I recently preached at a wedding celebration on the classic wedding text, 1 Cor 13.1–8a. The celebration was international, and as a result had been delayed for two years because of Covid. The couple were young professionals and, apart from parents and some friends and relations of a similar age, the congregation were also mostly young professionals, many of whom were not church-goers. Because of a problem with transport for the main party, the service started half an hour late. The couple’s hyphenated surname began with the letters LD, hence my three points.
If I speak in human or angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship⌟ that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self–seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
Here we are at last—two years and a little bit after the original plan! Many congratulations! For those of you who are not used to being in church, you need to know that the best sermons have three points, and in this case they will all begin with LD. It is also a golden rule of gardening that you plant things in threes, so this is a good one to follow! [Gardening is a shared interest.]
The first ‘LD’ is Love’s Details. This reading includes a remarkable list of qualities, and you can see that if you look carefully at the details.
First, says St Paul, ‘Love is patient’. The word he uses (which can be found in some older translations) is ‘long suffering.’ If you are the kind of person who is always on the go, who likes to get things done, and you are with someone who just likes to slow down and take their time—then you know what this ‘long suffering’ is all about!
Then, he says, ‘Love is kind’—ready to bless the other person, always will to do good, to be generous in your opinion of the other. There is an old Jewish saying: ‘The world is held together by two things: keeping the Torah; and acts of kindness’.
‘Love does not envy’—it doesn’t resent the success of another, but rejoices in it. ‘Love does not boast’—it does not need to make more of its own achievements, or draw attention to itself. It does not ‘seek the things of itself’ above others. It ‘keeps no record of wrongs’. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to remember when someone has wronged you? And yet, Paul says, love does not keep a log of the mistakes of others that have hurt us. That is why love never says ‘And another thing…’!
In one sense, it is quite hard to imagine what all these qualities look like, though you treasure them when you see them. But another way of understanding them is to imagine the opposite. Think of someone who is impatient, unkind, is envious and proud, insists on his or her own way, does remember all your mistakes—it is not a pleasant sight! Such people diminish us, crush us, limit us. They stop us from flourishing.
Yet in many ways we live in a culture that prizes these things. Doing these are the way to get on—and our social media context encourages them.
So when we do encounter someone who exhibits these qualities, it is like water in the desert. These virtues gives us space to thrive, to flourish, and to grow. When we see these qualities, they enlarge us, and we treasure them.
That leads to my second ‘LD’: Love’s Demands. You both know quite a bit about doing audits—so here is a personal audit you can do for yourself. Put your own name in this list!
John is patient, John is kind. Jane does not envy, Jane does not boast, Jane is not proud. John is not arrogant or rude. Jane does not insist on her own way, Jane is not easily angered. John keeps no record of wrongs, John always delights in the truth. [John and Jane are pseudonyms.]
We need to be clear here: this is not about losing your own identity, or becoming a doormat. But it is about giving yourself to the other. As you said in your vows: ‘All that I am I give to you’. The Christian understanding of marriage is this symmetry of love, this mutual giving of the self to the other.
But the moment you put your own name in it to do the audit, you realise how demanding this is! Why? Because we all have a natural tendency to put ourselves at the centre of our world—to be concerned about our own needs, our own progress, our own perceptions, our own success. (If you want to get a little philosophical about this, you can trace this tendency in Western thinking all the way back to Descartes, who put the self as the sensing centre of the world in his slogan ‘I think, therefore I am…’)
Yet these qualities demand that we do the opposite—that we put the other, his or her needs, desires, aspirations and happiness—at the centre. We de-centre ourselves.
This starts naturally enough by our love being drawn out of us by the other—as we can plainly see, that you love one another, and are both lovely people! But this is not enough, on its own, to last a lifetime. This de-centring love starts with personal passion, but it continues with daily decision.
That is why, in your vows, you did not say ‘I do’, which suggests this is a mere action, but ‘I will’, it is an act of decision, an act of the will. If passion is the fire burning bright at the centre of a relationship, day by day decision provides the fuel for the fire, and allows it to keep burning.
And as you give yourself away to the other in love, you find you receive yourself back in the self-giving of the other. You get a wonderful return on your investment! In your vows you didn’t say ‘All that I have I give to you’, since if you give your things away, you have less. Instead you said ‘All that I have I share with you” and then ‘All that I am a give to you.’ Love is the only thing that grows the more you give it away!
This is why marriage is the natural place for having children—since you give yourself to one another, and this results in the fruitfulness of new life—and you find yourself giving both yourselves away to yet another. Having children is the ultimate act of de-centring your life, of putting the needs of another ahead of your own!
The demands of love lead into my third point: Love divine (which would be a good line for a hymn!).
Here is something amazing—this reading was not written for weddings! Paul is writing to a struggling young community seeking to follow Jesus, but full of conflict, misunderstandings, and power plays. He says something remarkable—ridiculous even! To a religious community, who seek supernatural signs of God’s presence, power to perform miracles, insight to speak the mind of God, he says ‘I will show you a better way.’ This de-centring love, focussed on the other, is a surer sign of the presence of God than all these other things.
Perhaps we could paraphrase Paul’s opening comments like this:
I might have all the business analysis in the world, the best corporate strategy, spreadsheets to die for…but if I have not love, I am but computer error message, or a system crash.
No-one gets to the end of their life and says ‘If only I had spent just a few more hours in the office.’ Sadly they sometimes do say ‘If only I had loved my friends and family better.’
This kind of love is something the whole world needs. Your relationship is a special focus of this—but its purpose is for it to be shared with the wider world. Now, I am not expecting that you will solve all the problems of the wold on your own! But notice how, in the service, marriage is constantly connected to the wider community. ‘This is a way of life all should honour’, and your friends and family will support you in it. But as you grow in this quality of love, you will also support and serve others through it.
This is not just a divine thing when it happens, as Paul claims. Because it demands the de-centring of ourselves, which goes against both our culture and our nature, we need divine help.
Why is this? You will find out if you read the gospels, the first four ‘books’ of the New Testament. If you have not read them, you should, regardless of whether you are ‘religious’ or not, because these documents have, more than any other, changed the world.
As you read them, you discover the central character, Jesus, who actually embodies all these thing. Jesus was patient, Jesus was kind to those he met; he was not envious or proud, he is not arrogant or rude, does not seek his own way, rejoices with the truth. Jesus, the gospels tell us, not only lived out this love, but is the one who is able to empower us to live it out as well. He is the one who can transform our lives, our relationships, our world.
As your friends and family, we rejoice with you this day—at last! We delight for you. And we pray for you, that you will know God’s blessing in your life together, till death do us part.
The sermon was followed by a reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true mindsAdmit impediments. Love is not loveWhich alters when it alteration finds,Or bends with the remover to remove.O no! it is an ever-fixed markThat looks on tempests and is never shaken;It is the star to every wand’ring bark,Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeksWithin his bending sickle’s compass come;Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,But bears it out even to the edge of doom.If this be error and upon me prov’d,I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.