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August 31, 2008


The Greatest of These Is Love

I Corinthians 13


            I want to read just a few verses of I Corinthians 13, beginning at Verse 4.  I invite you to follow along with me in your copy of the Scriptures.  Hear now the Word of God.


Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never fails.


            This is the third in a series of sermons entitled The Greatest of These.  We have considered “The Greatest of These Is Faith.”  Last week, we considered “The Greatest of These Is Hope.”  Today, we consider “The Greatest of These Is Love,” which is, of course, where we end.  Paul says that love is the greatest of the three at the end of the passage we know as the Love Chapter.

            Yesterday, I was listening to the National Public Radio broadcast entitled “It Is Only a Game.”  The show’s hosts have a particularly unique point of view about America’s fascination with sports.  Yesterday’s program made a brief reference to a marriage that is to take place between two Olympians who recently competed in Beijing.  A man and a woman from South Korea, both gold medalists in archery, have decided to become married to each other.  As this clip went off the air, the music playing in the background was one of those 1950’s songs, “Cupid, draw back your bow, and let your arrow go straight to my lover’s heart for me.”  Some of you remember that old song.  Some of you have danced to it.  I thought that coupling the couple’s engagement announcement with that particular ditty is a perfect illustration of how people in the United States tend to regard love in such a trivial way. 

Serving as chaplain at the 1985 National Scout Jamboree was a wonderful experience.  I was like a kid in a candy shop.  I was able to move from one venue to the next around the entire jamboree site.  My job was really just to sit on a log and have a conversation with boys who might be homesick or upset about breaking up with a girlfriend, for example.  On one occasion, a Scout actually lost his brother by death at Scout camp.  During the week, I also preached a sermon on Sunday morning to the 32,000 Scouts who sat on a hillside. 

            One day at the Jamboree, the United States Army hosted a skydiving exhibition as a recruiting technique.  Boy Scouts encircled a target located in the middle of a huge landing area that had been created for the skydivers.  Members of the Army’s skydiving team, the Golden Knights, jumped out of an airplane and guided parachutes to a pinpoint landing right in the middle of that circle.  These young men could maneuver those parachutes in a way that ordinary parachutes could not be controlled.  The men were somewhat like hang gliders once the chutes opened.  Their skydiving abilities were magnificent, and their landing was equally as stunning.  Once these skilled and intelligent Army officers landed and rolled up their parachute, they walked over to the side of the circle and engaged the Boy Scouts in dialogue. 

One Scout posed a question to an officer that I will never forget:  “What is the most dangerous part of skydiving?”

            A somber look came over this skydiver’s face.  He answered, “The most dangerous part of skydiving is that after you jump out of the airplane, you have such a feeling of euphoria that you might forget to open your parachute.”

            I was reflecting on his response later in the day and thought that falling out of an airplane and falling in love have a lot in common.  When you fall in love, you have such a feeling of euphoria that you could have a really bad landing if you do not have a backup plan of some sort. 

One divorce attorney told me, “Kirk, people get married for the wrong reasons.  They do not really use their head.  They don’t use their heart.  A lot of people decide to get married with their glands.  They make this decision based on how they feel, how their juices happen to be flowing.”  That is a terrible way to make a decision.

Of course, I agree with his statements.  Look at the way we trivialize the word love.  We might say “I love chocolate” or “I love this football team.”  Another will say, “I love my new car.”  We even have disposable diapers named LUVS and a pickup truck named LUV.  We think of love as a spine-tingling sensation, a very emotional feeling, a great delight.  Those of us who have been in love awhile know that the spine-tingling feeling can quickly fade. 

Johnny and June Carter Cash sang, “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.”  That description of how people fall in love is pretty accurate for many people.  As in the song, this kind of love quickly fades. 

