Paul of Tarsus (Saint Paul), an early Christian leader, wrote letters giving advice and encouragement to young churches. One was sent to the church in Corinth, a Greek port city. You may have heard part of this letter quoted at a wedding: “Now these remain, faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” When you are lonely or anxious or depressed, think about these words.
Faith is trust in something you cannot prove. Everyone has faith in lots of things. We have faith that our car will not fall apart as we drive on the freeway, we have faith that our doctor is well trained and skillful, we may even have faith that the Mariners will win the playoffs this year. Some kinds of faith are indispensable. Science would be impossible without faith that our observations are meaningful and that the laws of nature do not change. Sometimes our faith can let us down, as the case of the Mariners shows (and sometimes cars do fall apart). Paul would say that Christians have faith in something that will never let us down, the all-powerful and loving God who made the universe and wants us to live with him forever. God’s purposes are revealed most clearly in the life of Jesus, who is some mysterious way was both human and God. The more we learn about Jesus the more we understand what we are to have faith in.
Hope, like faith, involves an attitude about something we cannot prove, but it adds a positive spin: hope tells us that everything will end up all right. This may seem an unrealistic expectation in a world filled with war, disease, and cruelty. Paul knew about these things. In his missionary career he was falsely accused, beaten, and imprisoned, and in the end he was executed. Similar fates awaited other early church leaders. Why then would Paul tell us to be hopeful? He knew that Jesus also suffered and was crucified, and yet Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33. This is not only an assurance of eternal life after death, it is an assurance that in this life, despite its troubles, we can know God and see how the light of God’s love shines even into our darkest times.
Love (or “charity” in some older translations) needs explanation. It translates the Greek word agape (ah-gah-pay) and refers not to exclusive romantic love (despite the use of this passage at many weddings) or donating to worthy causes (which is what the term “charity” has come to mean) but rather to a bond where you work for their welfare of another without expecting anything in return. Jesus illustrated this kind of love in stories like that of the Good Samaritan, where religious officials passed by an injured man but a social outcast took the time to care for him. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father welcomed his son home with rejoicing, even though the son had wasted half of the family property. This is the kind of love Christians are to have for one another and, mysteriously, the kind of love God wants to have with us. That is why “the greatest of these is love.”
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