I found it difficult to suppress a smile when I re-read this verse as I prepared today's sermon. Now, St Paul is not known for foolish , starry-eyed optimism about human nature, but it's worth noting that he is addressing Christians here. And he pleads with them to be humble and gentle, and to be patient with and tolerant of each other, all in the same sentence. Do you think he might be making a point? The fact that an essential first step to love among Church members is mutual forbearance is certainly interesting.
Forbearing (which could be translated as tolerating) one another is here seen as a key element of love. It turns out that a large part of caring for each other is putting up with each other! You might call this a very practical, down-to-earth truth. It's not just that we have to forgive other Christians if they sin against us, though we do. The truth is that people will often “rub us the wrong way” even when they intend us no harm and are not knowingly doing wrong against us. People are annoying. I am annoying and so are you. Sometimes despite our best efforts. If you think of yourself as pretty inoffensive, I can pretty much guarantee there's somebody who can't stand your particular mode of inoffensiveness. You see, all of us have our idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and other features that irritate some people. This very fact should remind us to control our reactions to what we see as the weaknesses of others.
One of the silliest things we can do is be angry with people who have not actually sinned. Anger should be reserved for moral failure. Anywhere else, it is a mere temper tantrum indulged in because a person has been inconvenient to us.
Now, none of this may seem a particular concern for our small, friendly parish. But our relationships within the Church, with other Christians, generally go beyond our congregation. And all our relationships, even those outside the membership of the Church, need to express these principles as far as it lies in us (Romans 12:18).
So, St Paul realises that, community of Christians though we be as the Church, human sin and human frailty will require self-discipline from us if we are not to become fractured and furious. Forebearance means not giving in to the temptation to strike out or strike back when one or more of the brethren harm us or just annoy us. And, of course, it means even more than that.
As well as crucifying over-reaction from immoderate anger, we must actively make peace. That is why St Paul tells us to endeavour to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. So, another down-to-earth truth is that this peace-making requires effort. Love is hard work. This shouldn't need saying, but it does because it's easy for us to confuse mere soft sentiment with the real act of the will that is love.
As Christians we have access to the grace of the Spirit, and God dwells in us, as I have often mentioned and as is repeated again in today's Epistle. But that does not change the fact that we must cooperate with this grace and strive to avoid sin and practise virtue. Grace means that we can do this, and do it with heavenly effectiveness. Apart from inward grace we have the outward grace of the wisdom St Paul reveals to us here: our unity and therefore our peace with one another is grounded in the unity of our faith and baptism and in the one God who is our common Father, the one Lord whose Body we receive and become, the one Spirit who inspires that Body. Spiritually, we are already as stuck with one another as Siamese Twins are physically, conjoined “bodily”. The fact that, in addition, St Paul mentions the one hope to which we are all called should give us pause. Think of it this way. We have to get used to each other. We're spending eternity together!