The Greek word that describes that feeling of romantic love is Eros.  The god Eros in Greek mythology was the counterpart of the god named Cupid in Roman mythology.  The idea was that if Cupid shot an arrow with his bow and it hit you, you would fall in love with the next person you saw.  That “love at first sight” has an exhilarating feeling but no backup.  The word Eros is never used in the New Testament, though it was quite common in the Greek language.  About as close as the New Testament comes to using Eros is in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus talks about lust.  He tracks lust back to its lair in that first longing look.  Lust, someone has said, is like window shopping in the sin district.  Someone tempts you, “Why don’t you come in and try some?”  You resist by saying, “No thanks.”  Lust can lead to many problems. 

The word that the New Testament uses for love most often, Agape, is found throughout I Corinthians 13.  Agape defines a love that is not a feeling at all.  It is a decision, an act of the will.  Paul starts Chapter 13 by saying, “Listen, it does not matter what else you have going for you:  status, talent, faith, or kindness to others, even poor people.  Without love, everything is meaningless.”  Paul places this great virtue of love right at the center of the Christian experience.  When we come to Verse 7, our key verse for today, Paul provides five qualities of love that bear repeating.  Let us consider these in turn. 

Love bears all things.  Love takes on the concerns of other people.  Paul wrote about this quality when he says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so to fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).  Sometimes love has a heavy load to carry.  At times, people you love very much will hurt you.  Love takes on the hardships of life and responds with a strength that bears up underneath the experiences that are beyond our control.  It is impossible to love another person without knowing something about their pain and suffering, at least to some extent.  You must have some empathy in order to really love another person.  Otherwise, love becomes very shallow, so shallow that it is not love at all. 

Second, love believes all things.  This concept refers to our relationship to God.  The word for belief in the Bible is the same word used for faith.  It means that love trusts.  Trust is the very foundation of many relationships, and especially the relationship of marriage.  If a husband and wife do not trust each other, their marriage is on shaky ground.  When you put your trust in another person, you must know that the time may come when that person will let you down, hurt you, even betray you.  To say that love believes all things does not just talk about our human relationships.  We are saying that love believes in the steadfast love of God.  God is a God of covenant.  The covenant is broken, but not by God.  It is broken from the human side. 

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.  Love is not cynical.  Love does not say, “Things are never going to get any better.”  Love believes that circumstances or situations can improve.  That is also the very nature of hope.  That hope is based on the conviction that God is going to be with us, whatever the hardships of life.  That hope will see us through. 

You see here the connection between faith, hope, and love.  Faith is the idea that we believe that God does love us to the point that we risk our lives, invest our lives in that faith.  That faith leads us to view the hardships of life, not with cynicism but with the conviction that God is always going to be with us.  He affirms, “I will never leave you.  I will never forsake you.”  Because of our faith and hope, we have a response of love to other people.  We have a desire to help, to include, to affirm others.

Love endures all things.  Love has enormous staying power.  We see that inherent in the vows of marriage, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.”  That is what it means to say, at least at a marital level, that love endures all things.  I have said to some young couples who come to me for pre-marital counseling that we ought to add one phrase to the vows:  “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness of in health, come hell or high water.”  Sometimes this life is very hard, but love has staying power.

Because of the connections between faith, hope, and love, Paul could say that love never fails.  It never ends.  It endures and endures and endures.

I was talking with a group of young people one time and made the comment, “Love never fails.” 

A teenager girl raised her hand and remarked, “Yes, but it does not always make an A+ either.”  Love does not always make an A+, but it never fails.

Why does Paul say that of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love?  Love has an eternal quality.  The love that we experience here, the love from God, is divine.  That love will not fail us.  That love will remain, even when other loves disappear. 

George Matheson learned that he was losing his eyesight.  He went to his fiancée and told her, “My physician says that I am going blind.  Before we get married, I want you to think about that.” 

After three day’s time, his fiancée came back to him and said, “George, I have decided that I do not want to be married to someone who is going to be blind.”  She broke off the engagement. 

Broken-hearted, Matheson sat down and penned the words to a hymn you know well, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.”  Words of the song continue, “I rest my weary soul in Thee.”  Matheson is referring to the love of God. 

