It actually gives me pause when I stop to think about it: as of last December, my wife Lisa and I have been married for 28 years.
Twenty-eight years! Let me tell you; from where I’m standing, that’s a lot of water under the bridge! And yes, they’ve been 28 wonderful years; and though there are days that my beloved spouse would argue this point, those years have gone by in a heartbeat. That having been said, however, I know that right now some of you are thinking to yourselves, “Twenty-eight years? 28? Please! You two are just newlyweds! Talk to me on your 40th anniversary or your 50th and I’ll tell you about ‘water under the bridge!’”
And I suppose you’d be right about that; quite honestly, I stand in awe and admiration of those of you who have managed to sustain that kind of a loving relationship over the course of so many years and the changes in time and circumstance. Maybe you’ve heard the story about the elderly couple – married 55 years – who one night are lying in bed together, and the wife says, “Hubert… why don’t you ever snuggle up to me the way you used to 55 years ago?” Well, Hubert kind of grumbles a little bit, but he rolls over and snuggles up next to her. And then, after a few minutes, the wife says, “Hubert… why don’t you ever rub my back the way you used to back when we were first married?” Well, once again, Hubert grumbles and grouses about it for a moment, but then he reaches up and starts to rub his wife’s back. Then, after a few minutes more, the wife says again, “Hubert… do you remember how when we were newlyweds, you’d nibble on my ear?” And at this point, Hubert throws the covers up, jumps off the bed and starts stomping out of the room. “Where are you going,” the wife asks. And Hubert answers, “To get my teeth!”
Now that’s true love! I actually love what John Ortberg has written about this; he says, “to nibble on an ear when it is young, and the air is scented with ‘eau de something,’ that’s one thing; but to be nibbling on that same ear when it contains a hearing aid and the air smells like Ben-gay, that’s another thing altogether!” Now, we laugh about this, but I would submit to you this morning that at the heart of this story lies the truth of what Paul is saying when he says to the Corinthians, and to us, “Love never ends.” True love, you see, goes on. It’s permanent; as we heard it translated this morning, “Love never fails.”
And that’s significant. For as we’ve been looking at it over the past couple of weeks, it turns out that our “love life” is at its best when it’s God’s love living through us; when it’s the first priority for our lives, and when it’s expressed in word and especially in behavior. But the other piece of this is that love, as Paul talks about it in 1 Corinthians 13, also endures in and through all of life’s inevitable shifts and changes; and that’s because the form and shape of true love will also shift and change to meet the need.
Make no mistake; such love is a matter of faith. Edward Marquart writes that in every moment of our lives from the cradle to the grave, “God is trying to teach us one thing,” to love as God loves. “And the shape of [that] love,” Marquart says, “is always changing” and “always expanding. Foolish is the person who thinks that he or she knows what love is at fifteen, or twenty-five or seventy-five, because the shape of God’s love in us is forever expanding and changing in our lives.”
And that’s certainly true, isn’t it? After twenty or thirty years of marriage, you probably don’t love your spouse in exactly the same fashion you did when you first felt the rush of falling in love (!): but the hope and prayer is that the love, with all its dimensions, is still there; just deeper and richer and more nuanced, if you will, given all the “for better and for worse” stuff of life and living. Parenting is the same way, really; speaking from experience, though you’ll always love those kids with your very life, the reality is that you don’t love your adult children in quite the same way you did when they were babies, when literally and figuratively you’d hold on to them with every ounce of strength you had. Well, trust me on this, you just can’t do that anymore (!); first of all because they won’t have it, and besides, it doesn’t work! Suddenly, being a parent becomes this complicated, delicate dance of holding on and gradually letting go; the love you have for them is just as intense and no less sincere, but it has to expand and change given the new situation.
This is what Paul is talking about when he says that “love never fails;” because whether we’re talking husbands and wives, parents and children, neighbors and friends, or Christians in community ultimately the kind of love that adapts and grows and deepens in the midst of all of life’s changes, that’s the kind of love that lasts. And it’s the kind of love on which God would have God would have you and me focus our energies.
Now as we’ve been saying throughout this sermon series, it’s important to remember that these words in 1 Corinthians 13 were not ostensibly written about marriage or relationships per se; but instead were addressed to a factious, bickering group of new Christians who put far more weight on the level of importance of various spiritual gifts than to the central concern of actually making use of those gifts in a faithful and, perish the thought, loving fashion.
