Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Greatest of These is Love

The following is more or less the homily I delivered a week or two ago.  I was asked to write it down, so here it is: 


"In the end, only three things remain."
In his epic poem, The Iliad, the Greek Poet, Homer, tells the tale of the beautiful woman Helen, and how she abandons her Greek husband to flee to the island state of Troy to be the bride of the Paris, a prince of that city.  In the story, the two principle heroes are Achilles, a Greek warrior, and Hector, the older brother of Paris.  For both men, in all that they do, the strive after honor.  To their minds, and in the minds of all ancient Greeks, this was a virtue beyond all others, because in achieving honor by means of heroism in battle or by some other means, they could provide for themselves some sort of immortality.  They would live forever in the memories of their people.  That I speak of them here suggests that they were right.

The Iliad provides helpful context in understanding St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians.  Corinth was, at its inception, a Greek city imbued with Greek culture and ideas.  Later, after Rome captured Palestine and the surrounding areas, Corinth would become a Roman city influenced by Roman culture, but it would retain mush of its original cultural identity.  Corinth was an important city, sitting at the crossroads of a variety of trade routes, and it was widely acknowledged as a city of opulence, wealth.  People tended to be somewhat better educated than other places in the world.  Corinth was also a city filled with houses of ill repute and the sort of businesses that attracted vagabonds, sailors, and traders far from home.  In a way, it was a bit like the ancient version of Las Vegas.  It was in this city, steeped in the culture and traditions of the ancient Greeks, that St. Paul established a Christian Community.  Having gotten that community on its feet, Paul continued on his missionary journey, leaving the community in the capable hands of a bishop he had appointed.  There were troubles, however, and Paul was forced to write a letter to the community trying to correct their errors.

It is from this letter and about these troubles that we receive St. Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians about the body of Christ.  The Christians of that community had been experiencing all varieties of spiritual gifts: prophecy, words of wisdom, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues.  And they argued about which of these spiritual gifts bestowed the greatest honor upon its recipient.  For this reason, Paul reminded them that as Christians, each of them had a role to play, just as in the body, each part must play its role, lest the body fail to function.  If a foot wants to be a mouth, the body will not work right.  If a hand wants to be the stomach, the body will not work right.  Likewise, in the Church, there are no roles of greater of lesser glory and honor.  Everyone has a part to play, and if he fails to do so, Christ's Body becomes ineffective in its mission.  

Paul ends his analogy of the body by reminding the Christians of Corinth that regardless of the gift they had been given and the degree to which they had been given it, their exercise of that gift would be meaningless if the failed to exercise it for the sake of love.   He begins his excursis, "I shall show you now a still better way," and then goes on to describe the qualities of love, finally finishing by insisting that the ability to prophecy would come to an end, that the ability to speak and interpret tongues would come to an end, and that all would disappear, except three things: "faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love."  God, he was telling them, would care little about which of the gifts they had received or how often they had received them.  In the end, none of these things would matter.  All that remained would be faith, and hope, and love.  Did they exercise these gifts for the sake of these virtues?  Most especially, did they use the gifts that they had been given for the sake of love?

This passage has profound and immediate practical implications for all of us today, because it means that just as the Corinthians were expected to exercise the gifts they ad been given for the sake of love, so must we.  It means that rather than doing what I must out of a sense of obligation or for the sake of recognition, I do it for love and for God's Greater Glory.  I cook breakfast for my family not because I am obliged to, for the sake of love.  I fry eggs in the morning for God's greater glory.  I drive icy roads to a job I don't particularly enjoy for the sake of love, as a way of giving out of myself and my resources.  I wash and fold clothes and place them on my child's bed so that he can sleep on them for the sake of love.  I wash dishes for the sake of love.  I change the oil, pay the bills, change a tire for the sake of love.  I go to school and study and do my homework always attempting to achieve my highest potential because it is a way of loving.  I scrub toilets for the sake of love.  In each thing that I do, I do it not because I am forced to, not because circumstances have bound me to doing it, but because it is a way in which I can love another, it is a way in which I make an offering of myself.  And this is important!  It is exceedingly important, because at the end of time, God is going to care little how many miles we drove, the particular grades we received, or how many times the toilet was scrubbed.  He is going to care, however, if we did each of those things for the sake of love.  because, in the end, only three things are going to remain: Faith, and Hope, and Love.  And the greatest of these is love.