Another hymn writer, Charles Wesley, calls it “love divine, all loves excelling.”  Both writers are referring to the love of God, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, the love of God that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  God’s love never fails.

This past week, I was talking with Gene Ellis, one of our resident physicists.  I took physics in high school and again in college and really liked the subject.  It was fascinating to me.  I remember Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer, and inventor.  I wanted to talk with Gene about a statement Archimedes made, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.”  Archimedes was talking about the physics of a simple lever, saying, “If I can just get leverage, I can move the planet.” 

Love is so powerful.  It is the leverage of Archimedes.  This resource of love, available to the Christian church, is the most powerful leverage we have in this world.  If we are going to effect any change at all, it will come through love.  Love is a power through which we can move the world.

When I was seventeen years old, a recent graduate from high school, I spent the summer in Southern Rhodesia, the country now known as Zimbabwe.  I stayed much of the time with my aunt and uncle, who were missionaries and taught some.  Yes, I know.  I was only seventeen.  What do you have to teach at seventeen?  I also worked as an orderly in a hospital for a while.  It was an amazing experience for me. 

I saw something in Southern Rhodesia that was absolutely appalling to me, Apartheid, racial discrimination.  I will never forget the day I saw an old African man standing outside the door of a butcher shop because he was not allowed to walk inside.  After waiting on all the white customers to make their purchases and leave his store, the butcher came to the door and asked what the man wanted.  When the black man explained that he wanted to buy a piece of beef to feed his family for supper, the butcher went back inside and selected a piece of brisket.  I have no doubt that he sold the worst piece of brisket he had.   I witnessed there in that one experience of Apartheid something I knew was not right. 

When I returned to South Carolina, I saw racial discrimination here in ways I had never before seen.  I love Spartanburg.  I am so grateful for this place and am glad I grew up here.  We are not a perfect community.  I guess that most of my life I had been walking by signs on water fountains and restroom doors that read “White” and “Colored.”  It was not until I went halfway around the world and saw racial intolerance there that I could recognize the prejudice in my own hometown.  That discrimination just had not fazed me before then.  Many of you know that the very next summer, I taught Bible School in three African-American churches, something white college kids did not do in the early 1960’s in Spartanburg.  I felt led by God to be a part of that involvement. 

When I was in high school, a rabbi at Temple B’nai Israel, Rabbi Max Stauber, impressed me so much.  He actually served the temple as rabbi for twenty-eight years.  I knew his three children and other high school students who were members of the Temple.  Rabbi Stauber really made a difference in this community.  I remember his coming to Spartanburg High School (SHS) and meeting with students in the classrooms.  He had open conversation with us about Judaism, about the differences between the beliefs of the Jews and the Christians.  Most of all, I remember his kindness, his compassion, his integrity.  Dr. Mark Wersing, from First Presbyterian Church, was very much like Rabbi Stauber.  I remember sitting and talking with him at SHS.  He, too, had an open mind.  Those two men in my teenage years, I realize now, were very formative.  I had no idea at the time what an impact they were making on my life. 

After graduating from Furman and getting my seminary degrees at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I had an opportunity to attend Harvard as a Merrill Fellow.  There, I had a wonderful teacher, Kristor Stendahl, a Lutheran theologian.  He was very much like Rabbi Stauber and Dr. Wersing in his openness to others.  He often used a phrase, “holy envy,” which he explained as the attraction to various aspects of other faiths.  He said that this attraction becomes the ground upon which we can have dialogue, discussion with others of various faiths.  It does not mean, of course, that we have to agree on everything.  It does mean that we can talk to each other, be neighbors to each other. 

I had the privilege of having Helmet Keister at Harvard for New Testament Colloquium.  I learned so much about the Jewish point of view of Christian scripture from him.  Hans Kuhn, a Roman Catholic theologian, was also at Harvard while I was there.  He was a source of contact for three of the world religions:  Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I remember his seminar on how Christians, Jews, and Muslims can relate to each other.  Our ground of commality was to be found in Abraham. 

