People are never better than they are on their wedding days. We never look better. We never dress better. We never smell better. We never feel better. We are never better behaved. For most of us, our wedding days are one of the high-water marks of our lives, and the church understands this. And so, the church has traditionally had people play a little game of “let’s pretend” as a part of the wedding ceremony. In fact, it’s my favorite part of the service.
I like to tell the people I marry that it’s when they take each other’s hands, gaze lovingly (not into mine) but into each other’s eyes, and say these words out loud to each other before God and their family and friends that the “magic” happens. This is when the bond of holy matrimony gets established between them. We ask people getting married to say out loud to each other in the presence of witnesses –
In the Name of God, I take you to be my husband or wife (as may be the case), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.
I speak “chuch-ese,” in fact, I’m fluent in it. So, allow me to translate the big fancy words of this traditional wedding vow into common everyday English that we can all understand. After declaring the union that’s being formed in that moment to be the result of a voluntary choice that’s freely being made (“I take you to be my husband/wife”) and affirming the gift of physical intimacy that it involves and promising to always be faithful in its exercise (“To have and to hold from this day forward”), the church asks us to play a little game of “what if” in its standard wedding vow.
“Okay,” the church says. “We hear you.” “You’re telling us that you really want to be with this person in the most intimate, exclusive, faithful, and permanent of ways.” “Great! But look at him or her. They’re beautiful right now. They’re clean and they smell good, they’re polished and well-dressed, they’re fully present in the moment and on their best behavior, they’re happy and their life is all good and full of promise. Who wouldn’t want to be with a person like this?” “But what if those circumstances were to suddenly change?” the church asks. “What if their life was to unexpectedly turn dark and difficult? What if all you could see ahead for him or her was suffering and struggle, would you still be standing here saying those things?” That’s what “for better for worse” means. “And what if they lost everything they owned and had no prospects for ever getting any of it back again? Would you still be as eager to be throwing in your earthly lot with them if that were the case?” That’s what “for richer for poorer” means. “And what if they got sick, their days filled with weakness and pain? Would you still be standing here saying these things to them?” That’s what“in sickness and in health” means.
What the church wants to know by asking these things is if there is any circumstance that you can imagine that would cause your commitment to this person standing across from you to waver or break? And, if so, then perhaps that commitment ought not be made in the first place. As one of my teachers used to say – “People wouldn’t get divorced for such silly reasons if people didn’t get married for such silly reasons.”
The wedding vow ends with the promise – “to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death… this is my solemn vow.” This is a covenant-making statement. In Hebrew, the word for “covenant” means “to cut.” You literally “cut” a covenant in the Old Testament. When entering into a covenant with someone back then, you took a valuable animal from your herd or flock, cut it in two, pulled the two halves apart, grabbed hold of the hand of the person with whom you were entering into covenant, and took a short stroll down the alley between all that guts and gore. The implication was that should the covenant made between them ever be violated, that they were then prepared to be torn asunder just like that of the animal they had just passed through. Covenants were serious business, and so is the covenant of marriage with its talk of solemnity and death at the conclusion of its vow.
Culturally, we’ve reduced “love” to a feeling. I “luv” you. There’s going to be a lot of that this week. Frilly hearts, romantic dinners, flying fat babies, sentimental gifts and cards from the Hallmark store, warm fuzzies all around.
Average spending on Valentine’s Day is expected to be a record $161.96 per person this year… That’s a total of $20.7 billion as we buy cards and candy for our friends, family, co-workers – and pets – making Valentine’s Day the third most “profitable” holiday on the annual calendar right behind Mother’s Day (#2) and Christmas (#1
Love is a feeling that I have for you, and when that feeling changes or goes away, well, then, I just don’t love you anymore. People fall into and out of love all the time. There’s a show on television right now called “Married at First Sight.” You may have seen it. In this ahow couples agree to get married sight unseen. The first time they actually see each other is in church at their weddings. One of the couples on the show this season are already in serious trouble because the groom says that he just doesn’t feel anything for the woman that he married when he kisses her, and he told her so together with the whole wide world because he said it on television. He stood up before God and his community of family and friends, made that wedding vow we were just talking about to this woman, and then almost immediately got buyer’s remorse because of his “feelings.” And here’s the struggle that we have today with love in a nutshell – is it a feeling or is it a decision? Is it about the heart or is it about the head? Is it an act of emotion or is it an act of the will?
