What is your aim in life? What one word or phrase would you use to describe what you most want to do with your life? What do you want to be known for when all is said and done?
Whatever it is that you think is the most important thing, you will become more like that every day that you live. For example, if you think the most important thing in life is fun, then when you have a choice between two things to do in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening, you will always choose the one which is more fun (sounds fun!).
If, on the other hand, you believe the most important thing for you is to have security, then you are always going to make a decision to be safe; you will not be taking any risks. Or, if your choice is comfort, “I want to be comfortable all my life,” then you will always do the thing that is easiest. If your aim in life is to be wealthy, then decisions you make throughout the day will be in service to the goal of increasing your net worth. Whatever you choose, it will show forth in all sorts of ways every day.
So I ask you once more, what is your aim in life?
God has answered that question from God’s perspective. God commissioned the apostle Paul to write on God’s behalf 1 Corinthians 13, where we find the answer to the chief aim in life is “love.” Love ought to be our highest aim and goal, day by day.
St. Valentine was onto something when he was caught up in loving people so much that it literally killed him. In the third century after Christ, when the Roman government still outlawed Christianity, Valentine, who was known as anything but a saint, loved Christian people so much he dedicated all of his time to caring for them. He even performed marriages for them, which was outlawed, and got himself arrested with a sentence of execution. While he was in jail, people who had been cared for so outrageously and lovingly brought gifts of candy and flowers to him in his jail cell, all the way up to the very eve of his death (thus the tradition of giving gifts to those who love us and whom we love on Valentine’s Day). Later, the Church made him a saint. It’s all about love, when you get down to it—deep, abiding, stronger than words can say “love.”
In fact, I think when your life and mine is all said and done, the things that matter most will be love. You may remember the Crimean War with its “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and its drums and guns, its death and suffering. During that same war, history met up with one lone woman, a lantern in her hand, going from bedside to bedside in the hospital barracks while soldiers kissed her shadow as she passed. Her name was Florence Nightingale. You know something of her, but I bet you can’t really remember what the Crimean War settled, can you? Only love never fails in this world where even valiant wars are forgotten as one season turns to the next.
Let’s push it further: If we have not love, we die. Do you remember Janis Joplin—the famous pop singer? Night after night, she stood before screaming, applauding crowds in the great auditoriums of this country. She was on the top of the heap as far as popularity was concerned. One night, she was singing to an audience of twenty-five thousand people, and she asked herself out loud, in the presence of those twenty-five thousand fans, “Janis, have you ever been loved?” And she answered her own question. “No, I have never been loved, except by twenty-five thousand people at a concert. Someday I am going to write a song about making love to twenty-five thousand people and then going home to my room alone.”
This famous singer died at 27, from an overdose of heroin. If we have not love, we die.
When the apostle Paul wrote our morning words to the believers in the Greek city of Corinth, they were not too impressed with the idea of loving others as the highest value. Why, in their culture, the great people were not the lovers, but the orators. Public speaking and debate were the highest of arts. All the great Greek leaders were great orators. And the apostle Paul, some scholars think, may have had a speech impediment, a lisp. So they didn’t think much of him. But he told them, “if I speak in tongues of men and angels but have not love,” I am just a loud, senseless noise.
Some of the people in that church in Corinth had another issue with speech—they were caught up in ecstatic speech, throwing them into whirlwinds of commotion and excitement as they said all kinds of strange things. To them, Paul also said, “Who cares? You are majoring in the minors unless you are more interested in love than in your particular little habits and joys.”
Love doesn’t always come out at the top of our cultural values either, does it? We sometimes make up for what we lack in eloquence with sheer forcefulness. But the apostle Paul, so caught up on this matter of love, declared that if we negotiate (speak) without love, it sounds to God like nothing more than some noisy gong or clanging cymbal. Has it ever occurred to you that around your family, with your parents or children, or heaven help us, with your spouse, you just aren’t communicating, but instead sound something like a noisy gong? Could it be because you’re not really speaking in a loving way?
Love, wrote Paul, is the most important thing we can do with our lives. It is even more important than exploring all the mysteries and knowledge of the world. In the 1930s and 1940s, Germany was the most educated nation in the world. But the leading voices of the educational and theological establishment did not speak out in love at the horrors of the Nazi regime. When God needed those Christians to speak up for their Jewish brothers and sisters, there was little but silence. And the church learned the hard way why Paul wrote that without love, my theology is nothing.
