I Cor. 13
John 15: 5-17
The gospel text for today invites us to reflect on the relationship between friendship, obedience, sacrifice, and love. But the occasion of the day invites us to try to understand how friendship, obedience, sacrifice, and love are important for marriage. This seems to present no great difficulty, as we naturally associate these aspects of our lives with marriage—indeed we tend to think marriage is the paradigm instance of love—they go together like a horse and carriage. It is therefore tempting simply to take the texts for this ceremony as an excuse to wax eloquent about the relation of love and marriage, friendship and marriage, etc.
Yet to follow such a strategy avoids the force of this text from John, for as so often in John, Jesus does not just tell us to be loving—he commands us to be loving. Nor does Jesus say that he is ready to be our friend without reservations; rather we are his friends if we do what he commands. For, as he reminds us, we did not choose him, we did not claim him as our friend, but he chose us that we might bear fruit. Thus, Jesus does not make some general recommendation that it would be a nice thing if we were to be loving in a manner consistent with being his friend. Therefore, the question cannot be, what is the relationship between marriage and love, but between marriage and the kind of love and friendship that Jesus commands.
Rather than taking on that question directly, I would ask us to reflect a little on our assumption that there is a natural relationship between love and marriage, friendship and marriage, sacrifice and marriage. For in spite of our strong assumption that love is connected with marriage, indeed that it is the very essence of marriage, it is unclear what we mean by this. For example, we soon learn that the feelings, emotions, and choices that we call love in the first blush of our relationship often have little in common with what we find marriage necessarily must become. The sheer joy we feel at being recognized by another often gets lost in the tedium of our lives; or worse, we find such recognition can only be sustained at the exorbitant price of the loss of self. We will do almost anything to command the gaze of the other, even if it means leading the life they choose for us, rather than the life we would choose for ourselves.
For genuine love requires the recognition of the other as other—i.e., as a being not under our power. Instead, we often assume that that love is greater the more each shares in a common purpose that diminishes our otherness. Such a notion of love gives the basis for the most perverse forms of love as the self avenges its loss by hating as well as loving the other. Thus, as we become the object of such perverse love (a love, to be sure, that is often celebrated as the highest ideal because it asks great sacrifices from us) we are recognized as somebody who has our name and our looks—but who is denied recognition as the other.
Such perverse love is often represented as the deepest kind of friendship between a husband and a wife. But often such friendship is bought with the heavy price of preventing the other to grow or to have friends. For even though we know how marvelous friendship is, we know it also is transitory. The move to another town, the reading of a new book, the development of another friendship can cause vast changes in, or even destroy, an old friendship. Such changes threaten friendship because they genuinely change the self and thus change the terms of the friendship. Thus, friendship can limit us as much as it provides the context for flourishing, for often we choose not to grow in order not to threaten the friendship we do have. It is a strong friendship that can stand the threat of a new friend! Indeed that is exactly why marriage is such a significant event, for after this day, those being married cannot and should not ever be able to love their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, or their friends the same again.
Not only does marriage affect all our other friendships, but even to think of marriage itself as a friendship is an odd thing. For marriage must be the strangest of friendships, as it is undertaken exactly with the assumption that even though each will change, the friendship must endure. Of course, marriage can be sustained by the purposes of the institution, a viable economic unit for the having and good rearing of children in a manner that does not demand love or friendship. Yet we in the Christian tradition are obligated to hold to the notion that marriage must also take the form of friendship—to be sure, an obligation that destroys as many of us as it helps.
For the flaw in personal love, even without its romantic perversions, in marriage and without, is its particularity; that is, its incapacity to embrace many individuals at once. The relationship between lovers cannot be repeated an indefinite number of times in an individual’s life; it will be overwhelmed by the strangeness of persons to each other.
The limits of our ability to love, however, help us to see the extraordinary claim made about love and friendship Jesus declares he has for each of us. For it is exactly the characteristic of divine love that it can be both personal, that is particular, and universal; that it can reach out to everyone without losing the character of a unique relationship to each person if not to each thing in the world. The miracle of God’s love is that he can and does love each of us as other than himself without becoming less of a friend to any of us. Thus, we are commanded (John 15) to love the other, but to love as those who are first loved of such a God. For God’s love stretches our souls as he makes us his friends by freeing us of our preoccupation with ourselves and thus opening us to friendships with others. It is this kind of love that provides the means for marriage between Christians, for it forms us into a community that must be ready to accept the challenge of new life to which such love must give birth.
It is God’s command to love, therefore, that has given Christians the courage to demand that marriage involve love and friendship. For the love that we bring to marriage must be the love that is based on, trained, and made fast by the conviction that we can regard the other as other without being destroyed. We do not have the capacity to love all as God loves, but by making us his friends, he has at least given us the confidence that such a love is not impossible in this existence.
Thus we are commanded to love one another, not because we do not wish to love, but because we must learn to love as he has taught us—namely in a way that does not use the sacrifices love occasions to control and gain power over the other. For just as we must be trained to love without regret, so we must be trained to know how to sacrifice in a way that is not another form of manipulation. For the love that Paul praises—that which is patient, kind, that is not jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude, that does not insist on its own way, that is not irritable or resentful, that bears all things—can be a terribly destructive love if the self is not trained to bear it.
But our friendship with Christ trains us in those skills of regarding others in a manner that increases our friendship with husband or wife. For Jesus has made us participants, his disciples, in his task by sharing all he knows about the father with us. And what he has shared with us is that God loves us without controlling us, that his love is all-powerful exactly because it is freely given and thus does not need power to be fruitful. As husbands and wives, therefore, our friendship has a basis that can provide the trust that not only allows us to grow in friendship with each other, but gives others a standing to be our friends.
Thus, it seems right that we associate these passages about love with marriage, but we must remember that it is not just any love that we speak of here, but a love that is based on the command of Christ. Such a love does not seek power or security, but seeks to rejoice in the sheer existence of the other. Moreover, as H. R. Niebuhr suggests:
Love is gratitude: it is thankfulness for the existence of the beloved; it is the happy acceptance of everything that he gives without jealous feeling that the self ought to be able to do as much; it is a gratitude that does not seek equality; it is wonder over the other's gift of himself in companionship. Love is reverence; it keeps its distance even as it draws near; it does not seek to absorb the other; it desires the beloved to be what he is and does not seek to refashion him into a replica of the self or to make him a means to the self's advancement. As reverence love is and seeks knowledge of the other not by way of curiosity nor for the sake of gaining power, but in rejoicing and wonder. Love is loyalty it is the willingness to let the self be destroyed rather than the other cease to be.
But such a love of respect, gratitude, reverence, and loyalty is possible in marriage exactly because of the commitment we share as friends of Christ. Thus, in the name of Jesus, and speaking for the church gathered here today and throughout the ages, to those being married, I command you to love one another. We pray that God will give you and us the power to fulfill such a command.