Today we are introducing a new year-long theme for Central Presbyterian Church: “Faith, Hope, and Love… But the Greatest of These Is Love.”  Many thanks to the choirs for their presentations of the text of I Corinthians 13 in words and music this morning.  Thanks also to Brett Rawlings for designing the theme graphics which you see on the front of the bulletin today and will soon see on banners.  And thanks to the rest of the church staff for your partnership in thinking through, selecting, and developing the various themes we have emphasized including this one.

          Imagine for a moment that you are standing in front of our beautiful sanctuary (on a pretty day) looking toward the church.  IF you start at ground level you will see a sign identifying us as Central Presbyterian Church.  On that sign is one line of Scripture, which says, “… but the greatest of these is love.”

          As your line of sight moves up you see several large doors leading into and out of the church, intended to communicate, “Welcome!  Come in!  Come one, come all!”  When worship ends you should see those doors open and people coming out with a sense of purpose and peace, many lingering on the lawn to enjoy Christian fellowship.

          As your line of sight continues to move up, a very tall steeple points you to the heavens, points to God, and at the end of the steeple is a cross which represents the way heaven and earth are bridged.  “Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus said, “that he lay down his life for his friends.”  Paul wrote, “God shows his great love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

          At the bottom of the church and at the top, the message is consistent: “The Greatest of These is Love.”  So this is a great and entirely appropriate theme for us to focus on this year.  I’m thankful that those who established this church deliberately decided to put those words at the center of Central.

          But that doesn’t mean that it is a done deal or that it isn’t hard to live that way or that we haven’t lost our way from time to time.  In fact, the greatest victory Satan can win is to make us be untrue to our core statement of our values and reason for being.  If you look at the huge numbers of churches which are embroiled in bitter conflict, the church splits, the sight of Christians roundly condemning other Christians due to thinking differently about issues, it is clear that Satan is highly successful in using this means of attack to damage Christianity.  When non-Christians see us treating each other this way they have to wonder why in the world they would want to subject themselves to that.  It is in fact a victory for Satan for all this rain to keep people away on a day when we are beginning our focus on a subject he hates.

          A huge percentage of the influences we are subjected to every day are trying to coerce us into adopting us vs. them mindsets.  At the most basic level it is over what we look like and what language we speak.  You know: black lives matter; police lives matter; all lives matter.  Build a wall; speak English; provide sanctuary and amnesty.

          In politics we not only have Republicans and Democrats at each others’ throats, but there is warfare within both parties.  There is more shouting and condemnation than there is discussion and working for the common good.  At every level we seem to major in minor things and minor in major things, with much more heat generated than light.  And on bigger social issues such as gun control, abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage, disagreement has morphed into outright hatred and demonization.

          Our own denomination has been no exception, having decided to allow local church sessions and pastors the authority to host and conduct same-sex marriages if they choose to do so.  Presbyterians are as divided over this issue as Americans in general.  When our session met to discuss this change, we went around the room to share our views on it.  The wide diversity of views about the issue and how the church should deal with it just among those 24 people made it clear that a pro or con stance would draw a line in the sand that would cause great conflict in our congregation.  We decided we want to be a church that is big enough for people with widely differing views on issues to be welcome and accepted, understanding that belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is what qualifies and enables any of us to be here.  That is a difficult and painful stance to take when everywhere around us we are being pressured to either be for or against, to accept some and reject others.  Not everyone is willing to take this stance, as you can well imagine.

          This year your church staff invites you to join us in accentuating the positives.  After Paul discussed all of the spiritual gifts and their importance – knowledge, prophecy, tongues, discernment, preaching, teaching, and so forth – he said, “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”  All three are positive things, but love stands over all.  He says that if any spiritual gift is exercised without love then it is of no value.

          When Jesus was asked which commandment was most important he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.  And there is a second that stands alongside it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  All the rest of the law and prophets derives from these two.”

          In the sermon on the mount Jesus said, “Even bad people love those who love them.  So love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Asked how many times you have to forgive someone who offends you, as many times as seven, Jesus says seventy times seven.  So many you can’t keep count.  Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.”

          He didn’t just tell us, he showed us how.  He went out on a limb by associating with tax collectors and others of ill repute.  He reached out to people of every walk of life, and people beyond Judaism.  He forgave those who crucified him and interceded for them with God.  He urged his followers to be less judgmental and more forgiving.

          “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever lives and believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.  God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself; now he has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation.”

          It is going to take a lot of effort, a lot of love, a lot of determination, to counteract the rampant hate in the world.  Hate crimes are all around us.  Another tragic one happened this week.  Some are committed because of skin color; some because of economics; some because of beliefs; way too many are committed because a loving relationship between two people has somehow turned into hate.

          The Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” includes this verse: “And in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth I said; for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

          But all is not always as it appears to be.  This is still our Father’s world, and he is the ruler yet.  Perfect love will cast out fear and hatred and judgment.  The Jesus I want to follow is the one who went around dispensing love and grace and forgiveness everywhere to everybody as though it was an unlimited resource.  If that is the wrong side to be on, I’m prepared to take that chance.

          Today we gather around the Table which represents the boundless love and compassion of our merciful Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  People from north, south, east and west will do the same, all around the world.  We don’t all look the same, speak the same language, worship the same way.  What we have in common is a Savior, who loves us and gave his life for us.  “This is my body, broken for you.  This is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.  Do this in remembrance of me.  Greater love has no one than this, to lay down his life for his friends.”

          Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

          In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

                   David J. Bailey

                   October 4, 2015

                   Central Presbyterian Church

                   Anderson, SC