Rich and Ben, great friends, asked me to speak on the occasion of the service of prayer and dedication after their civil partnership last Saturday. They called it their wedding. A number of people have asked what I said (it is the first occasion I have done this). So the text follows. Critique welcome.
Ben and Rich. Congratulations. We're all delighted for you. You look happy. You look good and by your influence you've made everyone else look good. The only blessing, partnership, wedding or ceremony I've ever been to where I've spent the week before worrying that my shoes might be wrong.
And thank you for asking me to speak. Ben and Rich were aware that in asking ordained ministers in the Church of England to speak at, or conduct, this occasion, they were asking us to do something that would not meet with wholehearted approval from all our colleagues.
For me, I had decided a while ago that this was something I could do and wanted to do but I'm grateful to Ben and Rich for inviting me and making me (because I'm basically lazy) think about what I wanted to say.
The Corinthian correspondence, Paul's letters to the Corinthians and their letters to him, is something we only have extracts from in our Bibles. We have two of Paul's probably three letters and we don't have their letters to him. The Corinthian church was struggling with some ethical issues. When Paul gets to the great hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 he is not writing a lovey-dovey poem, but a corrective. He is writing about the primacy of love – agapé not eros – to a bunch of people, who seem to have, literally, lost it. They have been disputing relatively minor matters and forgotten a major one. The greatest one.
Tongues – a special language of praise and worship.
Prophecy – to foretell the future and speak God's words.
Intelligence – fathoming mysteries.
Knowledge – fact retention.
Faith – even faith that moves mountains.
Generosity – giving all I have to the poor.
Well a Christian who had all these gifts would seem to be in a very privileged position. How could a church fail with that lot?
But, surprisingly, the church was not going swimmingly as this stuff was being argued about. The gifts were proving divisive not unifying.
So Paul suggests that agapé (old versions of the Bible translate it as charity) a concern for others, especially other Christians, in this context, is the missing bit. If we love one another that can be the context for our arguments, disputes, discussions and disagreements. And if we can't see the relevance of that to a lifelong, to the exclusion of all others, relationship then we are missing a trick.
God is big. So I get full marks for an obvious statement. The Old Testament understanding of God was that his brightness, when he showed up from time to time in person, was blinding. You couldn't look at him. Moses had to take his shoes off. Isaiah had to have his lips cleansed with fire. Priests who had been into the holy of holies changed their clothes when they came out to avoid people being too struck by the holiness.
Paul says that trying to understand God, who the Bible teaches is like that, is impossible. If he shows up you have to look away. And if you look away then your understanding of God will be like seeing 'a poor reflection in a mirror.' Paul looks forward to one day seeing face to face.
In the meantime we live in a world where some feel the Bible's literal teaching makes what Ben and Rich do today wrong. Others feel comfortable that there is 2-3,000 years of cultural change between us and this book and what is important is lifelong, to the exclusion of all others commitment. Either way we have to respect each other and live together so we celebrate with Ben and Rich the whole beautiful mess of eros and agapé which so fills up our senses yet is still something we see without clarity and one day we will see face to face.
I truly believe that one day, in eternity, someone in the heavenly realms will offer me a drink that will be so beautiful, so wonderful that it will be the culmination of all my attempts to drink every real ale in the land seeking the one. If your tipple is wine, or you seek the perfect pasta, steak or cake the same may happen. And to relationships the same applies. Which is why Jesus told a questioner that he had misunderstood heaven if he thought there was marriage there. There will be something that makes us realise what we were after in these human relationships, even compared to the heights that these relationships can reach.
These guys have made a covenant. Not 'I will do this if you do that,' but 'I will do this...' regardless. We are their witnesses and we need to keep them to their commitment. That's agapé. They need to live every day for the rest of their lives with this decision. Long after eros has passed away (and I hope it doesn't for ages) agapé will be the guiding force.
This side of heaven we get near, from time to time, to seeing face to face. When the wine ran out, when the prodigal came home, the gospel writers had only only thing to say of Jesus' ideas – let's party. Well done. Here's to the next 75 years together - silver, pearl, gold, diamond and finally oxygen.
We agapé you both.
I added in the middle a story about my grandparents 54 years of marriage and at the beginning some warnings about drinking the Leamington Spa spa water, as light relief.