Love never ends (1 Cor. 13:8).
In today’s Gospel reading, our Lord tells the twelve men chosen to stand most intimately in the first ferocious glory of the incarnation that He will be humiliated and beaten and murdered by His enemies, but that He would somehow rise victorious three days later. St. Luke confides to us that the apostles “understood none of these things.” There they were standing before their prophet and friend, God and king, completely unable to comprehend what this announcement meant. Jesus has just declared He would soon rise above death itself—revealing the ultimate powerlessness of devils and dictators—and no one says a word. This divine proclamation of the imminent new creation is met with ignorance and silence rather than the gratitude and praise it surely deserves. Where are the psalms and spiritual songs; where are the screams of joy or even the humble and powerful “Amen” of the penitent?
St. Luke’s narrative silence is deafening until silence is filled with the faithful cries of a blind man. Here is a man who has every reason to be ignorant of Jesus and His loving power. He does not have the apostles’ many advantages—he can’t even see Jesus—and yet, here he is praising God and humbly presenting himself before his king despite the darkness all around him, despite the judgment and spite of his neighbors telling him to shut up and suffer. This blind man has every reason to retreat bitterly into himself, making the darkness of his eyes become the darkness of his heart, but the Word of God forces him to cry out into the darkness for the healing light of the world. By calling Jesus, “Son of David,” this blind man is praising Christ before He does anything for him; amazingly, because the Word of God is the author of reality, that truth—planted in the soil of this man’s heart—gives him eyes to see a reality which cannot be destroyed by an optic nerve left corrupted and maimed by our fallen world. Contact between blind sinner and loving king destroys ignorance in a way nothing else can.
It is precisely this contact, between blind sinner and loving God, which motivates St. Paul in today’s epistle. We often hear 1 Cor. 13 quoted as a testimony to some blind, unfeeling force called “Love.” We are told we can create life-saving love by meeting some person or going through some ritual or by engaging in physical relationships with another scared and lost soul; we are told this is how we will find transcendence and meaning and purpose. We are meant to imagine two people alone in a cold night holding one another—keeping the vast, dark abyss which surrounds them at bay. This story about love certainly does provide some comfort, and like all good fictional stories, there is some truth which lies at its heart. But devoting our life to a fictional story just because it makes us feel something is like being a man who jumps off a building because he cried at the end of a superhero movie. No, this story, while comforting in the short-term, betrays us in the end when the life and presence of our loved ones is replaced by death and memory. If we take the love St. Paul describes today and transform it into either the love of a romantic comedy or the love of whatever pop song has the most listens on YouTube (2022’s current champion is Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of you” sitting at 6 billion listens) then we have already decided what we think God’s love is, and we haven’t come to the text to learn anything at all. We find ourselves just as blind as the apostles who stood before the God who is love but “understood none of these things.”
Now, all of the good parts of these lower loves our culture is obsessed with are the gracious gift of a God who has not allowed the world to be as bad as our sin could make it: this mercy even includes whatever small good comes from Mr. Sheeran’s breathy ode to the female form. For example, I am glad Adolf Hitler loved his dog as it gave him less time to be busy trying to destroy the world, but I would never buy an anniversary card for my wife which read, “I love you like Hitler loved his dogs.” Why? Because we understand that Hitler’s love for his dogs was not enough to redeem him. We know that Hitler could have been the best puppy parent on the planet, and it wouldn’t be enough to make him good. The same is true of us: we could be the best dad or the greatest mom, we could be the best boyfriend or most caring lesbian—and the world will be the less terrible for it—but none of that will save us because that isn’t the purpose of all of these lower loves. The purpose of all these flawed and imperfect human loves is to make us long for the perfect divine love they point us towards. These loves are minor tributaries to the mighty, pulsating river ready to burst its banks at any moment, and that river is God’s love. This is the love St. Paul challenges us to dive into today because, as he argues, without it we literally have nothing.
