“Faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” – I Corinthians 13:13
I have always been moved by the words found in the third collect for mission in the Daily Office of The Book of Common Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.” It speaks of God’s great healing, reconciling embrace of the creation, held in love, and that we might be ambassadors of that love once offered. If we have no other mission, that is it, for as we discover in Eucharistic Prayer A as we address God, “In your infinite love you made us for yourself.”
We are reconciled to God and one another in love as perfectly shown forth to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is our root, our “radix” if you will. A central theme throughout the scriptural story is God’s continual offering of the possibility of re-creation; the new; raising up what is old, lost or even dead, to new life and new possibility. And God has a Church, us, to be bearers of that amazing Good News.
As your bishop, one of my hopes has been and continues to be that the Kingdom realities to which Jesus is always pointing become ever more clearly reflected in the structure of our Diocese, in our relationships, in the ways we are accountable to one another, always beginning with me. I want it reflected in all we do in diocesan committees and commissions, strategic planning, the ongoing assessment of leadership needs as we anticipate our future, staff, vestries, programs, working with the disassociated diocese—all we are and all we do. I Corinthians 13 is about the basics of Christian community, St. Paul’s call to the Church in Corinth, so let’s return to that reading.
More often than not we hear this 13th chapter read at weddings. In this way the chapter stands on its own. If, however, we read it in context, we realize that St. Paul is still speaking of spiritual gifts from the previous chapter. The great gift of love as presented here is not ordinary or general. The love spoken of here is specifically the love shown forth in Christ. This Christ-love is the very basis of faith and hope. It is the reason we can have faith and hope. So allow me to read parts of the chapter with this in mind, substituting the phrase, “the love shown forth in Christ” wherever the single word “love” appears.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have ‘the love shown forth in Christ,’ I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but I do not have ‘the love shown forth in Christ,’ I gain nothing.
‘The love shown forth in Christ’ is patient, ‘the love shown forth in Christ’ is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…’The love shown forth in Christ’ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. ‘The love shown forth in Christ’ never ends….And now faith, hope and ‘the love shown forth in Christ’ abide, these three; and the greatest of these is ‘the love shown forth in Christ.’ “
It is only by loving, St. Paul is telling us, that the Christian community authentically exists. And rather than define love, Paul personifies it with the use of, count them, no less than fifteen verbs, all involving another person. He seems to be indicating that the Church he was envisioning must give supreme importance to the virtues of faith, hope and love, the love shown forth in Christ. Furthermore, it is always exhibited in our relationships with another. St. John (15:12) puts it this way: “Love one another as I have loved you.” How has he loved us? On the cross. God’s grace is without limit, but it is not cheap.
Wonderfully, gratefully, God appears to be willing to teach me this over and over again. One year as I was working with the Mission of Miracles health and justice ministry in El Salvador, I was helping set up in anticipation of the hundreds of people who would come and stand in line for care, many who had walked for miles often with small children. As they arrived for the first step toward diagnosis and treatment, I was responsible to record the person’s weight and height. In order to get accurate measurements, I found myself saying over and over the words, “No zapatos, por favor”—no shoes please. I must have said this dozens of times before I suddenly realized that the doorway where I was receiving people had become for me holy ground, a place where shoes, when people had any, were removed for a greater purpose than I first imagined. I had moved from the practical to the place of “the love shown forth in Christ.” It was not planned. It came as complete gift. Every person met in El Salvador is Christ. And every one of you is Christ. As we approach one another, always, “no zapatos, por favor.” It is the holy ground we share between us and on which we stand as we engage God’s world in Christ’s Name. Everywhere is holy ground. Every bush is burning, including right here, right now. This is the Diocese we are called to be as seen in the first two lines of our diocesan vision statement: Centered in Christ’s love; Proclaiming Good News of God’s Grace (see the back of your worship booklet).
Of course, the love shown forth in Christ is not love in its fullness unless it takes shape in works of justice, which is love in action, making it manifest “on earth as it is in heaven.” Perhaps we can grasp this through an image. In Grace Episcopal Church, Syracuse, there is a beautiful stained glass window of David Pendleton Oakerhater (O-kuh-ha-tah in Iroquois). He was baptized there in 1878. His feast day on the Episcopal Church calendar is September 1. He became an apostle of Christ to the Cheyenne people, was ordained a deacon in 1881, and exercised a lifelong ministry calling the people of God to be a people of peace. There is a curious thing about the window, however.
What do you notice? A deacon’s stole is typically worn across the left shoulder, gathered or crossed at the right hip. Standing inside the church and gazing at the window, Deacon Oakerhater’s stole is on the right shoulder. Only if the window is looked upon from outside the walls of the church is the stole draped according to custom. Isn’t that as it should be? I have no idea if this was purposeful, but it doesn’t matter. The point is, the Church’s servant ministry as incarnated in the role of the deacon, is best personified as the Church faces and engages the world in which God has placed us. Again to the vision statement: Rooted in our communities; A Light to All; Called to Sacrifice and Serve. We have been chosen and appointed by God to “go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Love takes us out the doors.