Knowledge is completed by love; that’s it! You can be Phi Beta Kappa, get perfect scores on your college boards, become a member of MENSA; you can have a wall of diplomas and certificates testifying to all your knowledge, but if you don’t have love, then brother or sister, you are nothing!
God showed us perfect love when Jesus went to the cross on behalf of all of us sinners, when he loved us so much, more than life itself that he would die that we might live. Love. This is the heart of the Christian faith, that God in Christ loves you more than life! Love happens when we make the other’s needs as important as our own.
You may remember the story told by Dr. Richard Selzer, a Christian surgeon, of being with a patient on whom he had just competed surgery.
“I stand by the bed, where the young woman lies, her face postoperative and half paralyzed. A tiny facial nerve, the one to the muscles to her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. As the surgeon, I had followed with great care the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.
Her husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening light, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry-mouth I have made, who gaze at each other so graciously?
The young woman speaks first, “Will my mouth always be like this?” “Yes, it will, “I say, “It is because the nerve had to be cut.” She nods in silence. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says, “it’s kind of cute.”
All at once I know who he is. I understand, and lower my eyes, for one is not bold to look God face to face. The husband bends to kiss his wife’s crooked mouth, and I am so close that I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show here their kiss still works.”
Love overcomes all, everything, everything.
One of life’s most tragic mistakes is putting off love in favor of lesser things and losing our chances to say or do what needed to be said or done. Paul mentioned numerous wonderful endeavors to which we can commit ourselves: speaking with the eloquence of men and angels, having all wisdom and knowledge, possessing sufficient faith to move mountains, becoming martyrs for God (“giving your life to be burned” is how he put it; in our age a parallel image could be living such activist lives that we burn out in our service). But sometimes, Paul noted, all those good things get in the way of the most important thing of all.
Bishop Bevel Jones loves to say, “The main thing for Christians is to keep the main thing the main thing!” He is speaking of priorities. So was Paul. He was saying that the main thing—loving people—is the one thing we tend to put off while trying to get all the lesser things done. “When my career is established…when my home is built…when my name is made…when my fortune is earned…when all these church meetings slow down, then I will make time to love family and friends.” And sometimes, if we are not careful, time runs out before we get around to doing the main thing.
During the Vietnam War, one of Professor Leo Busgaclia’s students at USC wrote a poem about her boyfriend:
Remember the time I borrowed your new car and dented it;
I thought you’d kill me, but you didn’t.
And the time I flirted with all the guys to make you jealous,
And you were; I thought you’d leave me, but you didn’t.
And the time I made you take me to the beach? You said it would rain, and it did;
I thought you’d say “I told you so,” but you didn’t.
And the time I dropped blueberry pie on your car rug;
I thought you’d really freak out, but you didn’t.
And the time I forgot to tell you the dance was formal, and you showed up in jeans;
I thought you’d hit the roof, but you didn’t.
So many times I thought you would hate me for what I did;
but instead you loved me and forgave me and put up with me.
And there were so many things I wanted to make up to you
when you returned from Vietnam; but you didn’t.
What a terrible and tragic lesson to learn—that we waited too long to say or do whatever needed to be said or done. Paul said that real love remembers to “keep the main thing the main thing.” So get about the business of loving others and God, knowing that our Father in Heaven is about that very business toward you and me and all of his children.
Paul Watermulder: From merchant seaman on oil tankers to juvenile probation officer to police officer (City of Berkeley, California) to pastor, Dr. Watermulder has served churches in New Jersey and California, and is a sought-after speaker at churches and conferences across the country and overseas. An alumnus of Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, Paul has served on the boards of many service organizations and seminaries. He is currently on the Board of Directors for Presbyterian Outlook Magazine. Of his work as a policeman he says, “This was the work that made me into a who I was meant to be. Caring for the people on a beat was early training for becoming a pastor to a church, unbeknownst to me! Lots of camaraderie, ample street encounters and the ensuing fights, chases, and arrests. But best of all was making relationships with the other cops and with the people who lived on my beat and for trust to grow in all those relationships.” Paul is married to Genie and together they have four grown children and six grandkids, one of whom is already in the Kingdom.