I Corinthians 13 is known as the Bible’s love chapter. I’ve performed hundreds of weddings in my 44 years as a licensed and ordained minister, and in nearly all of them this is the Scripture that’s been read, which is interesting to me because nowhere in this text is there any mention of romance, or weddings, or husbands, or wives! There were four standard words for “love” in the language of the New Testament. Three of them described reciprocal arrangements. They were “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” sorts of relationships. Three of the four common words for love in the language of the New Testament were conditional – “I love you because…” or “I’ll love you if…” But the word for love in I Corinthians 13 is different. It’s a word that describes an unconditioned and unconditional kind of love.
Do you remember David Wilkerson and his dramatic story of faith told in his 1962 book The Cross and the Switchblade? When David finally met the violent gang leader Nicky Cruz whom he’d specifically gone to New York City to introduce to Jesus Christ, Nicky threatened to cut David up into a thousand little pieces with his knife. And David told Nicky, “Go ahead, but understand that if you do every one of those thousand pieces are going to say – ‘God loves you, and so do I.” And that’s the kind of love that I Corinthians 13 is talking about, and when I Corinthians is read in a wedding ceremony, it’s the kind of love to which people are committing themselves in a marriage. It’s called “Agape,” and agape is not a soft, sweet, sentimental feeling that comes and goes with blowing winds and shifting tides. No, agape is a strong, solid, unwavering commitment that once made will not change no matter what, and the word for “love” in I John 4:7-12 is this same word – “agape.”
The ancient tradition of the church says that John, the only Apostle not to be killed for being a Christian, finished his long life in Ephesus. Unable to walk, and barely able to speak, John would be carried to church where he would always be asked to share a word. “Little children, love one another,” he would always tell them, so often in fact that people got annoyed with him for always saying the same thing. Finally, somebody asked him, “Teacher, why do you always say this?” And it’s reported that be said – “It’s because this is the Lord’s command, and if we do it, it’s enough” (Hegesippus‘s Memoirs). But more than just our Lord’s command, “agape” was our Lord’s whole purpose. In I John 4:9 we’re told –
“God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him.”
St. Bernard, the man not the dog, said that whenever he meditated on a crucifix that he saw the five wounds of Christ as lips “speaking to us by their bleeding.”
“What are they saying? They are saying with an eloquence far beyond any written words, ‘I love you.’ His wounds are kisses.” (Kreeft)
The cross is the proof of God’s unconditioned and unconditional love for us (Romans 5:8), and our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is the deliberate and consistent way that are told this. Alexander Campbell, one of our founders, said that every time we eat the bread symbolic of Christ’s body given for us and drink the cup symbolic of His blood shed for us that God through the Holy Spirit whispers in our ears – “I did this for you… this is how much I love you.”
God’s unconditioned and unconditional love for us is not a “cross your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in your eye” kind of desperate wishing. No, it’s a hard historical fact firmly rooted and grounded in what God in Jesus Christ did for us on Calvary’s cross. And people who know themselves to be loved like this, in turn, become people who want to love like this. This is why I Corinthians 13 is such a good wedding text. Because I Corinthians 13 tells us how we are loved, it instructs us in how we are to love. As Paul told the Ephesians in one of the Bible’s great teachings on marriage – “husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her…” (5:25).
Robertson McQuilkin was a theologian who work I knew and appreciated. The widely respected President of a College and Seminary in South Carolina for 22 years, Robertson McQuilkin’s wife, Muriel, got Alzheimer’s, and he eventually resigned his post in order to spend the rest of his life taking care of her. It was a choice that surprised lots of people because he was such highly regarded Christian thinker and leader who was making such important contributions to the life of the church. When asked to explain his choice, Dr. McQuilkin said –
When the time came, the decision was firm. It took no great calculation. It was a (simple) matter of integrity. Had I not promised, 42 years before, “in sickness and in health… till death do us part”? Muriel cared for me for almost four decades with such marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. If I took care of her for (the next) 40 years, I would never be out of her debt. But this was no grim duty to which I was stoically resigned. I love Muriel. She is a delight to me – her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I don’t have to care for her. I get to care for her! It is a high honor for me to care for so wonderful a person.
In one of his books the late George Mallone told a story about a group of mountain climbers who lost several of their companions when they slipped and fell to their deaths during the descent. When the government officials who were investigating the accident questioned the survivors about what had happened and what they had done to try and prevent it from happening, they survivors silently opened their hands and to show them the rope burns.
The kind of love with which we are loved has rope-burned hands, and the kind of love to which we are called will leave us with rope burned hands. Let there be no confusion about this. Hollywood isn’t where we turn this morning to learn what love is and what love does, it’s Calvary’s cross that does that does this for us as Christians, and when we look to that cross what we see is not the kind of love that is a fragile, fleeting feeling, but rather, what we see is a love that is resolved and relentless, a love that will not let us go. And when we are loved with this kind of love, it informs and inspires the way we are called to love – “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (I John 4:11). It is enough…