St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Chaplaincy, Manchester, on 13th May 2012
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 is perhaps one of the best known of all his sonnets. It certainly makes many frequent appearances at weddings. But I often wonder: why? The view of love in this poem is quite desperate, and does not at all seem to reflect the way we experience love in our twenty-first century world. It suggests that the bride and groom pledging their lives to one another will encounter times when their love, so solid at the moment of marriage, will alter, may be removed and will suffer through tempests. The love expected by the sonnet is a doomed, lonely love, which will continue even after one partner no longer reciprocates it. It is therefore a picture of a love so self-sacrificing, so all-encompassing and so constant that it does not seem human at all. Shakespeare even recognises this himself; his wry comment at the end ‘If this be error, and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved’ challenges us to find fault with his definition of love whilst admitting that we, ourselves, are incapable of fulfilling it. But, says the wisdom of our own modern world, is this even a sensible view of love to adhere to? Is it healthy to continue loving after the person you love has stopped loving you? After all, despite what movies tell us, the one thing that separates a romantic lover’s gesture from the actions of a stalker is reciprocation. A tall order, the reader thinks, then, for any man to love at all!
But there is one man who has managed it. Jesus’ human love was even more incredible than the love in this sonnet. We have heard in John 15 that, ‘No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Certainly Jesus did die for his friends. He died for all his disciples, who had followed him with so many professions of love for him and his teaching, and yet many of whom had fallen aside and were mysteriously absent at his crucifixion. He died for friends who denied him, disowned him and disbelieved in him when he came back from the dead. Their love, like the love of Sonnet 116, was prone to being bent, being ruptured and being withdrawn. But Jesus did not just die for these friends, with their earnest, yet frail love. He also died for those who did not love him at all; for those who had never reciprocated his love; for those who tortured him; for those he prayed would be forgiven even as he hung, struggling for breath on the cross. He also died for those in the generations to come who would not be bothered to get to know him, for those who would hear a little about him and fail to understand it, for those who would ridicule him and disbelieve in him. All of these people fell under his category of ‘friends’, despite the fact they did not and do not return his love for them. Jesus’ love, therefore, is unique.
We so often claim love as a specifically human thing: something which sets us apart from the other animals on God’s small green planet. We think we know exactly what it is, and why it defines us as a race: human beings are a race that can love, reason and develop moral systems. We love being in love, producing a huge volume of literature, plays, films, artwork, frilly pink valentine’s cards, dating forums and marketing materials on the subject every year. We sing that love is a many splendoured thing, all you need is love, love is all we need. We send each other messages of love. One of the nicest love messages I have ever read is written inside my Mum’s copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In my Dad’s curly 1960s handwriting, you can still see, forty years on, the inscription ‘You live somewhere in this book. Thank you for being there.’ Love makes us feel good, it makes us feel safe, it makes us feel nice.
But there is also an unwritten understanding between all humans that our love works within certain limits. These limits depend on the behaviour of those we profess to love. How many times have we heard a toddler say ‘I hate you’, or ‘I don’t love you any more’ when they lose at a game, or are not allowed to have some treat in a supermarket? How many times have we seen love lost between adults, as relationships fracture and grow stale between husband and wife, best friends, brother and sister, governments and their people, countries and their neighbours? We always seem to feel that love, even between incredibly close people, has limits: there so often seems to be a point, whether it is an action or something hurtful said, beyond which we feel we can no longer love someone.
Even more dangerously, because we have this awareness of our own limitations in loving, we also put limits on God’s love. This appears in several forms. It can take the form of guilt. We can say to ourselves that what we have done is so awful, so terrible, so sinful, that even God cannot forgive us. We say this because we don’t feel that we can ever love or forgive ourselves, and so ascribe that same feeling to God. We also fall into the trap of explicitly or implictly telling others that God cannot love them if they behave in a certain way. How many Christians around the world feel they are ‘hiding’ their true selves from their friends and companions in their churches, because they think they will not be accepted or loved just as they are? How many have felt that their beliefs, needs, passions or desires do not ‘fit in’ to the definitions permitted in their spiritual communities, and how many have felt that they therefore also cannot fit God’s models of love? What else is the debate about gay marriages in Christian churches but a debate about the definitions of the ways and spaces in which ‘love’ can or should be expressed?
But who are we to say that we have the power to commit a sin so bad that even God cannot love us? Or squeeze God’s love into so small a little box, be it a literalist, middle class, gendered, political or ethnic box, that it cannot possibly burst free and extend to encompass every diverse and beautiful and flawed individual in the world? God’s love will not be limited. It refuses to be. The Gospels are full of Jesus reaching out and loving those whom the logic of his world said he should not: the disabled, the diseased, the ostracised, the foreign, the sinners, the tax collectors; even the slaves of the occupying Roman centurions. His love did not fit within the expectations of his places of worship either, and, as a result, he was punished for it.
Jesus’ love for us did not make him feel good. It did not make him feel safe. It did not make him feel nice. Not was it limited in any way. But as we have heard in the reading from the gospel of John, he has challenged us to love each other in the same way; to ‘love one another as I have loved you.’ This means that we too have to learn to love in a limitless way, to love strangers who cannot reciprocate our love, to love those we feel we have little in common with, to love as brothers and sisters those we know do not love us. Not an easy command. But Jesus has also promised that this command is not a burden: in fact, it is meant to release us from the burdens of the world. Alone, we will always struggle with loving unconditionally, but with faith, 1 John 5 says, we can ‘conquer the world.’
And why is this need for disciples of Christ to love given as a command? My parents had a simple way of bringing me up. If they wanted me to do or to not do something, they would tell me exactly why. ‘Don’t play by the fire; it is hot’. ‘Make sure you share your birthday cake with your friends.’ ‘If you stay up too late it will be horrible going to school tomorrow.’ When I was inevitably disobedient, they did not respond by covering everything hot or sharp in our house, forcing me to have an early bedtime or making me share my cake. I played by the fire and found out that it was, indeed, hot. I discovered that, at the age of six, the more cake you share with your friends the more friends you have and the less of a stomach ache. I stayed up reading under the bedclothes until midnight; the alarm went off at 7am and yes, I did have a horrible day at school (OK, so maybe I didn’t learn that lesson particularly well!). So Jesus’ command for us to love one another has nothing to do with his need, as both human and deity, to be venerated and loved. It has everything to do with what is best for us. He commands us to love each other in order to secure own happiness in the world: ‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.’
Imagine the freedom of loving as Jesus does.The freedom of seeing every human being as an opportunity for friendship, rather than a threat. The freedom of being unable to hold grudges and to know that your love for someone can never be revoked or damaged. The ability to let go of prejudice, hurt, envy and arguments. Imagine the joy and peace you would feel if you loved as Jesus loves us. This is why, when Jesus commands us to love, he commands us as friends, rather than as servants. By placing us on the same level as him he places his trust in us, giving us a chance to bear fruit and love like him.
If any love, therefore, can be considered to be ‘the star to every wandering bark’, it is that given to us in the example of Jesus. He accepts that we will be tempest-tossed, that our love will be frail and easily diminished, and that we will often fail in following the simple commandment to follow him in love. But it does not matter, because he is constant; his love is there to be our guide. And it is in celebrating the limitlessness of Jesus’ love, not the petty limitations we place upon our own love, that we will come to find joy. I know it is often so easy to approach our faith sombrely, seriously, rather than with a child-like excitement, joy and wonder at the love we find in it. But what would happen if, the next time we started to flick through the pages of our Bibles, we remembered to say; ‘Jesus, you live somewhere in this book. Thank you for being there’?