TEXT: 1 Corinthians 13:1-8


While serving my first church in Cross City, FL we made a number of physical renovations to the church property.  I’m sure we weren’t the first ones to experience this, but no sooner had we poured the concrete for the new walkway to our Fellowship Hall than there was some kid's name written in the wet cement.  Some might say it was just vandalism by a bad kid.  But I think that sort of prank has a deeper longing behind it.  The longing for immortality.  I'll bet if I started asking around, there would be a fair number here who at one time or another haven't done something just in the hopes that it would outlast us. 

Maybe we carved our initials in a tree or in a restroom.  Maybe we put our hand or foot in wet cement.  Maybe we have started a collection or bought some jewelry or created a work of art that we hope will be passed down through the generations or written in a diary, fully anticipating the day when it is published and read by adoring fans.  Maybe we have scrimped and saved our money, hoping to leave an endowment or a memorial gift that will ensure our presence and influence after we are gone.  Maybe we have built a business, patented an invention, or invested ourselves in children to carry on the family name and reputation. 

For my part, I went to a Biblical Archaeology Seminar in New York and spent three evenings reconstructing a ceramic pot from ancient Palestine, knowing that if I got it finished, it would sit in a museum, probably well beyond my lifetime.  And I did it.  It’s in a museum in Ann Arbor, MI.  Now I write books.  A kid writing his name in our cement walk is annoying.  But we all understand the longing for immortality that lies behind it.

The passage from 1 Corinthians this morning is one of the most famous and is arguably the most eloquent passage in all of Scripture.  You hear it at most weddings, you see it on posters and inspirational cards.  But perhaps the most appropriate place that I have ever seen this passage written is on my father's tombstone, where we carved verse 8:  “Love never fails.”  It is most appropriate there not just because my father was a man who loved, but because the message at the heart of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is the key to immortality.  “Love never fails…fails in the sense of running out, which is why others translate it “Love never ends.” 

Where better than a tombstone to proclaim the news that there is one way to live beyond the grave--one way to ensure that what we do on earth will endure--one way to eternal life.  Love.  Not because love is a great mushy feeling, but because love is the nature of God.  God is love, we’re told in 1 John 4:8.  Love isn’t just what God is what God is.  Love is God’s nature.  Since only what is done in God will last, only love is eternal.

The people in Corinth were not very different from ourselves.  They, too, were looking for a way to make a name for themselves that would outlast them.  We talked about the way they were invested in the art and architecture of their many temples.  In the church, it took the form of competition over who had been given which gifts, claiming some were better than others, wanting their great gifts to be told in stories forever. 

Some thought they had made it because they spoke in tongues--some in other languages of earth, others in heavenly languages.  Now that's something to be remembered.  Surely people would remember and tell the stories of the ones who spoke in strange tongues in the house of the Lord.  Sorry, says Paul.  Just tongues without love is worthless.  It is just a bunch of noise--even if it is the language of angels.

"But my prophecy!"  cry others.  "I speak out the very wisdom of God.  Surely they will tell of the deep knowledge I possessed of the Scriptures.  Surely my sermons and writings will be preserved and consulted for ages to come."  "And no one can dispute the miracles accomplished by my unwavering faith," say others.  "Already the stories are told all across the land that whoever so much as touches my handkerchief will be healed."  "Sorry," says Paul.  "Unless you also have love, you are still a big zero.  Nothing.  Nada." 

"Come on, Paul, you're crazy.  You can't tell me that my sacrifices will go unnoticed.  I gave away all I owned--all of it--every penny of wealth, every material possession.  I have whole buildings named after me and large endowments bear my name.  And my brother gave up his very life in the lion's den.  He volunteered it!  That will not easily be forgotten.  Why they have written songs about him."  "Sorry again," says Paul.  "Unless it was done as an act of love, it has gained you nothing--not so much as a divine glance has come your way.  When you die, you and your sacrifices will return to dust.  And when the things of earth pass away, none of those buildings will remain standing and all human currency will be worthless.  Only love will remain."

A lot of things happened to me the night my father died and you will hear those stories from time to time.  I think I’ve even told this one since I’ve been here, because the most important thing that happened that night was that I became convinced of the truth of 1 Corinthians 13.  There was an instant when I looked at my father and realized that what was before me was only a shell that my father had occupied for a time.  There was no sense that my father had died but only that he had left--like a caterpillar that had left its cocoon behind and now lived on in another form.  And just for an instant I felt that the veil between time and eternity was lifted, allowing me for one split second to see truth.  That may sound way out and mystical, but I believe that as a person crosses the mysterious threshold between life and death, we have a chance to learn things that we can learn at no other times. 

And what I learned in that instant of truth was that the only thing that mattered in the entire universe was love.  It was as clear as the nose on my face and suddenly so obvious that for several weeks it made me almost unfit to live in the world.  Going back to work was one of the hardest things I have ever done.  Not because I was still grieving, but because I was furiously angry that some human system of economics made it necessary for me to be working in a rare book library.  With every page I typed, every book I catalogued, every old map I filed away a voice inside me was screaming, "It doesn't matter!  What am I doing here!  None of this will last!"  I wanted to cry with the writer of Ecclesiastes, "Vanity!  All is vanity!" 