I hope we will continue to build a robust and visionary body of deacons in our Diocese to be icons of a community of love in action. They can continually help us keep our eyes beyond mere institution so that we are always being born from the place of “the love shown forth in Christ.” Psalm 89 reminds us that, “righteousness and justice are the foundations of God’s throne.” “No zapatos, por favor.”
The gift of “the love shown forth in Christ” is how we are called to approach each other and God’s world at all times. Even as I say that it is my desire that everything we do as Diocese, our structures and our relationships in those structures, reflect the Kingdom reality of God’s love as shown forth in Christ, I am aware that for many “diocese” is often at best abstract. We get a sense of it gathered as we are now at convention, but even this view is somewhat limited. Yet let me assure you of something as your bishop. You have given me the gift of a vantage point that many of you don’t get to have. As I move around and through this Diocese I encounter people all the time who are seeking to be a community of love. I see it when we meet as Diocesan Council. I see it when we respond to hurricanes whether up in the northern part of the Diocese and the surrounding areas as manifested by the amazing people in ministry on the ground there, or in the evacuation of Bishop Gadsden’s people on their trek to Kanuga. I see it in the book studies at Grace Church Cathedral; in the people who walk in the office almost daily; in the application of St. Anne’s, Conway to be a parish; in confirmand after confirmand who are willing to share their stories of God’s grace, celebrating the manner of their welcome by their parish communities and in the incredible privilege I have of just a moment in time with them to pray and revel in God’s embrace. What I get to see and witness is way beyond South Carolina hospitality, as wonderful as that it is. We’re not perfect at it of course, and we still have lots of room to grow and mature into the “full stature of Christ,” but what I see is the gift among us of “the love shown forth in Christ.”
In his wonderful book Come and See, David Keller recounts the story of a person who was concerned that her baptism “did not take,” because she did not comprehend the nuances of Christian doctrine. The story ends with a spiritual mentor saying to her, “You don’t have to understand the mystery of God to be a Christian, but you do have to practice.” We’re about practicing here in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. The love of God shown forth in Christ is not a mere sentimental feeling. It takes specific shape on a cross and explodes in resurrection hope. We are called to make that same love specific and concrete in our own day, in this Diocese. We must claim our baptismal identity. We must do the deep work of forming radical Christian hearts through communities steeped in prayer and committed spiritual praxis. Why? Because when we do, it looks like love!
Let me show you another picture.
What we see here are the gravestones of a wife and husband who happened to be of differing religious traditions and therefore unable to be buried in the same cemetery. What happened, creatively and beautifully, was that each person’s grave was placed on each side of the wall. The markers were then made to stretch above the wall, joined hand in hand to connect the couple in an image of unity. But I hope you are not satisfied by this image as novel as it is, for our work is not merely to reach across the wall, but to remove it. As we seek the opportunity to be in conversation with God’s people of the 29 parishes being returned to us, the reconciliation work affected in Christ is never satisfied until every obstacle is removed. That is our goal however long it takes.
That’s the work we have been given to do in our time of history, in this Diocese, “to do the work God has given us to do as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord” (BCP p. 366). Love looks like the parable of the Good Samaritan – our neighbor is everyone. Love looks like the woman at the well – all boundaries transcended for the sake of the other. Love looks like the Syrophoenician woman – even willing to be taught by the other. Love looks like the pouring of costly oil even to excess, or the scattering of the seed of God’s love everywhere, with wild abandon. Love looks like the outrageous welcome of the Prodigal as we recognize the inherent dignity of every person as made in the image of God, no exceptions. No exceptions. No exceptions.
Love is like that. We go to “the other side” in joy because that’s what Jesus did.
If we’re serious about this as a people of God then there is one more matter we must address as a community. Every one of our faith communities recently received a letter from me along with a declaration of intent for your offering to the Diocese in 2019. I hope you will take it very seriously. I know you’ve been through a lot. I've walked some of that with you. I realize we are still rebuilding. But this year coming is filled with many unknowns and the rebuilding we are about takes financial resources to make it happen. Everyone needs to step up and consider, if you are not there already, moving significantly toward the 10% asking in support of our common life. And to remind us again, we do this why? Because giving, if truly Christian, whether to our parish or the Diocese, is to be a response to the love shown forth in Christ. Giving to our common life is an act of love.
I now offer you what I will call a “choral amen” of a different variety than most might expect. It is my firm belief that God is already present everywhere we go, for as John’s Gospel teaches us in the first chapter, the divine Logos has infused the entire creation. God is present in the culture and a part of what we do is name wherever we see resurrection presence and hope as we go forth in mission. It will not surprise many of you to know that one of the main places I find God present is in music of many genres, even in the group “Sugarland,” whose song “Love” is before you now as they ask in their way what love looks like.
(Watch the video here)
“Faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is the ‘love shown forth in Christ.’ ” Love heals. Love sustains. Love is hope. Love is faith. It looks like Jesus. My hope is that it looks like us, and we look like him.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.