to address a press conference alongside Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mairead Maguire, which I thought I handled rather well (all things considered) and I assumed after that, happily, that my moment in the limelight had passed.
I was on my way to the prestigious city of Qom (pronounced with a silent ‘Q’) with Mairead and the rest of our group, where we were to meet with staff at the University of Religions there and visit the Armenian Church, where we would hear from various dignitaries representing both the church and the university. And it was as we neared our destination that the organiser of our group, who was with me in our bus, leaned over to me and said “you are the second speaker”!
I appreciate that people there (as here) think of me as a professional speaker, which of course I am in a sense. Even so, the dark truth that had evidently escaped these people (at least up to that point) is that I never say anything anywhere unless I have prepared properly!
A 20-minute talk regularly takes me about eight hours to prepare. A shorter one generally takes me longer! “I haven’t prepared” I said. “Don’t worry”, the organiser said to me, “You’re speaking second and you can work out what you are going to say while the first speaker gives his address”.
“What is my topic?”, I asked. “Religion that makes for peace”, was the reply. And so for the next few minutes in the bus, and for the following fifteen minutes or so of pleasantries that preceded our meeting, and for the duration of the first speaker’s address, my brain worked furiously to piece together something that would sound vaguely credible before this esteemed international audience, and I found that my mind very quickly latched on to these familiar words from St Paul:
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:11-13)
I latched on to these words, I think, largely because they are so familiar, but they seemed at the time (and still do) to capture something of the essence of true religion that makes for peace.
These words are familiar to all of us, I suspect, because we hear them read all the time at weddings. Any good Evangelical will tell you, of course, that this passage from Paul doesn’t actually have anything to do with weddings but is about spiritual gifts at work in the church, and that is true. It equally has nothing to do with peacemaking as such. Even so, St Paul does conclude his exhortation to find unity through love with a broad metaphysical reflection about the things we know and the things that we don’t know (or only dimly know), and on the things that endure – not only through life but into eternity – of which he says there are three – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.
It’s a powerful passage that many of us, I suspect, find ourselves going back to as we get older. It encapsulates the mature wisdom of St Paul – no longer a child, thinking and speaking like a child, but speaking with the maturity that comes from a lifetime of struggle and, in his case, very genuine suffering.
Everything passes away. The reality of this impacts you more and more the older you get. All flesh goes the way of all flesh. And yet there are three pillars that remain solid in the middle of this process of inevitable change and decay, and the central one of these pillars is love!
I think it’s worth taking time to ground ourselves again in this reality today – to recognise that not only the religion that makes for peace but all true religion is fundamentally centered on love. And I say this recognising that for most people religion is not primarily about love. I think that, for the most part, religion in our culture is primarily about money and power!
Am I being too harsh? Perhaps pleasure and power would be more accurate?
I don’t mean to sound like a cynic and I don’t mean by this to say anything about the great religions of the world either, as I’m not thinking about religious doctrines as such here but of religious people. What motivates us as religious people to be religious? It’s rarely something that is completely divorced from self-interest, is it?
I remember many years ago someone who had stopped coming to church with us on a Sunday morning explained to me “sometimes I leave your church feeling worse than when I went in!” I felt quite cynical about that reasoning at the time but I’ve wondered since whether he wasn’t simply being more honest about his motivations for being in church than most of us are!
I’m not suggesting that most of us come to church simply to have a good time. Indeed, if, in this day and age, church is the best thing you can come up with when looking for a good time, this suggests a real lack of imagination or very limited exposure to the delights of this world! Even so, when people ask us why we attend church we generally do respond, I think, with a list of the personal benefits that we receive as members of a Christian community.
It’s good for you – a solid dose of religion! It makes for good character and for quieter and more compliant children (perhaps). Some church leaders will tell you that God will make you rich if you pray in the right way and act in the right way and tithe the right way. We tend to be quite cynical about that sort of religion, and yet we too see our religion as something that benefits us in this life very much!
When I was at University we used to sell Christianity to our peers as a form of eternal life insurance. ‘Save yourself from the flames of hell by joining our group’ we’d say, though we’d say it in a far more sophisticated way. Even so, we were only ever appealing to people’s self-interest. Likewise, when others have tried to persuade me to move away from my religious framework and affiliation and to take on theirs instead, their entreaty has always equally been based on an appeal to self-interest!
I’m not actually wanting to degrade any of this kind of talk today. When you’re a child you think like a child and you speak like a child and you reason like a child, and often we find that the things that drew us to Jesus when we were younger have very little to do with why we continue to cling to Him as we grow older!
Even so, what I do want to say today is that as we get older, and as we gain maturity in Christ, we inevitably come to discover that what is at the heart of true religion is what is in the heart of God, and that is not fear or self-interest but love!
