For Better for Worse, for Richer for Poorer
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: 1 John 4:7-21
I think it’s really important to remember that nothing in the Bible was written in a vacuum. Actually, a lot of our Bible started as oral stories, passed down in song or poetry from generation to generation until some king or priest thought it wise to write them down.
And let’s not be naive: whenever a king or priest wrote anything down, they had a reason, maybe even an agenda. Their context and aspirations informed what they wrote down and how. We see this in real time in the Hebrew Bible. Have you ever noticed that the two books of Kings tell the same story as the two books of Chronicles? They just tell them from two very different perspectives, aiming for two very different ends.
If we were to ask someone in Klamath Falls about their experience of the pandemic over the past year, you’d probably get a very different response than if you asked someone in Portland. Neither perspective would be wrong. It’s just both would be informed by their very different contexts and situations.
So we need to remember that everything we read in the Bible was also informed by the author’s (or the scribe’s) very different contexts and very different experiences and very different intentions.
Which is why we need to be careful when we read the first letter of John. Because if we read it divorced from its context, divorced from the author’s intention, we could miss the whole point.
And let me just say, I have been very guilty of this in the past. I mean, just listen to this:“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Doesn’t that sound great? All we have to do is believe in a God who is love and love people and just have love in our hearts. And isn’t love just a warm feeling we have towards each other when we like each other? Or maybe that sweet feeling when our dog cuddles up to us or our grandchild gives us a hug? Or that fluttery feeling when we think a person might be The One?
Well, to be honest with you, that is not remotely what the writers of 1 John were talking about. This letter came out of a specific Christ-following community rooted specifically in the teaching and lineage of John, the Beloved Disciple, the evangelist. In fact, most scholars believe that this letter was written before John’s gospel, and that it reflects some of the earlier beliefs that were eventually incorporated and refined in the gospel.
Anyways, things were not going well with the John-inspired Jesus followers. Some folks had split off. They had different ideas about Jesus.
The writer’s answer to this impending schism? It’s in the very first word we hear in today’s epistle: beloved. The original Greek word used is agapetoi which, yes, translates to beloved, but also translates to “worthy of love.” Another pastor described the word as “the grace of God in a single word.”
And theologian Clifton Black explains it like this: “Contrary to our inclination toward the quid pro quo, God has decided in our favor apart from our ability to reciprocate, gracing us with love prior to and independent of any response we might offer, for no reason other than that love is the very nature of God that is knowable by human beings.”
Let me say that in a less academic way: the only way we can know and experience God in this world is through love, and God’s love is more expansive than we can possibly imagine. God’s love isn’t measured by what we deserve. It’s not measured by who’s right and who’s wrong. God’s love is always there, waiting for us to accept it and let it change us, to take it up and live it, to give it in the same way it’s given to us: freely.
That’s what the writer of First John was trying to say to that slowly splintering community: the only way we’re going through this difficult time is if we love each other the way God loves us.
This month on the 19th, Rachel and I will celebrate our third wedding anniversary. Every year as the day approaches I look over our wedding liturgy again. Our vows were a bit of a mashup between the tradition and the newer Episcopal liturgy for same-sex couples. They really struck me when I reread them this week, particularly as I was reflecting on the lectionary. They seemed to capture the kind of love the epistle was talking about.
That day, I said:
I, Sara, give myself to you, Rachel, and take you to myself:
Loving what I know of you, trusting what I don’t yet know,
with respect to your integrity, and faith in your abiding love for me.
I give myself to you and take you to myself:
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,
till death do us part.
The first part of these vows describes how we’ll love each other: with trust, respect, and faith. The second part describes under what conditions we promise to give that love to each other: for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.
So my only question is, why do we reserve this kind of love only for our partners? I understand why we would need to be more intentional about giving this love to our partners because honestly they’re around more, they push our buttons more. That relationship is far more likely to be challenging on a regular basis than maybe any other. We NEED to remember the kind of love we promised to share with them in order to honor the commitment we made.
But isn’t that exactly what First John is talking about? Things are really hard in our community, the epistle is saying. We’re fracturing. We’re falling away from each other. So we need to remember God’s love.
Things are really hard in our country right now. We’re fracturing. We’re falling away from each other. So we need to remember God’s love.
We are called to engage one another with trust, respect, and faith, not only when things are good, when everyone’s thriving and healthy, but also when things are rough. Especially when things are rough.
And let’s remember: Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to draw a boundary and not enable hurtful behavior. When I was a street chaplain, we used to say to people who were threatening themselves or others, “we need you to leave for now, but you can come back when you can be safe and respectful.”
Time after time, Jesus drew boundaries with those seeking to harm him. My wife and I draw boundaries with each other when we need to, especially when one of us is not at our best, when we’re being careless with each other. I draw boundaries with some of my family when I need to. People of color draw boundaries with white folks when they need to. Queer folks draw boundaries with certain kinds of Christians when they need to.
Boundaries are also an act of love.
Ideally, even divorce—or the end of any big relationship—comes out of that kind of love. It’s not a failure, it’s the acknowledgment that two people simply aren’t capable of meeting one another’s needs anymore. Because sometimes the most trusting, respectful, faithful way to love someone is to give them space and let someone else meet the needs we can’t meet.
You hear in a lot of Christian wedding liturgies, including the Episcopal rite, that a marriage between two people is symbolic of Christ’s relationship with the Church, of God’s relationship with God’s people. But First John actually says it’s the other way around. The way God loves us is the way we need to love each other, not only our partners, not only our family and friends, but everyone in our community, especially when it’s hard. Amen.