Almost 59 years ago, November 4, 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. His subject was “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.”
No claim of divine inspiration this, merely creativity in sermonizing. King “can imagine the Apostle Paul writing a letter to American Christians in 1956 A.D. And here is the letter as it stands before me.”
Below is the ending of the Letter in which King borrows freely from 1 Corinthians 13. I like how he turns the focus of love to Calvary the “telescope” through which we see the love of God break into time. This is classic MLK.
I must bring my writing to a close now. Timothy is waiting to deliver this letter, and I must take leave for another church. But just before leaving, I must say to you, as I said to the church at Corinth, that I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. Over the centuries men have sought to discover the highest good. This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy. This was one of the big questions of Greek philosophy. The Epicurean and the Stoics sought to answer it; Plato and Aristotle sought to answer it. What is the summon bonum of life? I think I have an answer America. I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As John says, “God is love.” He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.
So American Christians, you may master the intricacies of the English language. You may possess all of the eloquence of articulate speech. But even if you “speak with the tongues of man and angels, and have not love, you are become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
You may have the gift of prophecy and understanding all mysteries. You may be able to break into the storehouse of nature and bring out many insights that men never dreamed were there. You may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you will have all knowledge. You may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees. But all of this amounts to absolutely nothing devoid of love.
But even more Americans, you may give your goods to feed the poor. You may give great gifts to charity. You may tower high in philanthropy. But if you have not love it means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned, and die the death of a martyr. Your spilt blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as history’s supreme hero. But even so, if you have not love your blood was spilt in vain. You must come to see that it is possible for a man to be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. He may be generous in order to feed his ego and pious in order to feed his pride. Man has the tragic capacity to relegate a heightening virtue to a tragic vice. Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.
So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power drunk generation that love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. Only through achieving this love can you expect to matriculate into the university of eternal life.
I must say goodby now. I hope this letter will find you strong in the faith. It is probable that I will not get to see you in America, but I will meet you in God’s eternity. And now unto him who is able to keep us from falling, and lift us from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of joy, to him be power and authority, forever and ever. Amen.
You can read the entire sermon at the King Encyclopedia at Stanford.
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