That’s why Paul begins this chapter with that litany of achievements which, without love, amount to nothing; and that’s why he follows that “checklist” of loving behaviors we talked about last week – “love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful” and so on – by then reminding the Corinthians and the rest of us that whatever our gifts happen to be and in whatever abundance, sooner or later they’re going to run out. Prophecies “will stop” (CEV); eventually, language “will no longer be spoken;” and all that we know, however much that is, “will be forgotten.” All these gifts, as wonderful as they are, will always come to an end because as far as God is concerned they are means to an end; they are the tools and gifts that God provides for us to live faithfully and lovingly for the sake of his kingdom. Love, says Paul, is what lasts; love is the bedrock reality on which everything else in life and living is built.
In other words, all these things that we cling to in life as being of utmost importance in its success or failure – all our skill and abilities, our knowledge and instinct, and yes, also the level of our affluence and influence in the world (!) – all of this ultimately crumbles amidst the shifting sands of time and tide! So not only is it true that “we can’t take it with us” when we go, odds are we won’t always be able to hold on to them while we’re here! Ultimately the best thing we can ever do in this life is to take all of what we’ve been given and use it in working for what lasts; and what lasts is love, love given us by God and embodied in Jesus Christ. Spiritually speaking, this is stewardship in the truest and best sense of the word; but at its very core what we’re really talking about here is simply growing up (!) – it’s about “put[ting] an end to childish ways” and seeking to become the actively caring and loving adults that God has created and desires for us to be!
And that’s important; because the truth is, where love is concerned there’s a whole lot of us who need to grow up! It’s been correctly noted, you know, that you’re only young once but you can be immature forever: and sadly, there are a lot of people out there – including a goodly number of celebrities and athletes I could name (!) – who prove that maxim on a regular basis. Well, likewise, there are lot of Christians who are just as immature about love; they may know the right words to say and know all the applicable Bible verses, but in the end, where love is concerned they still cling to that verse this morning that talks about speaking and thinking and reasoning “as a child:” which, loosely translated, means, “it’s all about me!”
Now don’t misunderstand; we all need to be loved, but love that is “all about me” is a childish love that can’t stand against the challenges of real life. There is indeed great power in love, but immature love will fade at the first sign of trouble; and when that happens even the best of our good words and our most sincere efforts will end up accomplishing nothing. But by the same token, ask any person (or couple, or family, or community) that has had to deal with struggle or conflict and they will tell you what made the difference in getting through that was love: but love that was true and mature and lasting, the kind of love that gives substance to our words; the kind of love that imbues integrity to our actions and guides us through “the rough patches.”
To put it simply – and this is especially true for us as Christians – when we say we love one another, we need to back that up with our very lives! And that means we have to be willing to let love grow; to let it expand, to let it take a new shape and form so that might become more inclusive and all-encompassing; to allow our love to become greater and reach farther than right now we might even think possible! It will have to be love that bears and believes and hopes and endures all things; it’ll need to be love that moves us beyond old ways of thinking and being; and it will absolutely have to be love that is sacrificial by its very nature and its expression…
…all of this which is to say that for love to go on, we will need to love as God has loved us.
To love, you see, is to be with God, for God and of God; it is to stretch beyond ourselves for the sake of others, as God did for our sake in Jesus Christ. As we heard in our reading this morning from 1 John, “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.” Friends, in this world where goodness is often so very fragile, kindnesses are rare, and relationships come and go, this is the only kind of love that will stand the test of time.
It’s been said, you know, that if you were to boil down the Christian faith to its very essence like one would boil sap to become maple syrup, what you’d end up with would not be neither doctrine, nor creed, nor any random set of “thou shalt not’s.” What would be left would be that which is at the very core of what we believe; faith, hope and love; “and the greatest of these is love.” If I might quote just one more ‘70’s era song, “love is the answer” and to just about every question; and for us to learn what it is to truly love one another will be to live the life which we hope for ourselves, and intend for our world. So let us be attentive to our love life, and let that love be after the manner of Christ: as The Message translates it, “Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it – because it does.”
For love received and love shared, thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry