“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
A few years ago I presided at the funeral of a young man who had died suddenly from a previously undiagnosed heart condition. He felt like maybe he was coming down with something and went to lay down and take a nap and just never woke up again. 39 years old. Of course, it was a devastating time for the family. I met with his wife to plan the service and we talked for a long time about their life together. They had been extremely close – truly great companions. She told me many stories – about how they met at a bar on Saint Patrick’s day, a holiday particularly special to them as they were both Irish, and by the end of that evening when he drove away she said out loud to herself, “he is the one.” She told me about all the things they loved to do together, how thoughtful and capable he was. I remember she also talked about their wedding fifteen years before. They had been married in a Lutheran church and she talked about how much fun they had planning their wedding and making it just how they wanted it to be and it had included some things they thought were unconventional and quirky. They liked that their wedding hadn’t been like every other wedding and how she and her husband used to kind of joke about how every wedding they went to always used the same scripture – from I Corinthians 13:1-13. No, they would never have this reading about love that was so common and used all the time.
Well, the wife asked me to choose the scripture for the funeral service and maybe because she had joked about this text from I Corinthians, I kept thinking about it and as I thought about everything I knew about this young man and how he lived his life and the love they shared, I asked his widow if I could share this reading from I Corinthians at his funeral and why I wanted to do that. She agreed, and in fact, I often use it now at funerals because of verse 15 where it says that faith, hope, and love abide and the greatest of these is love. To abide means to last, to stay, to remain – and what a comforting thought it is to know that even though death happens, there are some things that last, that remain – God’s love for us, surely, and by God’s grace, the love gifted to us by one another in this life.
So although this text is one of the most well-known and maybe overused texts there is, it truly is a great text when we stop to see what is really being said. Certainly it is a great text for church communities to look at as we think about our life together – particularly if we look at what was happening in Corinth when this was written.
I Corinthians was written to a community that was having a very difficult time staying together. There was division, disorder in worship, people were bickering over spiritual gifts and there was an overall sense of immaturity in the church. Paul was writing to the Corinthians to get them to move past all of that and to live, as he describes it, in a more excellent way: to live in love.
Live in love. We might think that sounds a little bit flowery. A little bit too much like a tagline from a Hallmark movie of the week, but the truth is that “live in love” could perhaps be the best mission statement a church could possibly have.
Because without love, it doesn’t matter what budgets, buildings, or missional strategies we have. A balanced budget, an attractive and well-kept building, a perfectly worded vision statement – these are not the things that give the church the shape that God desires. Even if we were to have our Bibles and Small Catechism all memorized, be theologically rigorous, or even if we were to excel at activism and pursuing justice every day – if we do all these things and forget to be a community of love, we have lost our way.
It’s unfortunate that in our language we tend to water down the word love. I mean, isn’t it just a little bit tragic that we use the same word to say such wildly different things – such as, “I love peanut butter.” And “I love my children.” While we know what we mean – that peanut butter and our children are loved in totally different ways, this overuse can tend to take away some of the power behind the word.
The thing that is often overlooked in this text is that the love being talked about here is active. It is best translated “love shows patience” and “love acts with kindness” – love is an active, busy thing which never ceases working. The point of the text is not to share some flowery description of thoughts of love – but rather, to describe what love does.
It’s probably important to note as well that in this text it never says that this kind of love feels good. We’ve talked in our Bible study on Wednesdays about how there are different kinds of love in the Greek language – there is “philia” which is the love shared between friends and there is “eros” which is passionate love, and there is “agape” – which is the kind of love God has for us. That is the kind of love being talked about here. And it rarely is a feel-good kind of love when we practice this kind of love. In fact, in the context of this text, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.
So this is why it is a great text for church communities, for funerals, and yes, for weddings. No, this text isn’t about flowery, romantic love, it’s not the kind of love decorated in the frosting of wedding cakes or dressed up in a white dress and a black tux – but the kind of love that people know when they live life together for any real amount of time.
Louis De Bernieres, the novelist, wrote “Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. It is like roots that grow toward each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”
It’s the kind of love that works to forgive and rebuild trust when trust has been broken.
It’s the kind of love that weathers the years – years that surely contain joy and laughter and good times as well as worries and disappointments and aching struggles.
It’s the kind of love that celebrates all that is good and sticks with it through the bad.
And sometimes it is the kind of love that knows it is time to let go of another person and trust that even this can be done with love and caring respect.
I knew an extraordinary couple at my church in Colorado who had been married for ten years and had two children when they realized after many years of therapy and prayers that they both did not want to be married anymore. They cared for each other, they wanted the best for each other, neither were having an affair with someone else – they just came to the mutual conclusion that they shouldn’t be married. An extremely faithful couple, they asked me if I could pray with them the day they signed their divorce papers. They talked about how important prayer and being in their church had been to them during their wedding – and they needed God’s presence now more than ever as they divorced. They came over to the church and we went into the quiet sanctuary and I shared some scripture and some prayers, they took off their rings and gave them back to each other. They hugged and they cried. It was so deeply sad, but so full of love at the same time. And over the next years I saw this couple handle their divorce with an immense amount of love. Sunday nights they still always were together as a family for supper. Both parents went to all the games and school activities to support the kids. Their houses were only blocks apart so that the kids could easily go from one house to the other. They might have been divorced, but their love did not end. It was an extraordinary thing to behold.
But real love always is.
I think of my pastor friend who told me about how she has always given her children a blessing every morning before they leave for school and one day she and her youngest were having a quarrel over something and he grabbed his backpack and went out the door that morning, slamming the door behind him. But a moment later he came back in and said gruffly, “you didn’t bless me yet.” And she blessed her boy with his brow still furrowed in anger at her and she with tears running down her face. Real love is an extraordinary thing.
I think of Mickey, a man whose funeral I did almost exactly a year ago. Diagnosed with cancer in the spring, it spread quickly through his body and by Christmas he was in hospice care – his wife, Amanda, sleeping every night in the chair by his bed. Each day I would ask her how she was doing and if she was getting rest but all she cared about was being near to him, doing whatever she could to ease his pain in his final days. Real love is an extraordinary thing.
And I think of how God has seen fit to love us so much – giving Jesus’ life for us so that we don’t have to fear death. I can’t pretend to understand it, but I know it is grace and because of it, we need to do all we can to bless the world with grace as well, to live in love.
That is my prayer for us, dear church, I pray that we live in love.
Because Real love is an extraordinary thing.