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Paul helps define love for us here, lest we should confuse it with simple lust or passion or any of the other emotions with which love is associated. Love, as Paul defines it, is a form of commitment to the needs of the other, and as such it is something that is embodied for us in Jesus who, as the Apostle John says, ‘shows us what love is by laying down His life for us.’ (1 John 3:16).
Love, understood in this way, is something we do, and it has a lot do with putting up with stuff! As I said, I recognise that these words from St Paul are not meant to relate specifically to marriage. Even so, I think that cartoon I once saw of an elderly married couple toasting their wedding anniversary with the words “in spite of everything” did capture something of the essence of Paul’s thinking about love.
Love is the essence of true religion, but, as Paul also reminds us, by itself love is not sufficient! It is one of three pillars upon which we rest, and this is where it is worth remembering that this exhortation to the church in Corinth is not simply an abstract philosophical soliloquy by Paul but part of a list of practical instructions to the community on how they were supposed to relate to each other!
Love is the essence of true religion indeed, but faith and hope are also essential. This is the mature wisdom of St Paul and we need to hear it!
By faith Paul isn’t simply meaning some general feeling of confidence in the goodness of nature either, but a solid trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is ‘above all and through all and in all’ (Ephesians 4:6)
By hope, similarly, Paul isn’t referring to any glib or naïve optimism about the future, but rather a hope based on the clear promises of God for the coming of His Kingdom and the restoration of every element of creation under the Lordship of Jesus.
These are the three pillars, I believe, upon which true religion rests, and we need all three! Two out of three won’t do!
There are plenty of examples today of people who have hope and love but no faith. The great Noam Chomsky seems to me to be the greatest modern example of someone who embodies love and hope in the sense that he longs for a better world and beautifully articulates it. Even so, I find his Atheism debilitating!
I don’t mean to belittle the great man in any way, nor do I for a moment pretend to be his superior, and yet I find that after I’ve read a few hours of Chomsky (as I regularly do) I have to switch to something lighter and more uplifting before I get too depressed!
Love and hope without faith lead to burnout in my opinion. The problems we face in this world are so great and the reservoirs of evil that support the global machinery of death run so deep that unless you believe in miracles and in the power of God it is hard to maintain your energy in the face of the impossible!
If love and hope without faith lead to burnout, love and faith without hope leads to the sort of Christianized golf clubs with which we’re all too familiar in this country! This is religion that is prayerful and good hearted and full of genuine compassion but where the horizons of hope don’t extend beyond the limits of the holy huddle, and where the great Biblical vision of a renewed humanity has been abandoned in favour of the safer and more manageable vision of a pious and caring community, running plenty of in-house support groups and pot-luck dinners!
It’s this enticing chimera that is the greatest danger for our Christian community of course. Perhaps especially as we begin to make use of our beautiful new Community Centre, we will need to fight the temptation to keep this beautiful facility to ourselves and to those who we know will take proper care of it, until eventually we hang a sign on the door to all our buildings saying “no riff-raff!”
This is when we are no longer good news to the poor but only good news to each other. There is still plenty of good feeling and faith and love, but without a true hope founded in the Biblical vision of a renewed humanity we become just another holy huddle of the Heavenly-minded who are of little earthly good!
Hope and love without faith readily leads to despair, I believe, and faith and love without hope takes us down the path towards middle-class mediocrity. Even so, it is faith and hope without love that is the real danger facing our world today, for its faith and hope without love that we see manifested in groups like DAESH (ISIS).
This is the ultimate perversion of religion, in my view. Those who head off to Syria to join the righteous Jihad don’t lack faith and they don’t lack hope for a better world (even if what they hope for bears little resemblance to my vision of the Kingdom). What they really lack though is not faith or hope but love, and, as St Paul tells us, if you have not love, you have nothing!
This is the wisdom of the mature St Paul, and this was the message I passed on to the good people of Qom back in April 2014 – that faith, hope and love are like a three-legged stool upon which true religion rests. Take away any one of those legs and the stool falls over!
This is the religion that makes for peace. This is religion that heals, as contrasted with the religion that so many have experienced in this country and around the world – religion that judges and excludes and even abuses, and as we know, this judgmental, exclusive and abusive religion has emanated from the church just as readily as it has from any number of other religious institutions!
And so as we embark on our new year of ministry and witness, we need to pray that we will maintain our balance as a community on this three-legged stool of faith, hope and love, and it’s a funny kind of balance as they are elements that are almost guaranteed to keep us off balance!
Even so, let us pray that we will continue to grow in faith, coming to an ever deeper experience of the risen Christ among us. Let us pray likewise that we might grow in hope, gaining an ever-clearer vision of the Kingdom of God that is nearer to us now than when we first believed. But let us pray most of all for love, and if all else fails, let us have love! For when all else passes away, and even when all flesh has gone the way of all flesh, of the few things that remain, the greatest of these is love!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 31st of January, 2016.
Click here for the audio.