No matter how many fairy lights, string quartets, organza bags and blushing bridesmaids there are, it seems that no wedding is complete without someone standing up and reading 1 Corinthians 13. This excerpt from a letter written to a church halfway between Sparta and Athens brings a bit of true Greek wedding style to the most traditional of marriage ceremonies. They have become some of the most quoted verses of the Bible and resonate with many marrying couples, whether Christians or not. These beautiful words, are the ones we persistently choose to attach to one of the most important days in their lives.
There is a good reason for this. They describe the way we want to be loved. We want someone to love us patiently and kindly, without envy, boasting or pride. We want someone to love us sacrificially, unconditionally and unfailingly.
We rightly set the bar high on these important occasions. Yet we are also aware that the words alone cannot guarantee a lifetime of this idealised picture of love. Too many couples who start off so well-intentioned and hopelessly in love end up lovelessly hopeless, with talk of divorce and custody rights. There is a huge gap between the promise of these words and the reality of our lives. But there is hope.
Paul’s inspiring words occur in a letter addressed not to a starry-eyed marrying couple, but to a quarrelling church. I wonder if they would be so popular if the original context was understood. The church was racked with dispute, disunity and disintegration. It was neither loving nor kind. The letter begins by addressing the divisions in the church, with different factions arguing over which leader to follow. This was not a church that ‘does not dishonour others’. There was blatant sexual immorality including one man sleeping with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5: 1-13) and others visiting prostitutes (6: 12-20). The congregation kept a record of wrongs to the degree that some church members were even taking their grievances to court. They were impatient, jumping the queue in communion and not saving food for those behind them (1 Corinthians 11). They were unkind, criticising each other for what they were eating outside of the church (1 Corinthians 8-11). Paul writes boldly about the characteristics of love precisely because the people he was writing to didn’t seem to get it one bit.