“Love never ends” (1 Cor, 13:8).
The last time most of us heard our second reading this morning, from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, was probably at a wedding. The reason for this is not too much of a stretch, since St. Paul’s words about love here, in the thirteenth chapter, lend themselves well to a marriage. What’s obvious, of course, is the love of the couple, and Paul foregrounds love, as in “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).
Faith and hope are present as well at any marriage: in the constant fidelity of the couple to each other, and in their hope for the future, not least of all the fruitful hope for the next generation. These too get a shout-out in the reading. But it’s love that is the greatest of these, and St. Paul’s foregrounding of love that commends itself to many couples in choosing the reading.
Still, it’s a bold move for the couple, in the sense that when we think about our human loving we are confronted almost immediately by the experience of love’s failures: where love runs out or where love ends. Just keeping with our wedding scenario, we’re confronted by intimidating statistics on divorce and domestic abuse. It’s a sour note to sound on a wedding day, which is why I’m not raising it there, but as Jesus observes elsewhere in the Gospels, “One’s foes will be the members of one’s own household” (Matt. 10:36).
Imagining the family as a school of charity, the place where we learn love, we come up against our own lack of love. It’s just a fact of life that friction is greatest with those who are closest to us, and our failures to love there are foremost in our minds. If the family is a school of charity, it’s also where we learn the difficult lessons of forgiveness. Again, as Jesus says in the Gospels, we’re called to forgive an almost infinite number of times: seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22). Love means always having to say you’re sorry, over and over again.
Jesus’ teaching is clear: we are called to the love of God, and the neighbor as oneself. There is no commandment greater than these (Mk. 12:29-31), as Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark. Our Lord is drawing here from the Old Testament Law in explicating its central meaning, quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus in turn. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40), as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of Matthew. Even the briefest of reflection, for each of us, especially widening the circle beyond our immediate family, will give us abundant examples of the failures of love.
In spite of all this, St. Paul confidently proclaims: “Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8). He’s on solid ground, of course, is spite of human failures. First of all, what Paul is talking about when he talks about love is founded on God’s love of us, as no doubt many preachers have tried to remind the wedding guests and the couple. What we see through the dim mirror that St. Paul describes, in a riddle as it were, is God’s love of us, incredible and hard to grasp as it is, inspiring our love of God and love of neighbor.
The second reason for Paul’s confident proclamation is that the love of God and the love of neighbor forge a path for us into the kingdom of God. His hymn to love, in our reading today, is about our love. He’s contrasting it with other elements of the life of the church, and of the Christian life. “But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (1 Cor. 13:8-10). These things will end, but love will not end. Our love of God and our love of neighbor as ourself will propel us forward into the kingdom that has no end.
Today at Grace Church we celebrate the laying on of hands, praying for a member of the church reaffirming her baptismal vows. We remember our own confirmation, and even perhaps our own baptism. We recall a promise that we’ll all get to say again today: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Love of God and love of neighbor is making a way for us, forging a path ahead. It manifests Christ’s love for us, which we share with others. In this life that Jesus calls us to, there’s need for constant forgiveness, and constant reaffirmation. But be of good cheer: “Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8)!