Friday, November 18, 2016

Is love more important than faith and hope? Yes and no

Most people in western culture have probably heard the famous "love chapter" from the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13. Although not originally addressed by the apostle Paul to marriage, but rather to the relationships of disciples in Christ's Church to each other, it's often read at weddings. The "love chapter" ends in this way:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
A friend recently mentioned this passage and opined that love trumps faith.

I responded:
I always have viewed [the verse as representing]...a progression: Without faith in Christ, there is no hope and you can' On the other hand, it's God's love that makes it possible for us to have faith and hope.
The three attributes are related to one another. And love is the greatest because it's from His infinite storehouse of love for the human race that God sent His Son Jesus to die and rise for us (see John 3:16-18).

It's also God, acting in love through Christ, Who gives us hope. (Psalm 62:5)

And it's only through the power of the Holy Spirit, God acting in love, that we can have faith. (1 Corinthians 12:3)

In the "love chapter," Paul is upbraiding a group of Christians committing unrepentant sin, including the sins of some who thought they were better or more worthy of God's and the world's favor than others. They were loveless.

They were loveless because they had more faith in the world and in external things than they had in Christ. They lacked hope because there is no hope apart from Christ. As Paul reminds the Corinthian church a few chapters later: "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:9).

Love then, is the greatest and highest expression of our faith and hope in Christ.

Without faith and hope in Christ, we may love in the way the world "loves." But Jesus commends a higher form of love.

According to the Bible, faith and hope in Christ are equivalent to what Jesus speaks of in the gospel of John as remaining or abiding in Him. To have faith and to derive our hope from Jesus Christ alone is to draw every bit of our lives, aspirations, self-worth, unique self-identities, and capacity to love in the same self-giving, eternity-changind way in which Christ loved us on the cross.

So Jesus says in John 15:5: "If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."

And it's why John himself confesses many years later: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10).

God's love doesn't trump faith and hope. In His love, God creates love--true love, self-giving love--in those who put their faith and hope in Christ alone.

People will protest, of course, that they love their families and maybe their friends. Their love may be even more expansive, including countrymen or those with whom they agree politically. With all due respect, big deal! 

As Jesus puts it: "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:46-48).

The word translated as perfect there is, literally, complete, a form of which word uses on the cross as He dies and says, "It is finished." More literally, "It is completion." But I'm not sure that being complete as Jesus was, complete in fulfilling the will of the Father that He love His enemies and pray for those who persecuted Him, even as they killed him.

Whether you take Jesus to be saying perfect or prefer the more literal rendering of complete in this passage from Matthew 5, both leave us with a daunting command. And it's only through our faith and hope in Christ that we are capable of loving, not just our families and friends, but everyone...not just in our sentiments, but in our actions.

Why do I say and believe that?

In Matthew 25, we find Jesus' famous parable of the final judgment. In the parable, the goats are condemned to hell, eternity apart from God. The sheep are told to enter into the eternal joy of God made possible through Christ's death and resurrection.

But the sheep are mystified by Christ the King's reason for allowing them entrance into perfect eternal fellowship with God. He tells them that it's because they lived in love toward others the world ignored, dismissed, or harmed. Do you remember how Jesus' parable goes?
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"
The moment we think things like, "I'm being loving," "I'm being forgiving," or "I'm acting like Jesus," we know that God still has work to do on us. Real love never refers to itself. (By the way, God has a lot of work to do on me in this regard!)

The "righteous" in Jesus' parable were unaware of the love that they had shown to Christ through the love that they had shown to others. They lived (and loved) unselfconsciously because their faith and hope weren't in themselves or their actions, but only in Christ.

Their acts of love weren't spiritual merit badges that entitled them to entry into eternity with God; they evidenced the presence of Jesus in their lives.

They evidenced that God had constructed faith and hope in them.

Love like this proves the existence of a faith and hope in Christ. And it is the love--authentic, self-giving, godly love--that the world most needs today.

In Revelation 3:20, the risen and ascended Jesus speaks to a first century church that is going through the religious motions, but hasn't really let Christ into the centers of their lives. They aren't letting the Holy Spirit, Who leads and speaks on behalf of Jesus today, to take control of their lives, individually or collectively.

But Jesus hasn't given up on them! "Here I am!" Jesus says. "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me."

More than anything, being a Christian--a disciple of Jesus Christ--is about daily letting Jesus in.

We let Him in to show us our sins and what we need to confess.

We let Him in so that, through the Bible, He can speak His words of love, truth, wisdom, and guidance to us.

We let Him in so that the Holy Spirit can empower us to be more loving and Christlike today than we were yesterday.

We let Him in, too, so that He can help us to work for justice and peace in the world, so that we can love others as Christ has loved us.

And, as we pray, we let Him and His love explode onto the world; we ask for healing of others, for workers to go into the harvest, Christians who will share the good news of new life for all who believe in Jesus, and for wisdom for leaders.

In short, as we let Christ in, Christ springs forth from our words, actions, and prayers. We love.

Love is "the greatest of these." 

But we can only love when we let Christ in, when we have faith and hope in Him. 

Trust in Christ. Let Him love the world through you.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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