The Revd Brutus Green
One of the best known passages in the Bible, read to smiling couples at weddings, comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It ends: ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ One can almost hear the inspirational music modulating in the background. But then, really, do they actually abide? I know people who have stopped believing in God. I know people who have given up believing things will get better. And I have been in love. And out of love - ‘Alas that love so gentle in [my] view / should be so tyrannous and rough in proof.’ Is St Paul here just indulging himself with some naive grandiloquence? Carried away with his own romantic rhetoric?
Well the first thing is to make sure we have the terms right. Paul says that faith abides, not belief, but faith. The question of whether God exists is not unimportant, but it’s not what Paul’s talking about. After all, the devil, as it were, believes in God - this is not particularly counted in his favour. Incidentally, this is also one of the reasons atheists and Christians often get into absurd fights. They’re really talking about different things. An atheist is making a reasoned argument against the existence of the being she defines as God. The Christian is talking about her lived experience of faith. It is as if a bio-chemist were trying to explain to you that love was simply a series of chemical and neurological reactions caused by an evolutionary instinct tricking you into a socially acceptable and safe form of life. But you are holding the hand of the person you’ve been in love with for forty years. Are you really talking about the same thing? And who has more understanding of what love is? Faith is about trust and commitment. It’s about character, how we react under pressure, and how we love. Do we quickly abandon all principle, duty and friendship? Or do we stay the course. Faith is explicitly about following Jesus and its truest moment comes in bearing out a life given to love, given over for those whom we love, even to death. Faith endures. If it does not endure, it is not faith.
Then there is hope. Hope is not optimism. It’s opposite is not pessimism or disappointment. Of course: 'It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, "I will never play the Dane.” ' But that is not the end of hope. Hope’s opposite is despair. Faith more than anything else is about finding meaning in life and giving yourself, committing yourself, to that meaning. If that sense of meaning is wiped out, that is when despair stretches out its tentacles and robs us of hope. On the other hand, a life that has found meaning that is committed to a person, to people, to a faith, discovers hope. Hope never ends as long as these commitments never end, because our desire is always for more. More of what we believe in. More of what we love. And when it’s the most fundamental things, that which gives our lives meaning, the things by which we understand ourselves best - our partners, our children, our nephews and nieces, our friends, our associations and charities, our church, the things we give our time and our lives to - there is always more to do, more to give, more to know, more to love. This is hope, and while there is faith hope never ends.
There are of course mental and circumstantial conditions that destroy hope, often in ways over which we have no control, or don’t even really understand. I am reminded here of the Russian monk who I’ve spoken of before who struggled with depression and heard from Christ the command “Keep your mind in Hell and despair not.” There is no side stepping how awful might be your situation or mental health. You must be honest with yourself and with the world. Hope is not about tricking yourself into thinking everything’s okay when it’s not. But do not despair, because even in Hell, God is there. This is the truest moment of hope. Not in the brilliance of epiphany and joy on the mountain top, but on the cross. An absurd place to be optimistic. Not a place in which you yourself feel anything other than forsaken. But as the accounts of the most remarkable men and women we know have shown: whether at Ypres, or in your ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, a place where, with courage, Hope abides.
Finally we have love. Love is not a feeling. Well it is. But that’s not what St Paul’s talking about. Love is an attitude, a concern for the welfare of the other. It is the defining characteristic of the followers of Christ. Its truest moment, again, is the cross - the resolution to give oneself entirely for the good of others. I’m preaching tonight in Cambridge on the novelist Jeanette Winterson, who writes: ‘Love wounds. There is no love that does not pierce the hands and feet’. Love makes us vulnerable. But Love never ends because it’s an stance, a way of approaching the world. Not a feeling that comes and goes, but a disposition, a way of life. But principally love never ends, because God is love. The great theologian Karl Barth wrote that Love is ‘the one form of Christian action which does not require, and is not subject to, transformation or absorption into another higher, and future form’. Love is the stuff of the heavenly life. ‘Love is the future eternal light shining in the present’. The sermons of prophets and the knowledge of theologians will finally be rendered redundant like lighting a candle at noon. The nature and results of love abide. They are eternal.
So faith is not about intellectual belief it’s about commitment. Hope is not about cheery optimism it’s about commitment. Love is not a feeling it’s a commitment. These three abide because they abide in God who is faithful. And love is the greatest because God is love. So in all our loving God is made known - to ourselves; to others; to the world.
In this vein our Old Testament reading is cynical of “religious” practices if they do not serve the vulnerable: ‘you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers’; just as St Paul admonishes that if you speak in the tongues of men and angels, if you perform miracles, fast, prophecy or give everything away, but have no concern, no love, for those around you, it’s worthless. It is telling that faith and hope both necessarily direct us outside ourselves to an other; and that hope’s opposite, despair, ends with you turning in upon yourself. If your religion is just about your own self-improvement, you won’t get on well with Scripture.
The earlier part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we heard, actually an earlier letter from St Paul to the Corinthians (because the book is a collection of his letters), is emphatic. Paul comes not with a religious manual, philosophy or power, but one thing: Christ crucified. Because in this story of the cross we have the demonstration of God’s commitment and love to us. And we also have the model of faith, hope and love that is the perfection of human life. The cross in the world’s eyes might be weakness and failure. But in God’s eyes, it is that truest moment of commitment to God, people and principles. It is acting for the best and with hope and trust in the world despite personal disaster, and it is with compassion for all, no matter their weakness and wickedness.
Now, as St Matthew’s Gospel tells us: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. It is within you to make the world a better place. At Candlemas last week we celebrated Jesus as the light of the world, the light to lighten the nations. But we held candles to remind us that this light, this revelation, is within us. It is within us to bring a little more flavour to the people around us; to make the world a little brighter. Without confidence we may be diminished; but if we are able to serve our neighbours even in little ways with simple acts of kindness, the light will grow steadily, encouraging and igniting others in their own light. We should not be discouraged. It is not about attention - often those who seem to shine brightest are just operating a light of their own. But unlike the world and all it offers these three, faith, hope and love, stand the test of time. They are what mark us out as Christian, but also what give us joy and a sense of purpose in this world. So, ‘faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ Amen.