The Greatest of These Is Love (1 Corinthians 13)

By | September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11


      Almost anyone over 20 can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of the plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It was a Tuesday, I was in my study at home working on that week’s sermon. A member called and asked to get the prayer chain started because a passenger plane had just crashed into the one of the Twin Towers.

     I turned on the TV like most Americans who had access that morning. That was about 8:50 just minutes after the impact. Endless talking heads speculating about what has happened without knowing anything drives me nuts. So, while I watched I called my youngest son, Josh. He hadn’t heard what was going on. We were talking at 9:02 when the second plane hit the South Tower.

     While physically impossible, we all felt the impact of that plane. It was an emotional punch to the chest that bruised and wounded our hearts and the heart of this nation. The air and the life went out of all of us as we all stood in shock.

     I didn’t know what to do or what to think. My mode of deep grieving is to pull away and pull into myself until I can get my balance. That’s what I did. But I dove into the Scripture finding every verse and passage of hope and encouragement that I could find and have them ready to print so when people called, and they did, I could be ready with something physical to give them, God’s Word and not mine.

     It was in the Scripture that I found my balance and the strength to lead the congregation through this time of grief and shock and despair. Like so many other communities, we gathered to worship. We celebrated communion in honor and remembrance of the victims and the workers. We drew strength from the Bread and the Wine while seeking strength for everyone involved. And as hard as it was, because we follow Christ, we even prayed for our enemies that night. And it helped. It helped.


     I have to tell you that I’ve struggled with this Sunday for the past couple of months. First the direction, then the Scripture then a title. How do you come together on the 10th anniversary of such a tragic event and bring answers. You can’t. Or at least I can’t. I don’t know the answers. I’m still struggling with the senselessness of what happened. I’m still struggling with the grief and the anger. Not just at the terrorists but over how we ran to God in the midst of the storm but when the storm seemed to be over, we turned away again. Not all at once, but we turned away.

     You see, the terrorists wanted to bring this nation to its knees and it did but in a different way than they expected. We fell to our knees in prayer. We fell to our knees before God and asked for guidance and hope and strength. We fell to our knees and when we did, God answered. Who we truly are and whose we are showed through in all the acts of courage and faith, sacrifice and love.

     Ten years later, the site has been cleaned up and a Twin Towers Memorial park has been erected but we’re still dealing with the emotional and spiritual wreckage of that day. So, what do I say? All I can really do is remind us of whose we are and how we are supposed to live. And the passage that kept coming to mind all week is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (NRSV)

[1] 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.  

[2] 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.  

[3] 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.  

[4] Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant  

[5] or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  

[6] it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  

[7] It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  

[8] 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.  

[9] For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;  

[10] but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  

[11] 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.  

[12] 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.  

 [13] And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.  

      I realized that there is much we can learn and much we can remind ourselves of with just three words. Faith, Hope and Love. And of course, the greatest of these is love.


      A. Some people believe that the opposite of Faith is Doubt. I think doubt can be a very important part of faith and faith development. I think the opposite of Faith is Fear. Fear Freezes. It freezes our hearts and souls. It freezes our ability to act in almost any capacity that could be considered constructive or good. Fear freezes our sense of reason. Fear seeks revenge and retribution.

     On the other hand, Faith Frees Us. It frees us our hearts and souls to love, and to act out of love and compassion for everyone, even our enemies. In Matthew 5:44 Jesus said,“love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That wasn’t just some religious rhetoric of the day. Jesus meant it. It’s how we are supposed to live! And without Faith it’s impossible, we can’t do it. And even with Faith it’s hard, but our faith empowers us to be obedient so we can do it.

     Faith even Frees Us to forgive. I just read an article in which the author said that forgiveness isn’t about forgetting. Forgiveness is giving up the hope that you will ever have a better past.  Let me repeat that . . . forgiveness is giving up the hope that you will ever have a better past. 

     So many of us get emotionally tied up in “if only.” We can’t change the past. Through Faith, though, we can have a powerful future. But it takes forgiveness. Forgiveness is a hard thing to talk about any time but especially today. There’s a part of us that really doesn’t want to forgive.