Here I was in a rare book library, where every action is taken with the purpose of preserving these ancient documents in mind.  We were always cold because the temperature had to be set for the optimal conditions for rare books.  We refused to allow patrons who had traveled sometimes thousands of miles to use a book because actual use might damage the pristine binding and devalue the book.  We spent thousands of dollars to acquire a book that we already had three copies of because this one was signed by a famous person. 

And I knew, in a way I had never known before, that ultimately none of it mattered.  All of the elaborate efforts at security and preservation had no ultimate meaning because none of it was grounded in love.  And it made me furious.  The span of our lives was so short and so tentative.  Could we possibly afford to spend eight precious hours every day preserving books for a time when we could be out preserving souls for eternity?  It was all I could do to function in my job.

But, after several weeks, the memory of the truth behind the veil became less vivid and once again I found myself immersed and able to enjoy the human enterprise of collecting and preserving.  But I carried with me the knowledge that Paul was right when he spoke of these things as childish ways.  And I knew that when God would grant me the maturity of death and the veil would be lifted for good, I still knew without a shadow of a doubt what the ultimate question would be.  I knew that God would not care how many things I had collected or how many book spines I had protected from the spine-breaking hands of patrons.  I knew that God would not be asking what my income was or why I hadn't been able to catalogue 10 percent more than I had.  God's only question would be, "Anne, who have you loved?"  That's it--because that is the only thing that matters.

The ultimate question is not what have you believed, it is not what have you done, it is not how many people remember you, it is not how much money have you given away.  The ultimate question is who have you loved.  From a lot of current church debates, you would think we were all in for a huge exam on theology or doctrine or Bible literacy.  Jesus summed up all we need to know about anything in one sentence... “Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul with all your mind and with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself.”

Love is all that matters.  Don't be duped by the childish ways of earth.  We can participate in the fun ways of earth--in the little diversions that were created for our enjoyment.  But we must never deceive ourselves into thinking that anything we do will last unless it is done in the spirit of love.  It doesn't matter how wonderful the world thinks it is.  It doesn't matter if you are prominent in business or entertainment.  It doesn't matter if you get invited to important functions or if you appear in history books.  It doesn't matter if you're listed in Forbes magazine, in the Guiness Book of World Records, in some Hall of Fame or in somebody's wet cement.  God is not impressed--even if you have left your entire fortune to charity.  God still wants to know--who have you loved?  Has love been the guiding principle of your life?  Love is all that matters.

Love is the only thing that is eternal.  Love is the only thing that reaches beyond death.  And that's why Paul says that love is greater than hope and even faith.  Faith and hope will both disappear when we meet God face to face.  There will be no need to take a leap in the dark when all is light.  But love remains, for God is love.  For love to end would mean for God to end.  God is eternal and therefore love is eternal.  Love is all that matters because God is all that matters.

Whatever is done in love is done on an eternal plane.  When we act in love, we participate in eternal life--now, here, even as we participate in our lives on earth. Eternal life is not something we enter only after death.  Eternal life is something we can participate in now, as soon as the God of love comes into our hearts and finds an unblocked channel to spread that love to others.  1 John 4:7-8 says that “Everyone that loves is born of God and knows God.”  Love is all that matters.  Love is the only thing that extends beyond the grave, beyond time, beyond ourselves.  Love never ends.  Eternal life is now.

 When we love, the heavens move.  New things, eternal things, are created.  God loved and the world was born.  God loved us and flesh came on our dry bones, life filled us, and we were transformed.  When we love with God’s love, we, too, create things that are eternal in the heavens.  Love never ends.  Our acts of love are fixed for all time and beyond time.  Those we love are with us forever...really.  And, by the way, I believe that includes our pets.

What is the guiding principle of your life?  Unless it is love, you are building a house of cards.  Over the years I am here, you will hear this as a theme time and time again.  Sorting out what it means to really love God, self, and neighbor can be tricky...which is why we have 66 books in the Bible to help us do it.  But the core message is that it is all about love.  It’s not about doctrine or saying some magical prayer.  It’s not about deeds and obeying the law.  Square one is God first and then balance self-love with love of others.  That’s the place that everybody has to start...and if you don’t start there, you’ll keep getting sent back to square one until you do.  I know...I’ve seen square one a lot.

Love never is the only thing that will last.  That’s such a comfort.  I visited my father’s grave up in South Newfane, Vermont this summer.  Grass had started to grow over the flat stone, and I weeded around it, showing so much more clearly the words in capital letters across the bottom, “Love never fails.”  I smiled, because I knew it was true.  It was wonderful to be reminded.  So why waste your time with other things?  Learn to love.  Seek ye first the Kingdom of God...the Kingdom of love...and all these things will be added unto you.  All the fruits of the Spirit are fruits of love.  Forget the wet cement or the restroom walls.  Love somebody and leave your name in eternity.  Amen.

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