I Cor. 13: 8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Someone recently wrote to AskYahoo.com and asked, “What is meant by ‘eye transplants? Is it really possible for people born blind to get complete eye transplants so that they can see?” The answer, that I found confirmed on several other sites, was: No, its currently not possible to transplant an entire human eye. But for almost a hundred years we have done corneal transplants, transplants of the outer lens of the eye, and those are mostly successful. But they’re successful in part because the optic nerve, from the brain to the eye, is still there and working. If that’s not working, then to get it working, would currently require nothing short of a miracle.
Today we’re talking about something akin to the miracle of an entire eye transplant, not just improving the eyesight through a new outer lens, but something akin to completely new eyes, from the brain to the outer lens, or even a whole new kind of sight. Sight and eyes, that is, for seeing what is invisible, what is eternal, in effect, for seeing God. To see the invisible and eternal God, we don’t have any physical senses. With these physical eyes, and with all our physical senses, we can see, taste, touch, hear and feel the works and the wonders of God. Like what we see in a garden or the Grand Canyon. Like ourselves and each other. With our human logic and senses we can also know things about God. But seeing and knowing such things about God is not the same as seeing God and knowing God.
For that we need something on the scale of a transplant, even, the transplant of not just two eyes but three. Those three eyes for seeing God are listed in today’s Bible passage: faith, hope and love. Those three things are our direct connections with God, or more likely, God’s direct connections with us. That’s why I liken them to a transplant: because we wouldn’t have them on our own, if left to ourselves. We can seek them of God, and we must, but that only underscores that they are gifts. What hope, faith or love anyone has is a gift of God.
At the end of the previous chapter, chapter 12, Paul tells us to seek the greatest of the spiritual gifts. By the end of chapter 13, we know what those greatest gifts are: faith, hope and love. They are the greatest gifts because, of all the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives for Christian life and ministry, Paul says only these three will remain. They will be necessary and powerful in all times, places and situations. The other ones, like prophecy or speaking in other languages, or mercy, administration and service, are temporary tools, given as needed for the church’s mission in some times and places, but not others. But all these other spiritual gifts depend upon the three greatest gifts: faith, hope and love. Without them, we would not even seek other spiritual gifts in the first place. Or we would seek them for reasons other than faith, hope and love, such as for power, control or pride. To impress people with our giftedness. There was enough of that going on already in Corinth.
So “faith, hope and love,” are the gifts—the transplanted eyes– by which we “see” the invisible God, the ways in which we “know” God in ways beyond what our brains and bodies can do. Of these three, love is the greatest, Paul says. And I can think of two reasons why love is the greatest.
One is because love is so necessary to the other two gifts. Think of faith and hope without love. A loveless faith, or a loveless hope. A loveless faith would be nothing more than an ideology, and a mean one at that. Like the folks who show up at the funerals of soldiers or people who die from HIV/AIDS to proclaim that they deserved their deaths because God hates homosexuals, allegedly. They may call their beliefs “faith” but I’d call them an ideology. Sure, a religious ideology, but a mean one at that.
Or what are Communism or Islamic jihad but ideologies with all the fervor and organization of religion, but without the saving grace of love? To approach the kind of faith that Jesus would commend, to which he would say, “Great is your faith,” or “your faith has saved you,” there must also be love.
Or think of hope without love. Then you’d just have wishful thinking and mere optimism. Someone may hope to win the lottery. We may hope that our country’s team wins the World Soccer Cup (or at least that we get a decent referee), but we can’t credit the Holy Spirit with such hope. Because its lacking the kind of love this passage enjoins upon us. Love of money, or love of country won’t abide forever, because money and countries won’t abide forever.
God’s kind of love, for godly and eternal things, is the difference between living, saving faith and mere ideology. And its the difference between godly hope and mere desire or wishful thinking.
The second reason that love is the greatest of all three is that love is the one thing that carries over into eternity. Once we’re standing on the other side of the Pearly Gates to the New Jerusalem, we won’t need hope anymore. Our hope will be fulfilled. We won’t need faith either, because our faith will have become sight. But however great our love is on this side of the veil, it will ramp up an infinitely higher notch on the other side. Heaven is pure love. Think then of all the love we show in this life as training for the love we will give and know in the life to come. Or think of all the love we know and show in this world as an appetizer and an advertisement for the world to come.
Love is how we grow up, in this life, into our eternal, heavenly selves. In all our works and acts of love today, we are like children playing dress-up with their parents’ clothes. They may seem awkward and too big for the children now. But whenever we see them in shoes twice as big as their feet, and in suit jackets or dresses that drag on the floor behind them, we don’t usually tell them to knock it off. Don’t we usually want to pull out the cameras and cheer them on? So it is with love.
You can tell what people are nervous and insecure about by what they laugh and joke about. One of the richest sources of humor is heaven and the afterlife. Because we’re uncertain about the details, and therefore a bit nervous, especially about the process of getting there, even when we have the assurance of salvation. So we tell stories about people smuggling satchels of gold bricks into heaven, only to get busted by St. Peter, who says, “O good; here’s our latest shipment of paving stones. Its been a bad year for potholes.” Or ones in which we can tell how good and godly people have been by the size and glamor of their cars. You get a Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Not bad. Mother Teresa was finally seen in a stretch limo. Oh, and there goes the pastor!
On a tricycle.
Well, if we’re wondering or worried about what endures from our lives, and what we might carry with us from this life to the next, look no more. “And now these three endure: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.” In part, because its the greatest in duration. Like really, really, really great. Like forever.
You know, we could waste our lives and our resources worrying and running around looking for foolproof investments that will grow and pay dividends without fail (real estate? Stock market? Grain futures?), and miss the one and only foolproof investment that’s right in front of us: people, through acts and lives of love. Not only will those kinds of investments pay off in heaven, in a way, they are heaven. Love is even how heaven comes to us, long before we go to heaven. There’s nothing in God’s heaven for anyone who loves anything more than love.
Sometimes these investments pay off on both sides of the Pearly Gates. Sometimes they even pay dividends in hell. Like in the hell that was Rwanda, recently. But there, Pastor Gratien Mitsindo two years ago received a down payment on heaven. Fourteen years earlier, during the genocide of 1994, Pastor Mitsindo, though a member of the Hutu tribe, saved the lives of over 300 Tutsis by giving them refuge in his church sanctuary. When the Interahamwe militia found out about them, they came to the church building demanding access to the refuge seekers, to kill them, and him, for having sheltered them. Pastor Mitsindo, though unarmed, stood up to them with the force of his will and character. When the militia backed down and threatened to come again, for him as well as for the Tutsis, Mitsindo organized hiding places for the refuge seekers in other homes and locations, as well as a system of sneaking food to them.
Two years ago, a public ceremony was organized to honor Mitsindo. The surviving refuge seekers presented him with two cows and a motorcycle. Some of them had even become his adopted family members, even though they were from different tribes. So with two cows, a motorcycle and more importantly, all that family, Mitsindo is set for life. They are his social security. And if they are giving out wheels in the New Jerusalem, on which to zoom around the golden streets, for love like that, I’m pretty sure he’ll get more than a cow or another motorcycle. Not because he earned it: God’s love is not about accounts and rewards. It will be because whatever he drives in the next life, he learned to drive in this one.
And that’s my Father’s Day story today.
Love like that, you can’t even keep it out of the hell that was Rwanda, in 1994. Love is how the future keeps breaking into the present. Its God’s way of showing up; and it is our way of growing up. Since God and heaven and we are forever, so then is love. That’s why love is the greatest of the greatest three big-time all stars: faith, hope and love. With such 20-20-20 vision, we will even see God.