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The Most Excellent Gift.

by Isaac Williams
from Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels for the Sundays and Holy Days throughout the Year, Vol. I. Advent to Whitsuntide 
Rivingtons, London, 1875 [New Edition.]
First part of Sermon XX. for the Sunday called Quinquagesima.
 1 Cor. xiii. 1-13.    St. Luke. xviii. 31-43.
Charity never faileth.I COR. xiii. 8.

ON the Sunday before Lent the Church sets before us the subject of charity; to remind us that all works of repentance can be of no avail unless they begin and end in the love of God. On Sunday last we had the account of St. Paul’s apostolic labours, but in the Epistle for to-day, he tells us of how little avail all our works and labours must be without charity.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal; like instruments of idle sound, without spirit and life to instruct and improve the heart. And though I have the gift of prophecy—that is, of speaking by the inspiration of God ,—and understand all mysteries,—the gift of comprehending the secret things of religion, —and all knowledge, to perceive the wonders of His word and providence; and though I have all faith, that supernatural trust in God which the Spirit gave, in order to work miracles; and this faith, the very greatest, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. St. Paul has been here alluding to those miraculous gifts which then existed in the Church at Corinth, of which he had been speaking in the former chapter; but to these he proceeds to add those outward actions of Christian righteousness which are of no value in themselves, unless they proceed from the love of God. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned; though outwardly I may be as a saint or as a martyr, yet, if I have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

If I give to the poor without love to man, or if I die a martyr without love to God, it avails not. But these acts are, indeed, the ordinary expressions of love itself. Thus, to the rich man our Lord said, “If thou wouldst be perfect, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor,”—thus was he to evince his love to man : but to this He added, “and follow Me.” For to follow Christ is to love God. And when salvation came to the house of Zaccheus, he not only gave half of his goods to the poor, but it was for Christ—that Christ might be more worthily received as his guest. For to receive Christ is to love God.

We may observe how the Apostle, as inspired by the theme, rises in sublime eloquence from the gift of tongues to prophecy, and then to the highest kind of prophecy, “all mysteries and knowledge;” and then from knowledge to that which is higher and more divine,—to faith itself, and “all faith;” and from faith to its highest fruits, to almsgiving and martyrdom; and those, too, of no ordinary kind, but “all my goods” in alms, and death by martyrdom of all the most severe—that of being “burned” alive.

But now, we may ask, since the love of God must dwell in the deep unseen fountain of the heart, where the eye of God seeth in secret, how is it to be known? St. Paul next proceeds to show that this principle of love will be like a law regulating the whole conduct and outer man, for the first and great commandment can only be seen by men in the keeping of the second; and our Lord Himself, when He speaks of the love of God, points to its fulfilment in duties to our neighbour. For how can it be known that we love God Whom we have not seen? we cannot love Him unless we love our brother whom we have seen. That love, therefore, which is the life hidden with Christ in God, can never exist where it is not as a. light breaking forth from within around our path below.

Charity suffereth long, like her blessed Master Himself, Who was the pattern of all meekness; and is kind, and gracious in all her ways. Charity envieth not. Where love is there is no anger, no ill-will, no jealousy; for looking to God, in Him it hath all things, and needeth nothing else. Charity vaunteth not itself, seeking not display, nor exercising itself in high matters, nor flattering the world by easy compliances with it. So some understand the expression; others, as St. Chrysostom, interpret it as not rash and precipitate, but having a constant evenness of mind, not violently bent on any design. Again, charity is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly,—the last-mentioned writer would take it, accounting nothing unseemly for love’s sake, as our Lord submitted to all indignities out of love to man. Seeketh not her own; this is the very characteristic of brotherly love, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Thus St. Paul in this Epistle says of himself, “not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many.” And just before, “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.” (1 Cor. x. 33. 24.)  And to the Philippians he laments, “All seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” (Phil. ii. 21.)  From this absence of self, it next follows that charity is not easily provoked, not quick to take offence; and, what is much akin to this, thinketh no evil, is very slow to impute evil to others; for love is blind to their defects, and covereth all faults, attributing to others those good intentions which it has itself. Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but ‘rejoiceth in the truth; in converse with others it hath no false liberality, no dissembling of evil; but at the same time it hath no pleasure in wickedness, in seeing, or hearing, or speaking of it, but with the truth it finds its own joy and sympathy. Thus the disciple of divine love says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.”(3 St. John 4.)  Charity beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things; is full of forbearance, of confidence, of hope, of patience, which it is tempted on no occasion to forego; being, as it were, proof (panta stegei.) against all things in the armour of God, clothed all over with humility. In the Old Testament, faith in Abraham, patience in Job, meekness in Moses, penitential love in David, affectionate gentleness and long-suffering are seen in Joseph: but all these together make up that charity which is the “bond of perfectness,” for which the Christian is to labour after the example of Christ. For in St. Paul’s language, to “put on Christ” is to “put on charity.”

Such is the delineation of this grace: not for us merely to admire but as furnishing close and searching matters of inquiry and self-examination for the approaching penitential season; viz, whether we seek our own, be easily provoked, whether we detect in ourselves feelings of envy and the like. But with regard to its ultimate crown, the Apostle now proceeds to speak.

Charity never faileth; but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. Since love is being like unto God, it will partake of His eternity; but as for other miraculous or spiritual gifts, they are but aids of our present imperfect state, and with that come to an end. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. How different are the thoughts and the knowledge of an infant compared with those of a grown man; yet how poor is the knowledge of the wisest man compared with that which shall be hereafter! When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. To the grown man all his childish thoughts appear like a dream when he looks back upon them; so confined, so little, so foolish were the things of infancy. Such will our earthly knowledge appear when we awake to the vision of God. For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known. O awful, wonderful moment, when we shall be unclothed of this body which now is as a cloud upon the soul, shall come out of darkness into marvellous light; when the infant of days shall know more than the wisest philosopher or divine that ever lived upon earth; when the greatest intellectual and spiritual endowments shall have gone by like shadows that were in the dark, and nothing remains but love only, love only to be put in the scale of our everlasting portion; when “the merciful shall obtain mercy,” and “mercy shall rejoice against judgment!”

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three,—all Christian graces, leading to Heaven,—but the greatest of these is charity, the greatest even now below. Faith trusts in God, unseen as yet, hope looks forward to behold Him, but love, in some sense, sees Him already. Faith is the root of all good, hope matures its progress, but in love it bears fruit and is perfected. Faith apprehends God, hope quickens our desires after Him, but love already, as it were, enjoys His presence. Love gives life to all, and crowns all; nay, is itself the beginning of all, for nothing is of any worth without it.

And now very impressive and instructive is the transition from the Epistle to the Gospel for the day; for thus, after the description of divine love, we pass to the perfect Pattern of divine love itself; ... 

...(for the second part, on the Gospel