St Nicholas of Flüe is the patron saint of Switzerland. He lived in the 15th century, and he was a farmer who became a military leader, a member of local government, and a judge. He was also a devout Christian, who was respected as a man of complete moral integrity. In the latter part of his life he became a spiritual guide whose advice was widely sought and followed.
There is a story that he was confronted on one occasion with a long-standing quarrel between rival groups of Swiss which threatened civil war. So he preached a sermon in which he held up a rope with a knot in it.
He asked the mixed congregation of worshippers from opposing sides how he could unfasten the knot. He said that if the persons on opposite ends of the rope continued to pull on the rope, the knot would only get tighter. And if one side gave up, the other side would only pull further away. The knot would remain and the problem would not be resolved.
There was only one way to undo the knot: both sides must give up their stubbornness, put their heads together, and with united effort, pluck away at the knot. So Nicholas persuaded the opposing sides, and civil war was avoided.
When I’ve done marriage preparation or run a marriage refreshment course, I’ve done something similar: I have used an exercise called the ten steps for resolving couple conflict. The most important step is the first. The couple agree on a time and a place for further discussion. That’s when the two ends of the rope are brought together, to begin the work of unraveling the knots in their relationship.
St Paul, in the reading for today, writes about the whole variety of human relationships: he speaks of the necessity of love, how it behaves, and how it will never end.
When St Nicholas of Flüe was dealing with the knot in the rope, he was working largely with externals; he was engaged in the process of conflict solving. But relationships with real depth, which witness to the presence of Christ, have done internal work as well. In Christian terms, there is a heart transplant.
St Paul describes love as patient and kind; it is not envious or boastful, proud, rude or self-seeking. It has the positive characteristics of rejoicing with the truth, and it always protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres.
These qualities don’t increase naturally. They require a slow, inner transformation in the crucible of daily life.
Crucible is an interesting word. It can mean a ceramic or metal container where metals are brought together under very high heat. The heat causes a separation: the desired pure metal can be skimmed off the top, and the unwanted sludge settles to the bottom. Crucible can also mean a situation of severe trial leading to something new. It comes from a very old word meaning a night lamp hanging in front of a crucifix. Hence, crucible. The crucible of daily life are the hot metal trials we face, where the Holy Spirit can do the work of transforming of lives.
You might think the characteristics of love that St Paul is talking about are feminine qualities. But they are also masculine qualities, because they require strength of character to live out in practice. As Christians we recognise them as human qualities, necessary for a marriage, and necessary for building community.
St Paul also hints at some of the negative sides of love which should be avoided: irritability, resentfulness, and the like. They can have unfortunate effects.
Today we know of another dimension to the human personality, the psychological dimension. We know that for some the hurts and wounds incurred in relationships can be so deep and so painful that a person cannot do the one thing that makes love last, which is to forgive.
Forgiveness can seem so unfair, because it seems to let the other person off the hook, so that they get away with what they have done. This is a tough one, difficult even for the Christian to bear. I know, because I have been there. In divorce recovery workshops, of which I led many, we taught that we forgive the other person to gain our own peace, because to hold on to unforgiveness is hurting only ourselves. We forgive the other person in order to be set free ourselves.
Maybe this is the release for the captives that Jesus said he came to accomplish. Because in unforgiveness we are allowing ourselves to be held captive to another, even if they are not aware of it. Jesus himself knew how to be released from the binding of his captors: hanging on the cross he prayed that they might be forgiven. In saying this, he forgave them. So his spirit was completely free when he cried, ‘It is finished.’
Yesterday in America was Groundhog Day. There is a legend that says that if a groundhog comes out of its burrow on the 2nd of February and sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. There was a movie made about the legend in the 1990’s. A very cynical reporter comes to the famous town of the groundhog on the 2nd of February to report the event. He stays in a local motel, wakes up the next day, and starts to relive that day over and over again in a time loop. He finally comes to his senses and decides to use all the extra days he has been given to help other people. The curse of the endless loop is lifted when he blesses the day he has just lived. And his reward is that the day is taken from him. By ditching cynicism for a more open-hearted approach to life, he prevents the same old story repeating itself day after day. The treadmill of modern life is broken for him when he finds love.
All of us are pilgrims, making discoveries as we go through life. The greatest discovery we can make is acquiring love. Should you be blessed to be in a one-to-one life-giving relationship, you make the pilgrim’s journey in the weaving together of your lives. The Christian community is the crucible where we learn to love beyond our family ties and outwards to the wider world.
As we stay close to God, the success of living out the beautiful words of St Paul are greatly increased. We can approach all the difficult knots in our life with new courage, as the prospect of sharing love increases.