When I returned to Spartanburg in 1980, the fact that this community was lacking interfaith dialogue struck me.  I was concerned and wanted to make a change.  I knew that I could not make an immediate difference when I returned to town.  Though I had lived here before, I was new in a sense.  I had been gone for eighteen years.  I started thinking about and praying about my desire to have interfaith dialogue. 

One day, Dr. Jim Barrett, then the executive director of The Spartanburg County Foundation, asked me if I would meet with him, Dr. Todd Jones, and Dr. Clay Turner to discuss the possibility of having a community Thanksgiving service.  We actually did have a service for a few years, but then the interest faded.  When I came to Morningside, I knew I had another opportunity to create interfaith dialogue.

Many of you will remember that I asked my friend Rabbi Sam Cohon to come and read the Old Testament Scripture on the day I was installed at Morningside.  He not only read the Scripture, but he also sang the Scripture in Hebrew.  Having Rabbi Cohon and clergy from other churches here for my installation was important to me.  It was one way I could get us together. 

We renewed the annual community Thanksgiving service that year at Morningside.  When Rabbi Liebowitz came to town, I made a point to get to know him.  I realized immediately that he and I were cut from the same cloth.  We had a lot in common, especially our heart for interfaith dialogue.  Conversing with each other, we created a meeting of ministers once a month. 

When 9-11 occurred, a tragic event that affected all of America, I asked that we have a discussion here, which included as panelists Rabbi Liebowitz and Ibraham Haniff, the spiritual leader of the Islamic community.  People from all over Spartanburg came.  We followed that dialogue with a series of Sunday night conversations.  Leaders from different faith groups told us about their faith. 

Two years ago, the story I had written for the Morningside congregation was not only a Christmas story.  It was, in many ways, also a Hanukkah story.  Almost unbelievably, the people at the Jewish synagogue asked me to deliver that story at the temple on the first night of Hanukkah.  It was one of several times that I have been invited to preach there.

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s coming to Spartanburg is yet another milepost.  She was very honest with us.  I do not believe everything she believes, and she certainly does not believe everything I believe.  It is a good idea to try to understand each other, a good idea to know our neighbors.  The nature of prejudice is ignorance.  The nature of prejudice is fear, being afraid of people you do not understand.  Getting to know each other makes much difference in our attitude toward others.

Our oldest son, Kirk, named for both his grandfather and me, lives in Michigan.  He has been married, divorced, and remarried.  In that regard, Clare and I have much in common with so many of you.  Very few families have not been touched by divorce.  Our son’s wife was from a Roman Catholic background, but she had turned away from that faith.  For a while, neither she nor Kirk was involved in any faith group.  Now, they have converted to Judaism.  My two granddaughters attend synagogue every Friday night to study the Torah and hear a rabbi deliver a message.  I am glad they have a place to worship.  It is not the place I would choose, but I do not get to choose.  It is the place my son and my daughter-in-law choose.  I want you to know that I have done everything I can to support them in that endeavor.  I asked a friend of mine who traveled to the Holy Land to go to the Old City of Jerusalem and buy a yamaka and a prayer shawl for my son.  Kirk wears those items when he worships. 

I take as seriously as anyone the Great Commission.  We have a responsibility to tell the world about Jesus.  I know some people deliver the Gospel in a negative way. I can promise you that using a sledge hammer to deliver the Gospel is not the way.  You can do much damage with that approach.  The word gospel means good news.  We must deliver the Gospel in a way that people can at least see who Jesus is.  Love is the most powerful resource we have.  You must deliver the message through love.  Love is the leverage of Archimedes.  It is the place to stand.  If we have that leverage, we have a powerful resource that can bear all things, believe all things, hope all thing, and endure all things.  God’s love will never fail. 

God calls us to be people of love.  As Christian people, He wants us to love the same world that He loves.  He wants us to love every person.  We affirm that Jesus Christ is the supreme example of the love of God.  We affirm that in Christ God reveals His love.  God’s love for us is the reason He sent Jesus into the world. 


© Kirk H. Neely

August 2008


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