A while back I read that the #1 song the week I was born, was “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles. That was the “Summer of Love,” so it’s no surprise that its theme song was such a kitschy, feel-good tune. (Dah! Da dadadaaaa)
We live in a culture that is “love” obsessed, especially as we turn the calendar page to February. We’re all supposed to be partnered up, that Noah Syndrome of “by two by two by two.” People who know nothing else from the Bible often know the basics of the passage from 1 Corinthians that we heard today. Love is patient, love is kind. It is used regularly at weddings, and preachers wax poetic on how the couple is supposed to embody the principles set forth, that love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful…it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…
Perhaps part of the cynicism so many of my colleagues and I feel, when we are asked to preach on this passage at weddings, is the knowledge that half of those supposedly love-soaked marriages end in divorce. The “love never ends” part of that passage seems to be a lie and we don’t like being put in the position of being God’s spin doctors. But the problem is not God; the problem is that people don’t understand that this passage is not about that kind of love. This is not eros, the love praised in the countless love songs and books and poems and movies that resonate with two people preparing for marriage. The love in this passage is NOT primarily based in emotion or feeling. It is not the sicky-sweet sentimental goo of Valentine’s Day cards.
The love described here is agape, that love that is—or should be—the hallmark of Christian community. It is sacrificial, putting the needs of the other ahead of our own desires. It is unconditional and unchangeable. It is the very essence of God. The love described here is not reserved for two people preparing to make what one hopes is a life-long commitment to one another. It is, instead, the foundation of Christian community, and no one who claims the name Christ is excluded from it.
AND, it is unbelievably difficult to actually live up to the standards set in this passage.
The first challenge is how to even start. It’s very hard to love someone you don’t like. All those love songs make us think that love is like a great ocean wave that snatches us up and carries us along. It’s very dramatic and impressive…and doesn’t last long.
Again—we are talking about a different kind of love. This is the love at the heart of the great commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the love that Jesus commanded us to have for one another as he was preparing to go to the cross. This love is not so much an emotion as an act of will. Agape love often requires a decision to love, even when the person is unlovable. We have to choose to love, not wait for it to show up. It is a love that makes room for those we might rather leave outside. Jesus is preaching that kind of love when he tells the people of his hometown to set aside what they think they know about him, and listen to him. God doesn’t just bless them, the chosen people. God blesses the outsiders, the widow of Zarephath, Naaman the Syrian. God’s love is so much broader than they were ready to admit. Open to people they would really rather leave out.
And the paradox is that we can’t do it on our own. We cannot love like Jesus loved simply by wishing it were so. We cannot will ourselves to love the way that God wants us to love. We have to acknowledge that we need God’s help. We can only love like God by asking God to help us do so. This love doesn’t start with us, it starts with God because God is its source, God is its essence. We cannot love like God without God’s help.
So agape love starts with a prayer: help me to love.
There is a funny little prayer that I’m going to paraphrase, “Dear God, I am not yet willing to do your will. But I am willing to be made willing.” Sometimes we start by admitting that we not only need God’s help if we are going to love our neighbor.
Our prayer might need to take a step back: help me to want to love. Love is difficult.
And that is perhaps why I think God has particularly entrusted it to us Christians—not because we are somehow better at it—we’re not. But our foundational story acknowledges what it can cost, and we have been opened by the Holy Spirit to be the conduit God uses to spread God’s love throughout the world. The earliest followers of Jesus were known by the way they loved each other, the way they made room for more and more in that circle of love.
This is the point, whenever I’m talking about agape, when I need to stop and clarify something. Many people have stayed in abusive situations because they wanted to love the way God loves. They believed deeply that unconditional love is the standard set by Christ, and they explain away their bruises and wounded psyches as “their cross to bear.” I don’t believe Paul or Jesus or God wants any person to remain in an abusive situation. Love does not mean accepting abuse. God does not want love to hurt. Love demands patience, but it does not demand that you become a doormat or a punching bag. Sometimes, to embody God’s love most fully, one must step back and say, “I love you, I will always love you, but I will not let you betray your own God-given nature by allowing you to continue to treat me this way.”
As I reviewed my notes on this passage, I was reminded of yet another way to read it. Perhaps 1st Corinthians 13 is not simply a standard to which we all must strive, but something else as well. Perhaps it is a promise of what is offered to us. Imagine yourself not as the one expected to accomplish this kind of love, but as its recipient. Imagine this not as a description of your desired behavior, but as a description of God: God is patient, God is kind, God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on God’s own way, God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never ends.
Imagine how different the world would be if we all lived with that understanding of God. Imagine how much more eager we would be to share our faith, if we believed that it’s God’s deepest desire to love every one of us into well-being. If we faced every situation with the understanding that we are so loved, and we want to help others understand that they are loved that way, too.
Guess what? That’s actually the case. God loves us that much. And as we open ourselves up to receiving that love, we will also open ourselves up to passing it along. When we realize that there is no limit to God’s love, we won’t be tempted to hoard it—there’s plenty to go around. We’ll be willing to accept that Jesus is pushing the boundaries of God’s kingdom further and further out, inviting EVERYONE in.
God loves each and every one of us—the ones we like, the ones we don’t like. The ones who ‘deserve’ God’s love and those who reject it. The good, the bad and the ugly. As we come to understand and accept that, we will finally see God and each other face to face, and be able to celebrate that love has no end.
Maybe the Beatles were onto something.