Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Wedding Homily

[Note: I delivered a redacted, abridged version of this homily at the wedding of my son on Saturday, 15 June, at Milwaukee, Wisconsin.]

Back in June of 1967, 46 years ago, John Lennon wrote a song that the Beatles premiered in front of the first ever live global television audience. “All You Need Is Love” was direct and simple in its message, propaganda that Lennon later admitted was revolutionary in its intent. “Love is all you need.” And, notwithstanding his naively optimistic belief that summoning up such love was “easy,” a Christian should readily admit that, in a very real sense, Lennon was right. Love is all you need. 

No one makes this point clearer than St. Paul did in his famous encomium to love in 1 Corinthians 13. In verses 1-3 he articulates this quite clearly:

If I should speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resonating bronze or a clanging cymbal. And if I should have the gift of prophecy and should come to fathom the depths of all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have the gift of a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. Even if I should give all my possessions to the poor and hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, JRM).

We see here that spiritual giftedness, spiritual insight into God’s plans, even apparently sacrificial spiritual or religious activity all amount to a proverbial hill of beans if devoid of love as the engine driving their manifestation. For Paul, love is the decisive criterion by which all our actions must be evaluated. And that applies to every sphere of our lives, not least to the home.

In verses 4-7, Paul tells us exactly what this “love” he is writing about, this sine qua non of meaningful activity, looks like in action. These verses are so familiar, and so often used in association with weddings and romantic love, that what they actually say is often glossed over in the fuzzy warmth of pious sentimentality. To do so, however, would be to miss the point of what the apostle believes to be the greatest of the spiritual graces.

When we Americans think of “love,” we tend to think in terms of a feeling, or at least of an attitude of fondness or affection directed toward someone or something we either possess in some way or desire to possess. The ancient Greeks, not surprisingly, thought similarly. Indeed, they had four distinct words corresponding to the English noun “love.” The first was storgē. Storgē referred to familial love, the natural affection a parent might have for her child, for instance. Secondly, philia, as used especially by Aristotle, referred to the affection of friendship. The third term, and the one most highly celebrated in Greek literature, was erōs, which, as one might suspect, was the intimate love of romantic desire. One important characteristic of erōs was its nature as a love based on the perceived desirability or attractiveness of the object. This was true even with Plato, who attempted to “de-carnalize” erōs by transcending its sexual connotations and transferring its focus to the underlying internal beauty of its object. Importantly, however, we note that erōs, by definition, was a love oriented to the possession by the lover of the object of his love. Now, this is all well and good. Indeed, we see something of a poetic description and celebration of this type of love in the Old Testament book, the Song of Solomon, a selection from which was read earlier.

Paul, however, doesn’t use any of these terms when he describes love in 1 Corinthians 13. Instead, he uses a fourth term, the much rarer agapē. Agapē was, in regular Greek usage, a generic, catch-all term, free of the familial or romantic/sexual connotations that encumbered the other terms. As such it was more suited than the others to be the vehicle of the apostle’s profound ideas about love he sought to convey in 1 Corinthians 13. And when we read verses 4-7, the first thing that should strike us, if we are observant readers, is that the apostle describes love with a series of 15 verbs, not adjectives. What this means is that“love” may indeed be an attitude, but it is an attitude that invariably manifests itself in action directed toward others.

Specifically, says Paul in these verses, love deals patiently with the loved one. It shows kindness. It does not seethe with jealousy over the other’s accomplishments or public recognition. Corresponding to that, love doesn’t brag, let alone ostentatiously harbor delusions of its own grandeur. It doesn’t behave dishonorably. Nor does it selfishly seek its own interests. It does not become irritated or vexed by perceived slights or indignities. Indeed, even when wronged it refuses to keep score of those wrongs. Love, says Paul, takes no pleasure in wrongdoing of any kind; instead, it has the disinterested integrity to celebrate the truth openly, without playing thinly-disguised power games. It bears up against all difficulties, never loses faith, never loses hope, and never fails to persevere.*

In our society we place an almost exclusive emphasis on “being in love.” Indeed, it is this erōs type of love that our culture assumes to provide the foundation for marriage and the only basis of its continuance. Once again, such an emphasis is all well and good. All of us who have experienced such “love” can attest to its glory and desirability. However, this relentless emphasis on what the Greeks would have termed erōs masks the nasty fact, which we all know to be true, that such love is, by definition, ephemeral, depending as it does on feelings prompted by the attractiveness of the other. 

What St. Paul says about love, however, is entirely different—and it is his type of love, not the romantic and sexually-charged erōs, which provides the only solid foundation for a marriage. To be sure, our culture says otherwise. It is love of the erōs type that is assumed to be the foundation of marriage that will both endure and give glory to the God who instituted the ordinance to be the framework in which human beings can fulfill their role as God’s image bearers.

