The Greatest Thing In The Greatest Church
June 13, 1982 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | I Corinthians 13
Here is the story of a church that used to be.
It was a busy, flourishing, apparently successful church. Sunday services were well attended. There was a strong Christian Education program for all ages. There were prayer groups which met regularly to pray for themselves and others. There was a vigorous ministry of outreach into the community and there was a deep involvement in the wider mission of the church in the world.
To the eyes of an outsider, it must have seemed like a model of what the church ought to be. But one did not have to be inside that church very long before a serious flaw could be seen. The church was disunited—it was torn apart by rivalry, jealousy, snobbery and tension. The various interest groups were not pulling together but fighting one another. They were like horses hitched to a wagon, but all pulling in different directions. Those responsible for worship thought that only sermons and anthems mattered in the Kingdom of God. The Christian Education people said that the first priority ought always to be the young people. The pray-ers regarded themselves as the backbone of the whole enterprise, while the social activists declared that theirs was the only valid ministry. It was actually a case of several small, competing congregations under one big roof—and it all added up to one big failure.
Well, one day that congregation received an open letter from the minister who had founded the church. The letter came straight to the point. The minister minced no words. He said he had learned that the congregation had broken up into competing groups and he was very upset about it. He told the people not to be so conceited about their various talents and abilities with which they viewed the church. They were not human inventions anyway, but gifts of the Holy Spirit. All were important, yet all were absolutely useless without the most important gift of all. The writer said that the greatest thing in the church is not worship or education or outreach or even prayer. The greatest thing in the church is love!
Of course, by now you know the church and the preacher I am talking about. I am talking about Paul…and the church at Corinth…and the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to that church.
I shall never forget one bright, hot day in May when Trisha and I stood amidst the rubble and excavation of ancient Corinth. I remember thinking that Paul’s great chapter on love was addressed to the Christians in that place. And I began to realize for the first time that those words from the pen of Paul were not simply a lovely poem intended to be set to music—a sentimental love song, as it were. No, rather they were part of a letter addressed to a church located on that very spot—a church in danger of being torn apart by jealousy and tension and rivalry. And because that is true, it seems to me that Paul’s words speak volumes to the fractured church, full of fractured people, in our fractured world.
So I invite you to join me in looking at 1 Corinthians 13 in that light—and I want you to notice that the chapter falls quite naturally into three stanzas.
The first stanza speaks directly to the problems which existed in the Corinthian Church.
Paul lists four activities which Christians have traditionally regarded as being important, four dimensions with the life of the church which tend to claim priority. Then Paul says that without love they are nothing.
Paul begins: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” He is referring here to that gift of tongues—the religion of ecstasy. During an intense time of prayer, Christians in the early church would break forth into strange language which they claimed could be interpreted. The problem was that those who had this gift tended to feel that they belonged to the spiritual elite and those who did not have the gift were not so close to God. Paul here pinpoints the kind of Christians who have haunted the church in every age—the person who can be ecstatic about the whole dimension of the faith while remaining selfish and unloving in the practical matters of life. So Paul is saying in essence: “Religion makes you ecstatic! That’s great. But remember that that is not the heart of the Gospel. Love comes first. Without love your religion is just a lot of noise.”
Paul continues, “If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries…” He is referring here not to ecstasy but to theology, to the ability to interpret and communicate the Gospel. Paul was the greatest thinker, the greatest theologian the church had ever produced. He knew the importance of sound theology. But, listen to what he says: “If you don’t have love in your heart, then all of your intellectual pursuits, all of your study of the Scriptures, all of your familiarity with theological thought—all of this is nothing if love for Christ and love for others is not the great driving passion of your life.”
Next Paul says: “If I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Paul understood,as strange as it may seem, that an intense religious faith can be accompanied by an equally intense hatred for other people. Witness those Psalms where the writer, in perfect trust, asks God to do terrible things to their enemies. Or, in our own time, witness that tragic struggle between Christians in Northern Ireland. It was Dean Smith, himself an Irishman, who said: “We Christians have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” In other words, the most faithful people sometimes can be the most unloving—in which case, Paul says their faith cancels itself out.
Now comes a real shocker! “If I give away all that I have and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Paul knew perfectly well that generosity and self-sacrifice are Christian virtues, but he also knew that some Christians are generous for selfish reasons. They give in order to get. They share their resources to control things their way or to claim an air of superiority for themselves or to avoid the ever-open hand of the Internal Revenue Service. Paul says that such people gain nothing spiritually from their giving. He wants us to grasp the joy of giving out of love for Christ and His Church.
Now we come to the second stanza where Paul declares that love is the most powerful thing in the world.
They wanted to break a piece of metal. A hammer was used until in its fury it lost its head. A saw was used until in its anger it broke its teeth. A chisel was used until in its frustration it blunted its edge. Then the flame said, “Let me try.” And the fire proceeded to wrap itself about the metal. You know what I’m saying, don’t you—that the heart that will not yield to anger or force or coercion, that same heart will melt when embraced by the power of love. Love is the most powerful thing in the world.
Sundays are always hard for me and they are hard on me. But one Sunday recently was particularly hard. It began, as all my Sundays do, long before daylight, as I prepared my mind and my heart for worship. It had come on the heels of a difficult week, and when it was over, I was worn out. Then Sunday afternoon there came a call from someone in need of help. Now, if you had asked me at that moment if I had faith, I would have said: “Yes, I believe the Apostles’ Creed, every item of it, and I will stand by it all of my life.” And if you had asked me if I had hope, I would have said: “Yes, I believe that Jesus is coming again and I believe in the ultimate victory of life over death and good over evil.” But I want to tell you that it was not my faith or my hope that moved me to respond to that call. Only love could do that—the love of a preacher for his people. Love is the most powerful thing in the world.