     B. The day after September 11, Bishop William Willimon saw a couple being interviewed on the news. They were standing on the street, before the wreckage at ground zero. They were obviously in horrible grief. Their beloved daughter had perished in the devastation. Through tears, they shared their grief with the reporter.

     The reporter, stammering, said to them, “Well, I know that you will be able to go to your place of worship this weekend and there maybe you’ll find some consolation in your faith . . .”

     And the grieving mother replied, “No, we won’t be going to our place of worship this weekend ’cause we’re Christians, and we know what Jesus commands about forgiveness, and frankly, we’re just not yet ready for that. It’ll be some time before we’ll want to be with Jesus.” (1)

     What a powerful story. It’s powerful because we can sympathize with that mother. We know how she felt. Jesus tells us to forgive our enemies and that’s the last thing we want to do in a situation like that. We want to hunt them down like dogs and blow them away. We’re not looking for justice, we want retribution. We want revenge.

     Unfortunately, we who follow Jesus don’t really have that luxury. That’s the hard part of Obedience. That’s the hard part of being one of the abnormal people who live by a different set of standards as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. And the only way we can be who Jesus calls us to be, is through Faith; that deep trust in God through Christ that Frees Us for joyful obedience so we can be His disciples.


      A. One of the incredible things that happened during the aftermath of 911 is the amount of hope that was generated by the brave deeds of the countless number of rescue workers and support personnel. That’s why we have placed the boots and helmet at the altar today. Because, in the worst situation possible we saw the best of human nature through the First Responders and their dedication. We saw what this country is really like when it’s unified. And it gave us hope.

     It gave us hope because it reflected the nature of God in all of us. And for a few weeks and months we were able to see the sacrificial nature of God in Christ being lived out in our daily lives by ordinary people exhibiting extraordinary courage and going way beyond the call of duty. We saw the nature of God’s unconditional love reaching out to friend and stranger alike through our actions.

     In the midst of our grief and sorrow we had hope, hope in something bigger than ourselves. Hope in each other and hope in the love of God who was getting us through the trauma and the sorrow and the grief. I have never seen this country so unified before.

     B. But where’s that hope today? Where’s that unity today? We may be more divided now than ever before in our country. Red and blue states; liberal and conservative are buzzwords that divide and destroy that unity. Aren’t we still the United States? Or have we surrendered that unity? If we have then the terrorists have won? Don’t you remember what one of the major strategies in war is “Divide and conquer.” In our desire to have a better past as a nation we’ve turned against each other.

     Suddenly there is no middle ground there’s only extremes. There’s only either/or not both/and. We have reached a point in time politically where we have become nothing more than spoiled kids wanting our own way. And if we don’t get it we take our ball and go home. What happened to the middle? What happened to our elected officials representing ALL of their constituents and not just their party?

     The problem is we lost our focus of hope. During our sorrow and grief we relied on God to be in control. But then it seems we got over it. As things slowly went back to a sense of normalcy we took back control from God. We thought we could build our own hope. But the truth is the only place where we can find lasting Hope IS in God, not in ourselves.

     The Psalmist reminds us, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7) It’s only in God that we find Hope.

     You see, God has always been in control. God has not abdicated. God hasn’t stepped down and retired. God is still in charge. I don’t know about you but the fact that God is in charge gives me hope and strengthens my faith. And because God is in charge, because Jesus conquered sin and evil through his death on the cross and because I am offered forgiveness and new life, I have hope. And because I have hope, not born of me but of God, I’m empowered to love. And as hard as it is, I can even TRY to love like Jesus loved, unconditionally.


      A. 1 Peter 4:8 (NRSV) “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”

     This is really what the heart of being a disciple is all about. LOVE. It is the greatest of the three. It’s the bedrock upon which our Faith and Hope are built. As faithful disciples our love is supposed to reflect the unconditional love of God in Christ in everything we do.

     In the first two verses of the love chapter, as 1 Corinthians 13 is sometimes called, Paul reminds us: “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.”

      B. Without love our Faith easily turns to Fear. Without love there is no room for Hope. But when love prevails Hope abounds and Faith grows deep. And there may be no greater expression of Love than Forgiveness. Isn’t that what Jesus did for us on the cross.