What is this love of which the apostle speaks? To put it simply, genuine love, Christian love, is an attitude that is disinterested and unmotivated by the perceived “worthiness” of its object. To be specific, love is a stance that seeks the welfare of the loved one above one’s own interests, and that consequently manifests itself in acts of patient and costly service to the one who is its object.

Such love is glorious because, above all, as Tony Thiselton wrote, “Love is that quality which distinctively stamps the life of heaven.”** Indeed, St. Paul can claim in 1 Corinthians 13 that love endures and never falls, and that it is greater than both faith and hope precisely because love alone will have relevance in the eternal future of the new heavens and new earth. And, for Paul, it is this ultimate future that has been brought to bear on our present existence through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Thus it is not surprising that St. Paul elsewhere points to Christ’s death on the cross in order to provide both motivation for, and the embodiment of, the love that should characterize the relationship between a husband and his wife. In Ephesians 5, as part of the mutual submission that he says should characterize God’s people, the apostle exhorts husbands to “love [their] wives, even as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph 5:26). Pointing back to the creation narrative of Genesis chapter 2, the apostle makes the startling claim that the union and “one flesh” relationship established for husband and wife is analogous to, and indeed a prefiguration of, the union that exists between Christ and his redeemed people (Eph 5:31-32; Gen 2:24).

The so-called “battle of the sexes” has raged from time immemorial, as even the Bible’s primordial narrative acknowledges. In Genesis 3, as part of the “curse” or judgment brought upon humanity because of their fall into sin, God says to the woman, “Your desire shall be for your husband”—that is, her desire would be to gain mastery over her husband—“and he will rule over you” (Gen 3:16). In Paul’s view, it is God’s own love for his people, manifested in his Son’s sacrificial death for them on the cross of Calvary, which simultaneously reverses the effects of the primal curse and deconstructs the notions of authority we instinctively associate with hierarchies of all sorts. What matters—all one needs, if you will—is love. In particular, all you need is love of the sacrificial, other-directed sort that, in the apostle’s view, only manifests itself as the fruit produced by God’s Spirit that resides in his people (Gal 5:22).

Now I am well aware that such ideas run counter once again to our culture’s dominant way of thinking. In today’s individualistic Western culture, what matters above all is being “true to oneself” and reaching one’s own full potential. Thus both men and women are not so subtly taught in all sorts of ways that their primary responsibility is to themselves, and that any relationships that hinder their own personal development must be sacrificed accordingly. Such thinking, to put it bluntly, runs directly counter to what we encounter over and over again on the pages of the New Testament. Our Lord himself taught, on the contrary, that the person who seeks to save his or her life will lose it, but the one who would lose his or her life for his sake and that of the gospel would save it (Mark 8:35). As with Jesus, so with Paul: the way of the disciple of Jesus is the way of self-sacrifice. It is the way of self-abnegation. In a word, it is the way of love. What that means is that one only truly reaches one’s potential as a human being insofar as he or she walks the path of love and gladly sacrifices one’s own interests for the benefit of others. Indeed, any marriage in which the partners depend on staying “in love” for its permanence and direct all their energies toward their own individual “fulfillment” is doomed to failure from the start.

John and Katie, as you may have guessed, and as any married person could tell you, this is not easy. It doesn’t come naturally. We can’t simply conjure it up or casually choose to live in such a way. After all, such love is, as I mentioned earlier, the product of the work of God’s own Spirit in one’s life. It will take discipline. It will take hard work. Behavior such as St. Paul describes must be learned, and it must be cultivated until such virtues become part and parcel of who we are. Expect failure to live up to what love implies both on your own part and that of your spouse. But take heart. God is gracious and has provided his people with his Spirit to produce this love in us.

Above all, like the apostle, always reflect back for motivation on the love shown by our Lord when he gave himself for us on the cross of Calvary. As he wrote in what is likely his earliest letter: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Paul never got over the love shown by Christ Jesus for him, undeserving though he knew himself to be. Nor should we. If Christ loved us enough to sacrifice his own life for our sakes, it is but a small thing to emulate him and live lives of sacrifice for others, especially our spouses. That is the measure of real love.

John and Katie, this is destined to be the most memorable day of your lives. Treasure it. Relish the life on which you are about to embark together. And, most of all, may the God of all grace bless you both richly and grant that you live your lives together in love for his glory alone.
* For my understanding of these verses, I am indebted, above all, to Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans/Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000) 1046-60.

** Thiselton, 1035.


  1. Thanks for giving this dad. It was perfect and I wouldn't want any one else giving our sermon/homily.

    1. Thanks, son. It was my great privilege.

  2. Jim, I don't remember your father's homily at our wedding (I must have been distracted--or I am getting forgetful), but I am sure he would have agreed with the sentiments you articulate so well in this post. Thanks for the reminder; it is a high and hard calling.