Love gets a lot of attention these days. Whether it’s making sure we understand that our pets are family, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, or even trying to give Love some love, we …love… to throw around the l-word.
And why not? There’s even some scriptural support for such love-love. Paul does seem to rate the three “Christian virtues” in 1 Corinthians 13:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. – 1 Cor. 13:13 NIV (emphasis added)
That should about settle it. Paul says that faith, hope, and love might be up there – but love is tops.
Hope, on the other hand, seems to be trending down. Faith? Yeah, faith is still important I guess. We can have faith in our spouse, faith in the government (*cough*), or faith in higher internet speeds. If Carrie Underwood is still writing songs about faith, it can’t be all bad.
But what about hope? If love is the Prom King in school, hope is the quiet girl that sits behind you in second period whose name you can never remember. “Hey Joe – you dropped this.” “Oh. Thanks…buddy!” Between race issues here in St. Louis, terrorism in the Middle East, ebola spreading, and another school shooting in America, it’s hard to be hopeful these days. Is there anything left for this introverted, underdog virtue?
What if Paul only said that love was the greatest, though, because he was writing to the Corinthians? The Corinthians were a bunch of young, carnal believers who had some definite trouble when it came to understanding God’s intent for love:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you … some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you … One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” – 1 Cor. 1:10-12 NIV
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! – 1 Cor. 5:1-2 NIV
Yeah. You read that right. These guys needed some serious tutoring in the area of love.
But what if there was a congregation that excelled at loving one another, but struggled in another of the three Christian virtues? Would Paul still hold his position of love-conquers-all? Luckily for us, we don’t have to imagine such a set of circumstances. We get that exact scenario in the book of 1 Thessalonians, one of Paul’s earliest letters. Paul begins his letter to the church in Thessalonica with a standard greeting containing the three Christian virtues. But notice what order he lists them:
We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thess. 1:3 NIV
Faith…love…hope? Well, maybe that’s nothing. It’s still early in Paul’s ministry – perhaps he hadn’t yet decided upon his preferred order. But then we get another big clue as he describes a recent report from Timothy about the congregation’s health:
But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. – 1 Thess. 3:6 NIV
Notice anything missing? Paul has just written that he was concerned about their faith, so he sent Timothy to check on them. Timothy comes back and Paul starts in with the questions. “How’s their faith?” “Actually, it’s really good.” “Are they living out God’s love?” “Great – you don’t even need to address the issue!” “Praise God! Well, how’s their hope?” Crickets.
Something was wrong with the Thessalonians’ hope. You see, this exchange between Paul and this congregation occurred so early in the life of the Church that people hadn’t even figured out that some Christians may die before Jesus came back! So when fellow believers actually did start kicking the bucket, we see that this great, loving, young church began to falter. They began to mourn their losses, and question whether their beliefs were true. They began to wonder if Jesus was going to come back after all. In short, they began to lose hope. So Paul cuts to the chase and talks about the greatest among the Christian virtues…for the Thessalonians:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. … And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. 1 Thess. 4:13-15, 17-18 NIV (emphasis added)
Paul tells this fledgling church that all hope is not lost. Nor is hope temporary. Hope is not fleeting. He anchors the hearts of these believers in the assurance that rings true for every Christian: because we have Jesus, we have hope.
So the next time you or I experience loss, or get overwhelmed at the state of the world around us, or grow weary expecting anything good to come our way…let us remember that hope can still be the “greatest of these” for us when we need it. In his resurrection, Jesus proved that he can bring life, restoration, and beauty out of the darkest of circumstances. And because of that truth, we no longer have to bear the same weight of pessimism or despair that holds so many down.
You know that quiet girl from second period? Turns out she grew up to become an intelligent, beautiful, confident woman. If only you had remembered her name…it was “Hope.”