     By the grace of God we can use forgiveness as a positive, creative force to bring light into a world filled with darkness. And you know what, nobody does that kind of thing better than God. And we can’t without God. Because it’s only through Grace that we experience forgiveness ourselves.

     There’s no quick solution. Forgiveness is a choice. A choice we have to make over and over and over again, every single day. I’m still struggling, but most days, I choose to forgive.


      One of my favorite preachers and teachers is Leonard Sweet. He tells this story. When he went to seminary, everyone was required to learn “active listening” skills. One required exercise was to interview another student and draw out of them a conflict story of a family member.

     Sweet says, My interviewee, “Bob,” talked about conflicts with his Dad. They were as different as chalk and cheese. Bob was Triple A: Athletics, Academics, Arts. What’s more, he was the “life-of-the-party” kind of guy. “Bob’s” dad had dropped out of high school, worked a series of hands-on, bent-back jobs throughout his life, and had many physical problems. He was quiet and rarely showed his emotions — positive or negative.

     But despite their differences, Bob and his Dad always watched a weekly football game together on the saggy old family room couch. And at some point during the game, Bob’s Dad would reach over and hold his son’s hand for a few moments, squeezing it a couple of times and then releasing it. Those football games were Bob’s Dad’s way of communicating the love he had for his son, the love he could not express with words.

     Today is the 10th anniversary of 911. It’s also the first official day of NFL Sunday afternoon football. I’ve struggled with what to say this morning because I’m still struggling with all the emotional baggage of that day myself. All I can do is remind you who we are and whose we are and as a follower of Christ share in your struggle.

     But as we struggle to find ways to express and reveal the depth of our emotions on this tenth anniversary of 911, believe it or not, I think we can connect with some of those feelings by holding hands and watching a football game.

     Did you know that the first four televised games of the 2011 NFL season were specifically chosen to commemorate the events of 911.

     *At 1 p.m. there is a game between Pittsburgh and Baltimore — midway between those two cities is Shanksville, PA, the site of the crash of flight 93, which the terrorists had destined for the White House.

     *Later in the afternoon there is a game between the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins, played only a few miles from the site of the attack on the Pentagon.

     *This afternoon there is also a game between Carolina and Arizona, which will feature ceremonies honoring Pat Tillmon, the Cardinals player who left a lucrative pro-football career to join the military after the 911 attacks and who was killed in action in Iraq.

     *Finally the Dallas Cowboys will play the New York Jets just across the Hudson River in full view of where the Twin Towers fell.

     Whatever game you watch, it’s a good day to hold hands with your loved ones as you enjoy the simple act of being together and watching a football game. (2) Even if you don’t watch football, it’s a good day to hold hands with your loved ones as you enjoy the simple act of being together in whatever activity you choose. Paul was right, the greatest of these IS love because one simple act of Love can change everything. It can change someone’s life.

     Remember Faith, Hope and Love abide but the greatest of these is LOVE. In John 16:33 (NIV) Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

     Love HAS conquered the world. The problem is not enough people know it; not enough people are living that love because not enough of us are sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Love IS the greatest of these. Our challenge is to share the love of Christ with the world.

     This morning as we close I invite you to come to the altar to pray: Pray for all the victims and families of 911. Pray for all of those who gave so much of their time, energy and effort in the rescue and recovery operations. Pray for those who are still sacrificing both here and abroad. Pray for unity to return in our country so that we don’t fall off the edge of our extremes. Pray for our elected officials; pray that they will find the minds and hearts that they seem to have lost and remember to work for the good of the country and those they represent before anything else. Pray for each other.

     Then the hard one, pray for our enemies. Pray for your enemies. And pray for their forgiveness. And if you can’t pray for their forgiveness yet, then pray that God will help you grow into that place where one day you can be obedient and not only pray for their forgiveness but actually forgive them.

     In this time of reflection come to the altar rail and pray.

This is the Word of the Lord for this day.



1.   Bishop William H. Willimon,

2.   Rev. Leonard Sweet, Make a 119 Call



Other References Consulted