Summary: In spite of everything - in spite of our individual weaknesses, in spite of the dramas and scandals that regularly threaten to up-end us, in spite of our tiredness, and in...
The words of St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, from towards the end (thirteenth chapter, to be exact).
It’s one of the most familiar passages in the Bible, I think. Even if you have not studied it personally or heard it read out here on a Sunday morning before, there is almost no doubt that you have heard it read at some time, and most probably at a wedding.
I can’t remember being present at many weddings where this passage hasn’t been read and I can’t remember taking many weddings where the couple haven’t requested it.
Indeed, even those who do not know where to find the passage, when asked, "have you thought about what Bible reading you would like at your wedding?", almost invariably answer, "how about the love passage?" Do you mean "Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful or rude - that passage?", I ask. "Yes, that’s the one!"
And most of us clerical wedding celebrant types wince a little when this is said too, as we know, and as anybody who has been to Bible College or spent any amount of time studying the Bible knows, that this passage is really quite inappropriate for a wedding, and this for two reasons:
1. Paul’s eulogy here is part of his discussion about how to use spiritual gifts within the church community, and is not addressed to couples.
2. The sort of love Paul is taking about does not seem to be the sort of romantic love that we associate with weddings.
Yet people continue to ask for it, because it is beautiful and poetic, and indeed, as a piece of verse, it surely must be the most beautiful piece that St Paul ever wrote.
And they ask for it too, I think, because, even though St Paul is not talking about romantic love, and even though he is not addressing couples, I think we recognise in Paul’s description of love here some of the most fundamental elements that a long-term loving relationship needs if it is going to be successful.
"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (vss. 4-7)
If Paul is not talking about romantic love, what is he talking about?
’Commitment’ would be my usual response here: Christian love is not about feeling passionate towards lots of people, it’s about commitment to their needs.
And that’s gotta be true, as far as it goes. But as I read through this beautiful poem of St Paul’s again, I wonder whether Paul’s understanding of love was really as devoid of emotional entanglement as the word ’commitment’ might suggest?
"Faith is passion", said Kierkegaard, and I suspect Paul would have agreed with him, and if faith is passion, surely love is passion too.
You see, the problem we have here with getting inside Paul’s head to really grasp what he meant by ’love’ is not only that he wrote it a long time ago and in another language, but that he and the rest of the early Christian community more or less constructed their own language of love.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book about this. I suspect that a number of you have read it - ’The Four Loves’ it is called.
In it, Lewis points out that there were three words in first century Greek regularly used for love - ’Eros’, ’storge’ and ’philia’. These three loves are, respectively, romantic love, family love, such as we have for our children, and the more formal sort of love, such as the love the Godfather might have for you - a love that carries with it a clear expectation that a service will be done in return.
"Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But uh, until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day." (Vito Corleone)
Strangely, when the New Testament writers chose a term for love, which is a word that turns up rather a lot in the New Testament, they deliberately avoided all these standard terms, and employed instead a reasonably colourless Greek word - ’agape’ - and then went about the task of defining it!
Evidently the early Christians felt that they were talking about something new and different when they talked about the love of Christ, and so they felt that none of the old words for love would do. So instead of using one of those words, and trying to put a bit of a twist on it, they decided to take a little known word and mould it more appropriately for their own use.