Reading 1 Corinthians 13
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Whenever someone is contemplating a big thing, a good question to ask is, Why now? After all, it doesn’t do to jump into some life-changing enterprise, or do it ‘lightly or wantonly’, as the old marriage service puts it. Well – not much wantonness here. This wonderful day is the fruit of a great deal of pondering and exploration by Michael and Penny. And if you think the time of exploration has been a little long, a little cautious, let me quote in our couple’s defence a military principle that Michael has introduced me to:
‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.’
Now, though, D Day has come, and H Hour is moments away, so we must remember another piece of soldierly wisdom,
‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’,
because there are some things for which no amount of reconnaissance can fully prepare you. Penny and Michael have each declared their love for each other, and their intention to abide in that love for life. But now they – and we – come up against what that really means.
The 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has the power to move believer and non-believer alike. For some it is the acceptable voice of faith – no mention of God, let alone Jesus, just love. We can all believe in that. But if you really listen to Paul’s words, they are frightening. Many of us are in relationships of different kinds, our lives overlap with people we say we love. And Paul says to us, ‘Love, you say? Let me tell you what real love looks like.’ If you dare to say you love someone, if like Michael & Penny you state your intention to go on loving someone for life, apply Paul’s words to yourself, and see how you shape up:
Am I patient?
Am I kind?
Am I never envious, never resentful of the other?
Do I never gloat, never get a kick out of it when this person I say I love gets something wrong?
… and so it goes on, Paul’s terrifying catalogue of love.
Who can measure up to that? How can you hear these words and not be crushed by them? Only if you realise that these words are not in the first place about us in our attempts to love each other: they are about God. It is the love of God that is gentle and kind and patient and long-suffering. It is the love we see best in Jesus, who shows us God’s human face, embodies the love of God in human flesh and blood, as we celebrate afresh this Christmas. That is the love that God has for you and me and, of course, for Penny and Michael.
Once you have realised that the One who gives warmth and purpose to the universe has a heart that beats for you with that kind of love, then there is nothing you cannot face; you can make plans together and resolve to be better and better people for each other. You can even promise yourself to each other for life – not knowing what that life may hold – because you do know that, when plans fail in those daily battles we have, with ourselves or with what life throws at us, you are held by a love that (as Paul puts it) ‘bears all things [and] endures all things’. And when you succeed, when you actually find in yourself some of the things Paul talks about, you know that it’s not so much your achievement as God’s gift, not just you working harder at loving, but you letting the love of God flow between you.
In marriage, as in all of life, the best thing any of us hope for is to be someone who doesn’t get in God’s way, someone who is willing to be a stream, a conduit, a channel in which the love and grace of God can flow. That is our prayer now for Penny and Michael, as they prepare to make their vows. It is a prayer prayed long ago (it is said) by St Francis ofAssisi, an interpretation of which his namesake Timothy Francis will now read.
(The following version of the prayer was delivered by Mother Teresa when she addressed the United Nations in 1985.)
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace.
That where there is hatred I may bring love,
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness,
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony,
That where there is error I may bring truth,
That where there is doubt I may bring faith,
That where there is despair I may bring hope,
That where there are shadows I may bring light,
That where there is sadness I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted,
To understand than to be understood,
To love than to be loved.
For it is by forgetting self that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,
it is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.