If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.
I John 4:20-21 (The Message Version)
A wedding homily preached by Tommy Airey for Eliisa & Peter Croce-Bojanic (right, September 18, 2016, on Belle Isle, Detroit, MI).
God and people: you’ve got to love both. Sounds so simple. But the author of these sacred words from First John knew what an extreme challenge that this real, gritty, self-donating love presented. In fact, in the Gospel of John and all three letters that bear John’s name, there is only one ethical command provided for readers: to love. And because love is such a contested concept, because there are so many ideas floating around about what local and organic ingredients actually constitute love’s recipe, John holds up the cross of Jesus as the ultimate symbol:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
The theologian James McClendon used to remind his seminary students as they studied the end of the Gospels, that “there should have been 13 crosses.” Jesus, however, died alone, executed as a dissident by the Roman Empire, the inevitable consequence of prophetic practice in a world of violence and injustice. One of his male disciples betrayed him while the other eleven male disciples went running for cover. And, at the end of the story, all the women show up, bearing witness at the cross and the empty tomb.
Peter and Eliisa, when we gaze at the cross long enough, we are reminded that when God took on human flesh in Jesus, his life and death were a subversive display of what 1st century Palestinian society dismissed as feminine virtues: nurturing, forgiving, supportive, inclusive, cooperative, humbly serving, vulnerably sharing, weeping over injustice, never afraid or ashamed to ask others for help. The cross of Jesus unveils a brand of love that calls us to break the mold and stop the cycle of violence, dying to our own petty images and agendas. It is ecological, not egological. Marriage, in fact, might just be the best opportunity we have to practice this bold revolution.
Dr. Cornel West, perhaps our greatest contemporary American public intellectual, describes the task like this:
Love is the most difficult, the most dangerous, the most subversive force in the world. When you are talking about love, you are talking about a steadfast commitment to the well-being of others and you are willing to do what it takes to make sure that their humanity is always affirmed.
Indeed, love is a feeling, but unless it is conjugated into a verb that prods us far beyond our own legacy projects, it will become stale and static. It will succumb to our anger and anxiety, our fears and fantasies, our intellectualizing and catastrophizing, our blaming and shaming.
Peter and Eliisa, you are both well-equipped to receive this challenging word and to radically experiment with it in the laboratory of marriage. It is no more insane than riding a skateboard down a steep San Francisco hill without pads or a helmet. It is no more daunting than graduating from med school in a foreign land thousands of miles from home. You’ve been friends since you’ve been driving and you have endured the laments of long distance over the past four years of Operation Crojanic. You have what it takes to rise to the daily challenge of taking personal inventory, of practicing spiritual disciplines and of cultivating a prophetic imagination. And if you do, love will have the run of your house.
But at this moment in time, as you take up permanent residence in a life of love together, here at this altar constructed on land long ago seized from the precious Huron, Odawa and Ojibwe peoples and then sold to some white dude for five barrels of rum and a belt of wampum, as you graze at this sacred place and gaze at that scandalous cross—may these be continual reminders of the powerful ripple effect cultivated by a marriage covenanted in prophetic practices like dying to self, confessing privilege, naming pain cycles, speaking truth to power and bearing each other’s burdens. After all, as Oscar Romero consistently preached, love must win out; it is the only thing that can.