St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Quinquagesima, February 14, 2021
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
WATER, air, nourishment, clothing, shelter, heat: are these the only things necessary to sustain human life? Obviously, we want more—human society, good health, meaningful work, comfort, a nice home, a car—but can’t you live without those? Probably, at least for a time. Survive anyway. Money isn’t everything, but it helps. But aren’t we forgetting something? A world designed for utility, medicine, usefulness and physical ability—is that all there is to it? In outer space, astronauts perform their daily tasks, live in cramped quarters, eat out of mylar packs, sleep weightless and not make one fatal mistake: for them, life is reduced to its basics, artificially. Survival has its finite minimum requirements. But that’s not real life. You can’t live in space indefinitely. They do come home, and when they do, somebody gives them a hug.
In 1964, Paul McCartney wrote a song he never wanted the Beatles to record, because it was unworthy of the fab four, and so a young British duo, Peter and Gordon, gave it a try. It topped the charts. “Please lock me away and don’t allow the day, Here inside, where I hide with my loneliness. I don’t care what they say I won’t stay in a world without love.” Love is such a mushy and confusing mess, but who on earth would want to live without it? Especially on St. Valentine’s Day! Try life without it, and you end up in outer space right down here. It’s like living without air. Adults can artificially work a life totally alone, or locked inside themselves, but it costs them everything, any sense of purpose, any real meaning, any value—gone. I won’t live in a world without love.
Science has studied the unfortunate cases of babies that, from birth, lacked any form of love, ranging from mere neglect to brutal abuse, and never held or touched. Such cases often result in death. A baby, who has every other need met—food, clothing, sleep, shelter—will fret and yearn and wither—for the lack of love. Love is vital to life. It’s a hard thing to look at, but in America almost a million children are neglected or abused each year, and 1,400 of them die. Neglect is three times as prevalent as outright abuse. A world without love can kill, even if all of Maslow’s first two levels in his pyramid hierarchy are met.
You feed your family. You must clothe and shelter and teach your children. That in itself is borne out of love, usually. But if done as drudgery, with malice, then even the simplest provision comes with its own poison and deters a child, or a spouse, from truly thriving. Love is a requirement of life.
Is it any wonder then that God made Love His greatest command? Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength—of course. Jesus cited a Second Commandment: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19 If Love 1 and Love 2 are done completely, then all other laws and commands are fulfilled, because at the core of our being we’ll care for God and for others, as our true nature. Give up on God, and you may limp along with a semblance of love. Give up on love altogether, and you wither like an untouched baby.
Jesus said interesting things about love. He observed that, of course we love those who love us. Anybody does that. But, He told us, “Love your enemies.” Matt. 5:44 Now there’s a test of your love muscle! How do you do that? Pray for the enemy. Think of how hurt he has to be to aim such venom your way, and why? You have to be sure he isn’t right about you. I saw a sign once: ‘Love your enemies. After all, you made them.’ Don’t let that be the case. Jesus, knowing the basic commands to love were in place toward God and our fellow man, then gave His Apostles a deeper command to love each other as He loves us. Sounds the same, but it’s a far deeper love we are to give, each to every Christian brother and sister. We are to be Jesus to them, die for them if it’s called for, prefer them above ourselves. Can anything be more demanding? Yet, if we don’t, we can be regarded by the world a failure as Christians. He said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” John 13:35
St. Paul’s wonderful treatment of love, found in the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians, and rendered “charity” in King James, warns us first of all that any show of Christian virtue, spiritual gifts, sacrifice or religious conduct is completely empty and valueless if it comes without true and godly love behind it. This message needs understanding then, lest we offer the world a church with every necessary and beautiful feature, but lacking the one thing that would make it alive. Lacking that, lacking the love that is so essential, our offers of faith, holy worship, spiritual wisdom, godly living, and heaven’s approval ring sadly hollow and false. Let’s see what St. Paul had to say.
