The Greatest of These

Today is a day we celebrate a very famous saint and he is probably every bit as well known as St Nicholas. It is St Valentine’s Day. Over this past week, everywhere you looked, people were talking about love.

St Valentine was a real person and is a real saint recognized by the Catholic church, but most people consider Valentine’s Day a time to acknowledge and honor those they love. However, it’s not a bad day to stop and think about what we believe about love.

One of the most well known pieces of scripture  about love is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  It is indeed as beautiful as any love poem we could imagine and we often hear it read at weddings.

We all have ideas about love. Whether we have it or want it or want to give it or hate it or feel ours has been rejected or think we’ve never had it; whether we think it is a noun or a verb, we probably all have ideas about this little four letter word: LOVE.

Just think of all the ways we hear this word used today. Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Tina Turner asks what love has to do with it and Elizabeth Barrette Browning counts the ways she loves thee. And of course, as the Beatles say, all you need is love.

After doing a quick google search about the word love, I came across an amazing array of descriptions of what love is, what it means, how to find it, where to buy it and even how awful it is. Most of the things on the internet sounded like a Taylor Swift song—with one person wondering why another just couldn’t see that they belonged together. One of my favorites of the more cynical things I saw was: love is nature’s way of tricking us into reproduction.

But then, finally, after a lot of digging around and feeling quite a bit of sadness at all the lack of love and presence of hurt in the world, I found this in the Urban Dictionary: Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over another’s sins, but delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance. In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love.

Not too bad. Not too bad at all. Actually, an excellent description of love and we have Paul’s letter to the Corinthians to thank for it.

So what do we, outside the world of google search, think of love? A lot of what we think of love comes from movies and stories. Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who was locked away in the highest room of the tallest tower in a dragon guarded castle awaiting the arrival of her true love, a handsome prince who would slay the dragon and whisk her off to happily ever after.

They always start like that, don’t they? It never seems to begin with once upon a time there was a plain girl, quite ordinary and unremarkable, who looked into the mirror one morning at the bruises on her arms and decided that she could no longer endure the abuse she experienced in her family, and turned to her closet to pack a bag so she could leave the only home she’d ever known to live on the street in order to survive.

Or, once upon a time there was a man with scars and marks from his fearsome and violent life, lying in his prison cell with a future as blank and hopeless as the filthy ceiling at which he stared and who knew with all of his heart that there was no one to blame for where he was but himself.

Or even, once upon a time there was a slightly confused elderly lady who wasn’t sure of a lot of things these days, but lovingly recalled her memories of a life once filled with people, all long since gone, who sat alone in her living room wishing with all her might that someone would come by and talk to her.

And yet all of God’s love stories begin that way.

Once upon a time there was an ordinary housewife. She spent her days cooking and cleaning and just now, there was a remarkable man surrounded by all his followers sitting in her living room and she needed to take care of this special guest. There was so much to do and no one to help her! She always felt breathless, overwhelmed, exhausted and angry. Angry with her sister who ought to see how hard she was working, ought to see how lonesome she was, how utterly alone she felt, ought to come and help and was, instead, sitting with that amazing teacher and listening to him as though she had not a care in the world!

But then, when that ordinary housewife went to get her lazy sister’s help, the man told her that all those chores could wait, that what he really wanted her to do was to be with him. He thought she was so much more than a meal and a clean house.

Once upon a time there was a man who had betrayed his very best friend. He’d sworn he would be loyal; loyal to the very end. But when the end came he was so very frightened. Time after time, people asked him if he knew that man who was on trial, that man who was to be put to death and, time after time, he denied even knowing him. He was a betrayer and a coward and every last inch of him felt ashamed when he heard the proud crow of the rooster reminding him of how deeply he had failed. But later, over a meal on the seashore, his friend forgave him.  Tend my sheep, he told him, and turned his life’s work over to him to carry on after he was gone.

Once upon a time there was this guy who had been a criminal all his life. He’d been captured, convicted and was now fulfilling his sentence: death. As he gasped for breath, arms spread wide and nailed mercilessly to the crossbeam, he knew he really had no one to blame but himself. And then and there, right there, when he least expected and least deserved it, he met a man that changed everything. He met a man who knew who and what he was and still gave him the most precious gift in all the world: life in paradise.

The love stories that God writes, the love stories God enters into, do not sound like classic fairy tales. God’s love stories are about real people. About people who aren’t always breathtakingly handsome or stunningly beautiful, heroically strong or fantastically magical. They are about people like you and me.

Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who, because of some poor choices they’d made, had to leave the only home they’d ever known and life became very difficult. Sometimes, it seemed like they were so very alone, as though no matter how hard they tried, they could never make things the same again. But God so loved them, so loved everything about them, that he sent his only son to make things well for them.

Now there’s the real crescendo of this love story! Jesus died for us, laid down his life for us, because he loves us.

You see, when Paul is writing about love, how it is patient and kind, how it keeps no track of wrongs, is never boastful or how there are really no limits to its hope and faith, he really isn’t writing about the love songs or romantic movies. Paul is writing about God’s love for us.  God’s love that is patient with us; infinitely so. He writes about how God’s love is kindness and mercy and that keeps no track of our mistakes. If it is a love song, it is God’s love song to us. Because God loves us, there is no joy for God in pointing out our sins and flaws but rather, God remains faithful to us no matter our flaws.

This is the love with which God loves us.

It seems appropriate that we spend time thinking specifically about God’s love for us as we begin the season of Lent because it is God’s love that lead him to send his only son, that lead him willingly to the cross for us. Not out of guilt or obligation or anything else in all the world other than out of his pure, patient, kind, un-envying, giving, selfless, truthful, brave and enduring love for us.

We are called to experience this love first hand. Without it, Paul says, we are nothing but noise makers.

We are challenged by Paul to strive for this kind of love for others. Being imperfect and not God, we will likely not be successful in this loving every time. But it is at these times we can remember that we love because God first loved us. God’s amazing love is what we love others with.

Faith hope and love—these remain. But the greatest of these is love.

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