1 Corinthians 13:8-13
(on the occasion of a parish memorial service)
Services like this are important but also painful:
They are painful because the very act of remembering brings back the fact that some of those we love are no longer with us;
But it is also very good to have the opportunity to name those who we love but who have died - because the world seems to forget very quickly, and moves on, and we want to shout out that we haven't been able to move on - and that they still really really matter.
At two recent funerals, people have asked for 1 Corinthians 13 to be read
It is quite an astonishing passage. It speaks of:
a) the priority of Love: that love is more precious than brilliant oratory, than all knowledge, than the most exceptional power, or will-power.
b) it describes the things that accompany Love: 'Love is patient and kind etc.
c) it talks - and this is what I would like to focus on - about the victory of Love.
Paul writes, 'Love never fails'.
He describes how knowledge and words will pass away: 'Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love'.
What the bible is saying is that - at the end of the day, at the very very end of the day when everything else has gone - there is one thing that will be left standing: Love.
And I hope that that comes as a comfort to you.
You see when we face the death of someone who we love, it really does seem to us that death has the final word.
Death destroys life; it rips away everyone and everything that is precious to us, that we treasure.
It may be, as it was for us when Alison's father died earlier this year, that death itself came as a great mercy. But it was the death principal, the principal of decay which we see all around us, which meant that when death itself brought the final coup, it was seen as a mercy.
And death takes from us the ones who give us a reason for getting up in the morning, who give us significance and meaning, who help us know who we are: 'I am a husband, a wife, a child, a parent, a friend, a brother or sister'.
And death seems so blind: it takes the very young and the very old. It takes the good and the bad, the clever and the foolish, the powerful and the weak. It takes some like that, and it refuses to come to others who long for it. And there really is no rhyme or reason.
And when someone who we have really loved dies, you don't need me to tell you, that we ourselves - in a different way - die.
But these verses tell us, that in the final analysis, Love wins.
It is an astonishing statement. It is a faith position. There is no way that I can prove it. The evidence of our eyes and the evidence of our weeping is that death wins.
But God here tells us that love wins.
And the reason that I can say this with any conviction is because 2000 years ago God became a human being. He lived in Palestine. He was a carpenter and a preacher.He spoke about a God who loves us, who delights in us and desires for us to be united and bound to him just as he will be bound to us. There is a recurring promise throughout the bible. God says, 'I will be their God and they will be my people'.
And it is like a hub, a network. As you are bound to God in love and you are bound to God in love and you are bound to God in love, so we are bound to each other, united with each other, in love.
And Jesus did not just speak about the love of God. He demonstrated the love of God. And he demonstrated that love is a stronger motivating force than death. Even though he did not wish to die, let alone die in the way that he was going to die, crucified with nails smashed through his hands and feet, he still went through with the cross. And even though death and the fear of death on the one hand was screaming at him, 'Don't do it'; love was telling him, 'Do it'. And by his death he broke through the barrier which separated us from God. As perfect man he lived the life of total obedience to God and of total love for others that we should have lived; as perfect God he took onto himself the punishment that our rebellion against God deserved.
Hebrews tells us that Jesus went through with his death on the cross, with the pain and the shame, 'for the joy that was set before him'.
What was that joy? It was not just the joy of the resurrection and exaltation. It was the joy of knowing that because he died, men and women could again be bound to him in love. He died for all that we might love him.
So Jesus spoke of a God who is love.
He demonstrated on the cross that the motivating power of love can be stronger than the motivating power of the fear of death
And by rising from the dead, Jesus demonstrated that the power of love is infinitely more powerful than the power of death.
All death can do is destroy that which is.
Love brings life to that which is not.
And Jesus, on that first Easter morning, when he rose from the dead, smashed through the barrier, the gate of death
So how does this help us?
Well, at the moment - and this is particularly true when someone we have loved has died - we only see very dimly. It is like looking in a very old and stained mirror. Or it is like looking through heavily frosted glass. We struggle to even make out the broad brushstrokes.
But this is telling us that one day we will see clearly.
And on that day, when time and space as we know it are transformed, we will see that death does not have the final word.
And on that day, which we cannot really imagine, we will see his love for us as he beckons us, as he invites us to come to him, to be bound together to him and with him in sheer and utter joy.
And we will see his indescribable love for those who we have loved, as he beckons them - with outstretched hands which bear the scars of the nails - to also respond to his reckless, overwhelming love, and as he invites them to come to him.
So on this day when we name those whom we have loved but who are no longer with us, can I remind you of a very simple fact. Death does not have the last word. Death does not win. Love wins. The love of a God who would rather be crucified than live without us.
The God who loves us really is the last one standing.