I ended up not writing a lectionary post last week, based on the readings appointed for yesterday. I fully intended to. I read through the lessons a number of times. But I kept getting stuck at the same place: I loathe the passage from 1 Corinthians about love. I’ve come to know that when something really pushes my buttons, I need to look more closely to puzzle out why.
Love is patient;
love is kind;
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 does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
This reading is often chosen for weddings, which, in the twenty-first century western world, are a recognition and blessing of a committed love relationship. Even when I was a fresh-faced twenty-year-old, long before I fell into cynicism, I knew this reading was not a good one for weddings. Why? It sets goals that can never be reached in any earthly marriage. The inappropriateness struck even more deeply at me when that twenty-year-old began to suffer emotional and verbal abuse. Patient? Kind? Rejoicing in truth? Not hardly! And finally I had to admit that I could not believe all things, that I lost hope, that I could no longer endure all things. The love was gone, leaving only attachment and exploitation. That marriage ended.
This kind of love — or as is expressed elsewhere in scripture, loving-kindness — is absolutely beyond my reach. I know that I am impatient and rude; I am unkind, sarcastic, and cynical; I certainly don’t believe all things. And yet, our inability to achieve this amazing love does not allow us to give up, to not even try it. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave us a new commandment, not only to love each other, but to love each other as he loves us.
God is patient. God is kind. God is not envious or boastful or rude. God is not irritable or resentful, and God certainly does not rejoice in wrongdoing. Jesus tells us that the truth will free us. Jesus bears all things, even setting aside God’s infinite glory to exist as one of us. Jesus believes all things; Jesus hopes all things. Jesus endures even death, a humiliating and painful death, and he endures it for us. And Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to us, so that we are never alone.
There is another marriage, one that all Christians are part of. Imagery of Israel as the bride of God fills the Hebrew scripture, and Jesus extends this imagery to include all of us. The family of Christians makes up the bride of Jesus; Jesus is the true spouse of our soul. Through God’s presence among us, through the Holy Spirit, we encounter Christ in this divine marriage. Jesus invites us into relationship so that this divine marriage should shape all of our relationships.
I was once asked how I could be a vowed Religious Sister — the bride of Christ — and be married at the same time. It isn’t easy. There are times when one relationship or the other seems to become more important. This is not the only relationship conflict: have you ever had to choose between your spouse and your child? or between your employer and your spouse? God calls us into this messy place, where it is difficult to balance our relationships. We do the best we can, making the best decisions we can with the knowledge and information we have, and we stumble and bumble and sometimes fall flat on our faces. But the good news is that God is always there with us. Jesus always has a hand outstretched to pick us up.
I still struggle with this passage, because I am uncomfortable when I have a goal that I don’t think I can reach. When I find myself being rude or envious or impatient or unkind, I’m disappointed; it’s often easier to forgive someone else for rudeness or impatience than it is to forgive myself. In recent years, I’ve become more keenly aware of my sinfulness, and it feels like a needle in my heart when I realize that my behavior (or even my thinking) is unloving. So this reading stabs me like a dozen daggers. And so I pray: O God, help me to love like you do!