Faith, Hope, Love

(2 Samuel 23:1-5; Ephesians 1:15-end) The epistle to the Ephesians is not a letter in a strict sense; it is more like a theological treatise in the style of a letter. And it is generally considered not to be from the pen of Paul, but by a later author building on his views. Not everyone accepts that view, but whoever wrote it, it is clear that Ephesians reflects the same three theological virtues of faith, hope and love that we see elsewhere in Paul’s writings, often appearing in close relation to each other, as they do in this evening’s reading, and in other NT writings too.From the earliest days it seems that in combination faith, hope and love were recognised as the principal features of the Christian religion. Indeed by the Third Century they were officially defined as such. So that, as it were, a Christian is a person who lives by faith, hope and love - forged in relation to God.Paul himself had said, of course, that these three - faith, hope and love - abide. Which is to suggest, perhaps, that they retain an abiding value. That they remain, if you like, vital to our human flourishing, even if (or perhaps especially because) they are constantly being threatened or displaced by things of lesser substance.On the face of it, almost by definition, faith itself seems an unsubstantial and uncertain thing on which to build. We prefer that which is solid and tangible. Things we can see and touch. Know to be real and true. At least that is the view that has come to the fore (at least in the West) as science and empiricism has slowly supplanted revelation and religion as the source of reliable knowledge. Except it isn’t!The more we have come to know, the more we realise what and how much we don’t know. And what we don’t know, or seem able to control, is what we do with (how we use well) what we know. Added to which, now the whole business of false news and the unchecked propagation of information on the internet, with the elevation of opinion over fact, has made the search for truth and certainty more fraught than ever.In response to which faith doesn’t set itself up as a kind of superior knowledge. A set of indisputable truths or privileged access to the answers to all our questions. Rather faith (in Rowan Williams’ words) “appears in the form of ‘dependable relationship’”. Which is to say that through the witness of the biblical story and by perseverance in the search for God you learn that there is, and find confidence “in, a presence, an ‘other’, who does not change or go away.” I may not know much, I may not know what to do for the best, I may not know how things will turn out, but I am held by, and live in relation to, a God who (so we believe and discover) is utterly constant, dependable, faithful and true.And that brings us to the dimension of hope. Hope is a vital (and ‘vital’ in the sense of life-giving) commodity. Because it has to do with purpose, with purposeful living. And so it underpins our sense of worth, and of the worthwhile-ness of life. “Without hope,” the proverb says, “the people perish.” Without hope, something to look forward to, individually, we wither and fade away.But you can’t say that hope abounds in our current climate. The uncertainties, complexities and terror threats are simply too great. And the material and near-at-hand things on which we focus our attention and in which we place our hope (in the here and now) cannot deliver, because they are not built to last.Well, it’s alright - the Christian faith has sometimes been presented as teaching – one day you will get to heaven and then it will be all alright, and things will go on for ever, and the baddies (which, of course, doesn’t include us) will get their just deserts. But this is just a caricature. To look to the things that are above, is not to take consolation in the thought that one day, or in another place, everything will be better. Indeed Christian hope is not so much about the future, but about contemplating and committing to put into practice the qualities we see in Jesus, because Jesus has now ascended to the right hand of the Father, which tells us that the things we see in him are the ultimate things, the valuable things, the trustworthy things (there it is again, dependability), the things that belong to God, and through which we belong to him – the eternal things, the things that shall abide.And the greatest of these – we all know that chapter so well – is love. Love is not just something God does, it is the essence of God, which shapes and defines all that God is and does. And when we say that love abides, that is very suggestive: not just of the persistence and longevity of love, but also of all those passages in St John’s Gospel which have to do with the drawing near, and coming to dwell with us and in us, of God.There are all sorts of ways in which love can be misunderstood or mistaken for something else. With desire, for example. The desire that wants to possess something. I love that handbag! Desire for another person.But when we analyse it, we realise that love is not something that begins in me, but is, if you like, something that happens to me (like falling in love), or is given to me (like the unlearnt affection and care visited upon us by our parents). We might want love, we might seek love, but in the end love comes to us and mysteriously lays claim to us.And such is the way of God with us. He comes to meet us in our deepest longing to be known, to be accepted, to be welcomed, to be in relationship – to be loved. The perfect antidote (if we are fortunate enough to realise it) to all our crazed attempts to be recognised, to be valued, to be successful, to make a difference. Of course we can make a difference and we will be valued, but only by trying not to be, and by learning to love, and give ourselves away – like God.Faith, hope and love – the three primary virtues of the Christian religion. Present from the very beginning. And as relevant and as vital to our human flourishing now as they ever have been. But they are not really three things at all, are they, but manifestations of the one love – that dependable presence, ultimate truth and wonderful gift wherein lies the fullness of life.