I’ve been a clergyman for many years and I’ve almost always managed to talk the bride and groom OUT of reading 1Corinthians 13 ... Because it’s so well-known we can hardly hear it any longer! But more importantly, because it’s such a stinging rebuke, it probably should never be used at a wedding at all. More on this in a minute.
A group of Grade 3 students were once asked some important questions about dating and marriage:
WHAT DO MOST PEOPLE DO ON A DATE?
Martin, age 10: “On the first date, they just tell each other lies; that usually gets them interested enough to go for a second date.”
Jenny, age 9: “If it doesn’t go well, I’d run home and play dead. The next day I would call all the newspapers and make sure they wrote about me in all the dead columns.”
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHO YOU SHOULD MARRY?
Kristen, age 10: “Nobody really decides before they grow up who they’re going to marry: God decides it all, way before, and you get to find out later who you’re stuck with.”
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO ON YOUR HONEYMOON?
Lynette, age 8: “Your honeymoon is for having lots of fun, and for getting to know each other more. You shouldn’t kiss a lot, you should talk to each other. Even boys have something to say, if you listen long enough.”
Back to St. Paul, now, for a few thoughts. 1 Cor 13 has been called “the greatest, strongest, deepest thing the Apostle ever wrote!”
There are three paragraphs in which Paul lays out for a flawed, dysfunctional and un-loving church what God’s love for them looks like. He tells them, ‘You lack a love which sees other people as infinitely precious.’ The word for “love” which Paul uses is virtually unknown outside of the NT: to the culture of his day — and surely to our own as well — “love” meant either deep regard or else physical desire. It focuses on the other person but inevitably on itself as well. Ultimately — tragically — ‘love’ is all about personal fulfillment: “God is love,” proclaims the Bible. But “love is God,” declares the culture...
I ask prospective couples to read Middlemarch, the masterpiece of Miss George Eliot, in preparation for their wedding: a novel full of flawed, worldly marriages and full of Christian redemption as well. Dorothea, perhaps the book’s central character, is caught between her own loveless marriage and the love of another man. Another woman, Rosamond strives to please, trapped by self-expectation.
“Love” in 1Corinthians 13 is that which sees something of infinite worth as its object. It is ultimately freeing. It is most often used with God as the subject. God loves Jesus Christ His Son in this way, as Person of Infinite Worth. He loves the bride, and the groom in this way. He loves marriage in this way, as something infinitely precious and valuable and even capable of changing the whole world!
The lack of love like this produces in a church, in a family, in a marriage what Paul writes about in his first paragraph. You can speak like an angel, be wise and intuitive and even lion-hearted in your faith, you can take a principled stand for what is right and embrace the severest personal trial but it is, all of it, futile unless the object of your attention is and stays to you unutterably precious.
And just in case you think, “Well yes, I’m in love like that now, and I will always be,” the second paragraph corrects you, just as it did the church in Corinth. (This is typically where in our imagination the violins come in as we hear these qualities of “love” listed out.) “Love is patient and kind,” Paul writes. But the Corinthian church were not and neither are we ... “Love is not jealous or boastful or arrogant or rude or insistent or irritable or resentful.” But we are all of these things — just ask our families!
One of the great mistakes we make is in thinking love can keep us committed to each other. It is not true. We do not gather at a wedding to hear bride and groom tell each other how much they love each other, but rather to hear them and support them as they make these fantastic (outrageous!) promises. And we’re there to witness their commitment — an echo of God’s commitment to them — which “hopes all things, endures all things, believes all things and endures all things.” This commitment protects and nourishes and sustains love.
Guy Bellerby is Rector at Christ’s Church Oceanside