If I can speak spiritual languages, human or angelic words, but I have no love for those to whom I am trying to communicate, my words become mere noise like horns blaring or the clash of cymbals. Some Christians seek to have spiritual gifts, like tongues, to show how good or godly they are, or how close to God they’ve become. They possess such gifts as though these were signs of their blessedness. And they scorn any who fail to achieve such Holy Ghost power. St. Paul said of tongues that it’s the least of the gifts and should be limited in any church setting to only a few instances, and never without interpretation. It’s what’s being clearly communicated that’s important, when we are ministering one to another. If all you’re doing it showing off, then be silent.
I might have the gift of prophecy, possess deep understanding and a divinity degree from Dallas, quote Hebrew and Greek every other sentence, and even have such faith in God and in my prayers that miracles break out, moving mountains by words of power—yet I lack the core command of love toward those who are impressed by me and my religious achievements—then the sum total of who and what I am comes to zero. I have done nothing at all in the eyes of heaven. It could be said that this score is even less than zero. Jesus also said, “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matt 18:6 He was talking of those who attempt to lead the children of God, yet become the cause they walk away from God because such teachers, pastors, leaders, ministers fail to love their flocks. They feed on them rather than feed them; they betray them and harm them. It’s a dangerous thing to become a priest, pastor or minister, for it calls up a high standard, the very nature of Christ, setting the measure of their lives. Christ cares about His people. God forbid any minister should be the cause of their falling away. He may forgive a simple mistake, but if it’s a lack of love, we will be judged for it.
Let’s say I give away everything I own to feed the needy, I’m martyred and I allow some primitive tribe to burn my body as a missionary, shouting damnation at these ignorant savages, God’s retribution on their idolatry, then the reward of my martyrdom will not be mine in the end. All my sacrifice will have been for nothing. The Church always rewarded immediate sainthood on anyone that died for Christ in its early days. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs famously treats those who died for the faith from the Apostles to the Reformation, with the manner of death detailed for each. Stephen by stoning, James beheaded, Philip crucified, Matthew with a spear, Mark dragged to death, and so on. We remember them, however, not for the manner of their deaths but for the love they had for Christ and for His Bride. Like Jesus looking down from His own execution with compassion for those who were killing Him, these saints gave their lives for those by whose hands they died. The love is the reason they were saints, not the blood they shed.
Love is patient—meaning to love is to suffer. Suffering can’t sour the love or else it never was that majestic love of the Greek word agape, our King James translates as charity. Patient, kind, without envy or pride, courteous, selfless, calm, faith-filled, pure, hopeful, strong, and enduring is this love he writes about. True love is not a mere romantic notion. True love hurts, but it hurts good. It heals wounds and breaks your heart.
Prophecy will cease, and spiritual tongues will go silent. Knowledge of the holy shall be the common experience because in heaven all will be known. Today we are mostly in the dark, so anyone with a dim light shines brighter than others. Someday the light that created all things with “Let there be light!” will blaze in the midst of us, and our puny little candles will darken in contrast. Then we will know Love face to face, for God is that Love. Faith is essential to our salvation, of course. And Hope is the sure knowledge of our transcendent future, the everlasting life He won and promised you. But without the Love, His chiefest characteristic, you can’t be like God, neither in image nor likeness, as His child, His heir. It’s absolutely vital that you sense and speak and act upon the language of love. It must become your native tongue, the reason you do whatever you do.
If you take on a Lenten discipline this year, starting this Wednesday and for 40 days forward, if it isn’t adding to your capacity to love as Christ loves us, change it. Ice cream deprivation alone can’t add to your spiritual life, unless you’re conscious somehow that this little sacrifice unites you to His cross for the love of mankind. Get something done that, at the end of the purple season, you can look back and say, “I did that for love, and God was in every minute of it. My heart rejoices in how He met me there, dying a little for His sake, and for the sake of these who believe in Him.”
A world without love is a desert, and not a lovely desert like we see in Arizona. It’s Sodom after the fire falls. Chernobyl, Nagasaki, Mount Saint Helens, Pompey. Life can’t be there.
Life requires love, tenderness, the unaffordable gift no Macy’s can offer. Amazon has no such listings, the Stock Exchange has no symbol for it, the government makes no laws enacting it. You get it from God, and it has to land right here, in your heart, and you can’t keep it to yourself.
The world without it dies. Let love in, and let it out again.
We’re dying out here in a world without love.