It was that kind of love that led Father Damion to expose himself to leprosy in order to minister to lepers. It was that kind of love that compelled Vincent de Paul to sell himself into slavery in order to carry Christ’s message to slaves. It was…that kind of love that drove Bonhoeffer and Niemoeller and ten thousand others to protest the Nazi slaughter and then to bring upon themselves the horror of the concentration camps. That kind of love has moved untold numbers of men and women to tread the lonely, uncertain path to the mission field. Oh, what preposterous, fantastic things people do in their love of Jesus Christ. That love is the most powerful thing in the world.
And I would suggest to you that that love is best found in Jesus. How do I know? Well, permit me to change Paul’s words in this second stanza by substituting the word “Jesus” for the word “love.” Listen! “Jesus is patient and kind. Jesus is not jealous or boastful. Jesus is not arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on His own way. Jesus is not irritable or resentful. Jesus does not rejoice at the wrong, but rejoices in the right.” Jesus is the definition of love. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus. And to know Jesus is to know that greatest power of all—the power of His love softening us, like the flame softens metal, remolding us into something more wonderful than we ever dreamed we could be. And so it’s true—the greatest thing in the church is love!
But then we come to the third stanza and we see why Paul so glorified love.
He says it very simply: “Love never ends.” Many things in the church are going to end. One day this magnificent building will crumble and decay. The ministers, the officers, and the people of the congregation will be dispersed by circumstance or by death. Even the cherished spiritual gifts will disappear just as the values of childhood disappear with maturity. Nothing, you see, is permanent in the Church of Jesus Christ—nothing that is, except faith, hope and love. They will last. They will stand. They will never end. And Paul says that the greatest of these is love.
One day this past week I walked over to our historical room to drink in some of the marvelously rich history of this great congregation. I walked down the hall past the portraits of my distinguished predecessors in this pulpit and into the room which contains treasures of our yesteryears. There I was reminded all over again that this is the greatest Presbyterian Church in Florida and one ;of the greatest in our denomination. But that very fact means that you and I face an awesome challenge in the years that are ahead. That greatness must not be simply preserved—it must be enhanced. Our Christ will not let us settle for less than that. It won’t be easy. I know that. But I also know something else. No, better, I also know Someone else. I know Jesus. I know the power of His love. And I know what His love can do in the Church. That’s why I say to you that we cannot fail.
But is that really true? Does life prove the truth that where force may fail love succeeds? Is it at all reasonable for me to stand in the pulpit and declare to you that love—Christ’s kind of love is the unfailing solution to our personal problems and the problems of our world? Yes, by all means, yes! For everything else fails. Everything else ends. But love doesn’t end and so love doesn’t fail—not now, not ever.
You don’t believe that? Then consider what one man, armed only with the love of Jesus Christ could do. His name? Telemachus. For nineteen centuries now, the Colosseum in Rome has stood virtually unused, and it is a monument to what this man in the love of Christ was able to do. During the gladiatorial games in the first century in Rome, on one occasion, this Christian named Telemachus was present. And when he saw these men preparing to do one another to death down on the Colosseum floor, he knew that thing was wrong. So he stood up in the crowd and he began to loudly protest what was happening. He was ridiculed, shouted down. That didn’t stop him. He left his seat and walked down to the edge of the stadium, just above the sand floor of the arena. From there he cried out to Caesar to stop the games. Again he was ridiculed. Many began to throw things at him. Then someone reached up and pushed him. He fell over the edge of the arena and down on the sand. But he would not be stopped. He got up, walked over and stood right between the two gladiators who were about to fight to the death. He wouldn’t let them fight. Finally, the two gladiators looked at Caesar—Caesar gave them the “thumbs down” sign. Their short Roman swords flashed in the sun. Telemachus fell dead—and the sand ran red with his blood. But way up in the far reaches of the Colosseum, there was a person who saw that, was sickened by it, and got up to leave. And over here there was another. Across the way a family got up and moved toward the exit. Then another. Over here some more. And there, and there. And as the people began to leave, Caesar, embarrassed by what was happening, got up and left. And when Caesar left, everybody else left. And from that day to this, the Colosseum in Rome has never again been used for such a bloody purpose as that.
You see, love cannot fail, or it could mean that Christ has failed—and that just is not so. Christ on the Cross is history’s proof of the failure of any other power to defeat the power of love. On Calvary the victory belonged to Jesus Christ—not to the ones who nailed Him there. The victory belonged to love. Races and nations and empires and civilizations built upon force, have risen and endured for a time in the awesome flow of human history, but then they have weakened and faded away as if they had never been. But the Cross of Jesus Christ, the symbol of sacrificial love, the Cross still leads generations on.
On this, the dawn of a new day in the life of this great church, I want you to know that we shall trumpet Jesus Christ. Here we shall be bound to Him and to one another by His love. Here we shall arm ourselves with that love and go forth into the world to do battle against the forces of evil and injustice in this sin-sick, sorrow-torn world. And we shall not fail, for in Christ we cannot fail. Nothing, not even the gates of hell, can stand in the face of a company of committed Christians living in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul was right. Love never ends. Love never fails. That is the lesson of human history. That is the lesson of the Gospel story. And that is the lesson we must learn if we are to be Christ’s people in the world.
Well are you ready?
So, let the journey begin.