Faith, Hope, and Charity

1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

I would like to start out today by welcoming you all again and thanking you for coming to church today. Many do not know this, but this day in the Christian year is called “Low Sunday.” While the reason for this name is still a mystery, I believe it has to do with the drop in energy or the relaxation felt after the great Christian feast of Easter. But there is something more to it than simply the sigh of relief uttered after all the work of preparing for Easter. There is also a hint of let-down behind it.

Even in the gospels we see this same pattern. Jesus has risen, but where is he? The disciples question the reality of the resurrection, but they receive the gift of seeing the Lord again. Well, all the disciples except for one get see the Lord again; Thomas was absent when the Lord stopped by the first time. He doubted the other disciples’ claims, so he has been permanently dubbed “doubting Thomas,” which I find unfair—after all, the other disciples were having similar issues before they saw Jesus, too!

But I digress. Jesus had risen and people doubted—that’s a low point if I ever heard of one. But the irony is that Low Sunday is historically the poorest-attended church day of the year.

I could speculate on the myriad of reasons why that might be, but I would much rather focus on what Jesus said to Thomas after their tactile exchange: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Some have interpreted this statement as an admonishment directed toward Thomas, in which case we would have to indict the rest of the disciples as well, for they also had to see Jesus in person to believe.

When Jesus refers to those who have not seen, he is speaking of faith. Recently, I was sitting in a room without much to do. Like a bored kid at breakfast, I started reading the proverbial cereal box, but in this case the cereal box was the room. I noticed that written across the wall were the words “faith,” “hope,” and “charity.” (I was surprised to find out how many people who viewed the mural did not observe the reference to Scripture. The mural on which the words were written depicted a ladder; each rung of the ladder was labeled with one of the three qualities—the first rung was faith, then came hope, and finally charity). The ladder depicted alluded to Jacob’s ladder ascending into heaven.

Though I always knew that the “greatest of these [was] charity”—or “love,” as our reading this morning translates it—I had never really looked at faith, hope, and charity as stepping stones before. But they are. After all, without hope, it would be very difficult to love someone who was constantly abusing you. I mean, I hope that my loving actions would affect that person. And what is having hope unless you have faith in something larger than yourself, something you believe will conduct this elementary-school orchestra we call life? In the end, faith becomes the foundation for all three qualities. Faith seems to be, in the end, the most pivotal point of the ladder. Or is it? Those of you who looked at the sermon title might guess that it is not.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Plato and other early Greeks knew something critical about divine order that we can sometimes forget—something that, like Thomas and the disciples, we contemporary Christians forget all the time. Every future event, planned and unplanned, is made up of the present. And on top of that, our present is made up of both our experiences and the thoughts and priorities we have in our heads right now.

If we have a plan to build a church, that’s good! A plan is great! We can put up walls; finish the outside, for the most part, before we finish the inside; put up an altar and worship the Lord. But don’t we really need to be worshiping the Lord before the altar is installed?

For some odd reason, I have a predilection for joining groups in transition. For instance, I joined a fire department as a volunteer right after they decided that their training manual was no longer sufficient, which really was a good decision. But, rather than stick with the bad manual, they gave me…nothing. I had to find my way through word of mouth and people’s ideas of what proper training policy was. Two years later, by the time I was long past my “rookie” period, I received the new training book. Since I had never completed the previous book, they expected me to work my way through the new one. As when people are building a church, my training, like worship, needed to be practiced throughout the creation of my volunteer-fireman career.

As our tradition teaches, the end result must be present in the very first moment, throughout a process, and at the end of a process in order for the proper order to exist. But what does this mean for us in the context of faith? We may have faith in a great number of things, because we define faith as expectation. Most people who have cars have faith that those vehicles will start in the morning. Or we might have faith that we will be able to make an appointment we schedule for the following week.

The faith we are talking about today has to have one specific element present in order for it to be faith in the divine. That ladder of faith, hope, and charity is missing part of the process: the ladder itself needs to offer a reason to climb it in the first place. If we merely desire one day to have charity and a heaven-bound life, as when we wait to worship until the building is complete or wait to give out (or read) training materials, we are doing nothing but looking at the destination the ladder leads to.

We must actually love and practice charity even to step onto the first rung of our spiritual ladder, because our desire at the moment we start a journey predicts the end of the journey. What is faith in the Lord without acting on loving the neighbor and loving the Lord? We would transform the first rung of the ladder into a lack of faith or into a rung consisting of self-love. Without charity, what would hope be? We would transform hope or reliance on love and the Lord into a rung of love of self and reliance on the self. What would charity be without love of the neighbor? It would not exist; it would be, in the end, absolute self-absorption.

Our first step, then, is to acknowledge and love the truth of the Lord. We must realize that “faith without charity is not faith, and charity without faith is not charity, and neither has life except from the Lord. The Lord is charity and faith within us. We are charity and faith within the Lord” (TCR 336). There is no faith or charity without actions based on faith and charity. When we hit a point at which our actions are dictated by our desire to love others, we can begin to have faith.

Once we have that, we are given, by the Lord, hope. And this hope, while it does help us have personal hope, is not defined by our personal hope. Rather, heavenly hope is a hope for others. It is the power for us to say, “I can make a difference in this other person’s life. I can make a difference in the community around me. Together, my neighbor and I can work to bring about a more loving community.” It means ceasing to draw labels and lines around us to define who is in or out or who is worth working with. It means trusting your neighbor.

In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbin’s character has just been released from an extended stay in solitary confinement. When questioned how he got through it, he says he’s had composers with him. Those around him look shocked, abd one fellow inmate asks, “Did they let you bring a record player?” Robbins replies, “No. They can take every possession away from you, but they can’t take the music in your head.” When the crowd disperses, Morgan Freeman’s character asks Robbins’s character what he’s talking about. Robbins replies, “Hope—they can’t take that from you.” Freeman replies, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

Hope’s combination of faith and charity gives you the ability to move mountains, but if your faith and trust in the Lord collapse, it leaves you in what seems like a pile of rubble. If we can fight through those temptations to doubt, we are given the true gift of charity—charity consisting of charity, faith, and hope bound together. When we have that, we are in the Lord, the Lord is us, and we are in the Father.

The disciples were waiting in a room. They were hiding out. They were not spreading the word of the Lord. Their faith had been challenged, and they turned from loving others to protecting the self. Just like Thomas, all of them also doubted. (And honestly, rightfully so; they did not have the complete story, as we do.) Where are we on our spiritual journeys? Are we in a room protecting ourselves, or are we living lives of faith and charity? Are we spreading faith, hope, and charity in the world around us?

One who has climbed Jacob’s ladder sees a world full of wonder and proclaims that wonder, for it is impossible to keep the beauty of the divine quiet or confined.

“Faith, hope, and charity abide, these three, but the greatest of these is charity.”

Corner of Quincy and Kirkland Sts. 50 Quincy St, Cambridge, MA 02138 | 617.864.4552 | Swedenborg Chapel 2013