That last statement is no exaggeration. The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that they could have all the spiritual gifts in the world, give away everything they have, even present themselves to be burnt sacrifices, and it would count for nothing without Christian love. And remember, these are examples of things that really matter in the eyes of God. Imagine for a moment how little God cares about all the things we care about that aren’t on this list. If God is unimpressed by a man unlovingly giving away all that he has (something Jesus actually tells some people to do) then how unimpressed is he with all the many things we do instead of loving Him and our neighbors in the ways described by His apostle? How unimpressed is He with our possessions and distractions? Remember, this is the same God who cherishes the blind man’s loving praise over the seeing man’s silence or begrudging, lukewarm conformity. If you or I are at church today because we don’t want to go to hell, then we are here for the wrong reason. If you or I are at church today because it’s what good people are supposed to do, then we are here for the wrong reason. If you or I are here for any reason other than our love for the God who has saved us and is making us holy then we are here for the wrong reason, and the God who knows our heart, soul, and mind—the God who demands our heart, soul, and mind—will not be fooled.
But why can God demand our everything? How can he demand our love? The answer is simple: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (St. John 3:16). What God requires of us is only a fraction of what He has given us. As an analogy, if a good friend’s son died saving our lives, how much love do we owe that friend? If he asked us to come by his house once or twice a week, would we say, “No?” Of course not, it would be the least we could do for someone who suffered so terribly that we might live. What if he asked us to start a memorial fund in his dead son’s honor? We would instantly say, “Yes,” and donate all we could. What if he asked us to raise his newly orphaned grandchildren? Even here, we would have to say, “Yes.” Everything about our lives would be changed—how we act, how we think, how we love—all of it would be transformed because we would recognize that our life belonged to the one who had saved us. That sacrificed son would live on in the life he changed; he would live on in our loving sacrifice of ourselves for him.
This analogy breaks down, of course, because the Christian life is infinitely bigger than even the most beautiful and solemn obligation. Christian love is about more than the old law we repeat every week before we willingly give some of God’s treasure back to Him through the offertory: our pledge to do unto others as they do unto us (which is just another way of saying: “love our neighbor as ourselves)” if that noble ideal was the ultimate summit of love then you and I would be doomed. If this dream shared among other religions and philosophies, a specter that has never been truly grasped, if this hope is all that love can be then we will continue to pound on the coffins of our loved ones and wonder why love wasn’t enough to save them. This shadow cast by the true love isn’t enough (you know it; I know it; we all know it), and that is why our Holy Communion service continues every week, it doesn’t just stop at the offertory or the Ten Commandments, the service makes us part of God’s loving sacrifice of Himself for a world which hated Him. Jesus did not love His neighbor as Himself; no, our Lord pushed His enemies’ heads above the water as He drowned in the blood red sea of our sin. Jesus didn’t hold anything back as He fought for the very soul of creation; He fought evil with the only weapon evil will never understand: pure, sacrificial, self-giving Christian love. By the power of God the Holy Spirit, we eat Christ’s flesh and drink His blood each week to remember that the only love powerful enough to save the world is a love we have not yet begun to comprehend—a love we must live and die in to ever fully know. We taste Christ’s death each week to know the love that saves.
As Christians, we are to follow our Savior to the cross, but amazingly, the Christian does not lovingly sacrifice himself for a dead man rotting in some tomb—some constant reminder of our own terrible fate and the fruitlessness of our efforts; no, the Christian loves every day because our sacrificed Savior burst out of His tomb on the third day and showed us the true, immeasurable power of the love between God the Father and His only begotten Son. Christian life, is about being so sure Christ is alive, we can let others kill us with their selfishness and jealousy and hate. We can live in a world which despises us; we can serve those that hate us; we can love like St. Paul tells us we must because Christ has died and risen to make that love our way of life. This is not an ideal we shoot for; this is the love we die for.
Which raises the final question: do we trust that the love of God is enough? For the sake of the world, I pray we do. For when we love this way, when we connect to the throbbing artery of the new creation, we are the vessel through which the Holy Spirit shows our neighbors and family and enemies the love of Christ. The Christian is to walk in and out of this church with the sword of truth in his hand and a well-worn shield that reads, “love or nothing.” Those words can stay on our lips because we know, when all the paper kingdoms of this world pass into the furnace of history, the divine love which death could not extinguish will be the only thing that links now and forever. May you live and die in that true love; may you live and die in Christ.