Sermon for Quinquagesima – February 10, 2018
“O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity 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.”
A BLIND BEGGAR along the roadside cries out for mercy from the Son of God. What will the Son of God do? What would you do? In a world where charity is one possible course of action, an attitude, a value that can set our feet toward a person in pain, we have a choice of doing something for another and giving up our time and effort, or else not. We have that choice. But what of a world without charity? What do we think of a life not knowing how to love?
Life has its way of shaping us, creating in our minds and souls a system of defenses and urges, sympathies and revulsions, needs and isolations: voices that must be answered, heartless admonitions that hurt us first, and then hurt others. We are born selfish, needy. Then we learn to break away, to stand alone. We learn not to cry. And if we never learn to reach out, to give of ourselves, to follow our longings for the company of others, find a help-meet, one nearer than our skin—in short, if we never cross that chasm on the narrow bridge without handrails and chance such a treacherous journey—because life without love isn’t even life: then we exist alone. A world without love, of any kind, isn’t fully human.
Women are born native to emotion, it would seem to me. I speak as a fool. To women, all feelings are fair game and emotion a language that is spoken before drawing her first breath. Being a woman seems to be inevitable for a woman. Being a man requires a crossing over, from the realm of women to the place where men are made. I don’t want to draw the contrast too greatly, beyond my competence to authentically speak, but I think men have a tough road finding out who they are, what they’re supposed to feel, and how they should look when they’ve arrived. A lot of men never arrive, except inside some movie of someone they thought they were supposed to emulate. A Bruce Willis dream of maleness. The Conan barbarian, who takes what he wants in a world without charity.
I don’t say that being a woman is easy. It’s just that such feelings as love, passion, self-giving and desire are not denied them by a social system that is dead set against this molten core of emotion being found in a man. Men break away from mothers, sisters and little girls to find their manhood through rituals in the wilderness. They get hurt and learn not to cry or even feel the pain. Then, back from the wild they are called to find love. And back over that bridge they are asked to travel. I don’t think very many of us do it well, some of us don’t do it at all.
Psychology studies such broken paths, finding some men unable to romantically love, to really love anyone. They may be the leading men in their own movies, have a hundred conquests, look great, be sought after—but inside they can’t muster up the heart muscle for the basic grace Paul writes of in 1st Corinthians 13.
Some men think it’s about seeking their mother again, a housekeeper, a servant. Some men have lives too full of their own passions and pursuits, or they are on a series of missions, with mountains to climb, companies to acquire. Some must dominate or be lost in the engagement. Others just need an ally. Intimacy frightens them to death, the fear of exposure, of knowing their own inward parts. There are men who try to become adolescents again. And some men can’t be men, just bearded ladies, and they fail to bring the masculine to the table of women. The fear of not measuring up as a man can unman the best among men and make isolation more attractive than union. I am sorry for such men as we create today. Men have a difficult image to achieve, and the culture is no help at all.
St. Paul’s Epistle is talking about a kind of love that is like the love of God toward us. Paul sets it as the highest among the many graces of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, so does Jesus, for the first and second great commandments are to love: God and your neighbor. You can’t love God with a garden-variety love. Nor can you love others the same as you care for your own needs, unless you lose yourself a little in the bargain. In Paul’s Greek, it was rendered Agape. It’s a love that expects nothing in return. Hear the passage now in an unfamiliar translation. Love here is every kind of love rolled into one: motherly, brotherly, and divine.
“If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value.” 1 Cor 13:1-3
We rate a person’s Christian character by outer signs of generosity, spiritual abilities, sacrifice and wisdom. Yet all these, if they are in evidence to the max, cannot count one iota if done without charity, with no love. Talk all you want, use spiritual gifts to converse with heaven all you want. If you can’t do even this with love, it’s just a hollow show. Display your many books and higher reading, lecture on the great books and biblical history, yet if you have no passion for the God who is described and no love for fallen people, it’s just jabber and your expertise is a sham. Donate all your organs, let primitive people martyr you, and give every last penny to feed the starving, and yet if you don’t do it for real love, the cost of even your life was badly spent.
“Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up.” 4-7
How do we define love? Our many uses of the word leave us in a quandary. Is it a preference for chocolate over vanilla? Or is it choosing a best friend, and rejecting all others? Is it patriotism, idol worship, sentimentality, religion, romance, or soppiness? Is it just a magic word you use to get what you want? The passage says otherwise. Patient. Gentle. Kind to all. Other-focused. Humble. Respectful. Unselfish. Even tempered. Honest. Safe. Undying. This is a muscular love. It takes a real man, or a real woman to dare feel it, to find it in one’s heart. This is the gift of God. It isn’t native to any of us.
“Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten. Our present knowledge and our prophecies are but partial, but when love’s perfection arrives, the partial will fade away. When I was a child, I spoke about childish matters, for I saw things like a child and reasoned like a child. But the day came when I matured, and I set aside my childish ways. For now we see but a faint reflection of riddles and mysteries as though reflected in a mirror, but one day we will see face-to-face. My understanding is incomplete now, but one day I will understand everything, just as everything about me has been fully understood. Until then, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love—yet love surpasses them all. So above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run.” 1 Cor 13 TPT
I don’t think that St. Paul was ever more eloquent. He’s captured the wild thing, love, and from his heart describes this radiant creature in words that dazzle us and draw us into his vision of her. Love has never stopped loving. Prophecy, tongues, and knowledge all end, because the need for them will be done away when perfect love is experienced by us, face to face. Love is the goal line, the end of our quest. We won’t need another thing, once that’s found. Adulthood has arrived when our incompleteness and hesitant steps toward maturity come to a godlike love. God knows us already. On that day, we will know God as well. Faith and hope are very fine gifts and they belong to every Christian soul. But the highest and best gift is a love that melts our resistance to one another, gives us peace at all borders, willingly dies in another’s place should that soul require the sacrifice to live in God.
Christ came on the wings of such love for His Father, and His Father’s love for us. God so loved the world… It’s all a love story. We are not born with this ability. We need to stand before we walk, to walk before we run. And when we love, we fly. This isn’t easy, folks. It’s quite unnatural.
And yet, all the world isn’t worth the price of admission if, at the end, we have not traversed that narrow bridge, dared its dizzy heights, given ourselves away and learned something of the love of Christ, His love for us, and our love for one another. It’s His new command. It is the language of heaven, here on earth. It’s the power of the Gospel. It’s the fuel that lights the eternal flame. It’s the why behind all the what and who and how and when that we write about. Nothing is of any value without charity. Life isn’t life without charity.
O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity 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.