"Let's Talk About Love"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
February 3, 2019
Amos 5:6-15; Luke 4:14-30
Let’s Talk “Love. Love is what brings us together today.”
That’s a paraphrase from the climactic wedding scene in a great love story – first a novel and then a film – called “The Princess Bride.” It’s a story within a story. In the framing story, a seemingly gruff grandfather reads a favorite book to his grandson who is sick and home from school for a few days. The book he reads, The Princess Bride, is about the most beautiful woman in the world – Buttercup, the pig-keeper who loves her – Westly, and the evil prince who wants to possess her. Of course, the grandson is disgusted by the mushy parts – the kissing and the rapt adoration of the main characters for one another. There is, wrapped up in the story, perhaps every type of love imaginable: romantic, filial, comradely, lustful, chaste, long-suffering…. What’s often overlooked is the love of the grandfather and grandson for one another. The story is about the interrelatedness of love, and perhaps that all love flows from a common source.
I reposted a cartoon on our church Facebook page this week. Jesus is speaking to some pharisees and says, “The difference between me and you is you use scripture to determine what love means, and I use love to determine what scripture means.” It’s especially relevant to the controversy that will be addressed at the Special Called General Conference of the United Methodist Church later this month. From my point of view, the progressive church understands both love and scripture from the same place as Jesus does in this cartoon.
Nonetheless, let’s talk about love from the perspective of biblical language. There are at least four Greek words that are translated into the English word “love.” Two are not found in the Protestant canon of the Bible: eros and storge. Eros, of course, is where we get the term erotic. It is sensual and controlling. This is the passionate love that desires the other for itself. Eros can also transcend the sensory world. Plato attributes creative inspiration to eros, and for Aristotle eros has or is a cosmic force of attraction that maintains orderly movement.
Storge is familial. It is relational, obligatory, nurturing, and affectionate.
The two words for love that are found in the Bible are filia and agaph. Philia comes from the word for fond – it implies compatibility, consensuality, and equity. It is the love between friends and equals – its power is to equalize a relationship because each member is in the relationship by choice. It appears only eight times in the bible, and only once in the Greek Testament. James 4:4 implies that one cannot be a friend of the world and of God – a choice must be made. Of course, it’s important to qualify what is meant by the world in this case. It is the world of hierarchy and empire – of accusation, greed, privilege, violence, and injustice.
Agaph is the word that is most often used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures – the Bible that Jesus would have known. In its pre-biblical usage, it is cold and colorless. It could be translated into English as preference – not as “I love,” but as “I prefer.” Jesus transforms the meaning of agape, quoting the central ethos of Judaism – love God, love neighbor, do good unto others as you would have them do unto you – in a “startlingly exclusive and unconditional way.
Love of God means total commitment and total trust…. Love of neighbor accompanies love of God. This is no abstract love of humanity…. It transcends any restriction to compatriots. The neighbor is [simply] the person close at hand who [responds] in a neighborly way to the one in need…. [For Jesus,] Love of neighbor definitely includes love of enemies. This love is the demand of a new age pointing to grace and applying to [his] “hearers.” It is the love of God’s new people which they show not merely to one another, but even to those who persecute them. It is thus totally sacrificial. The martyr [– Greek for witness –] becomes an intercessor for the hostile world…. Jesus makes this demand with full realism but with full seriousness.”[i]
Words are important and powerful. It’s important to sort them out carefully. And Love is perhaps the most powerful word we know. The love chapter of First Corinthians is among the top ten texts of our faith. It ranks right up there with Psalm 23 – both of which are widely cherished and known in part because of their use in both weddings and funerals. I would argue that the Psalm is more appropriate at a wedding and Corinthians at a memorial. After all, upon entering into marriage, we cannot be sure of what valleys or banquets we will experience. And as we remember on the life of a beloved one, we are moved to reflect on the love that has graced a life. Corinthians at a wedding is not inappropriate – agape love is never inappropriate – it should infuse and undergird all our relationships. But if we only hear it in relation to marriage it is robbed of its power and importance in our relationship with the God of all whom we have definitively come to know in Jesus Christ.
I’m not at all interested in creating another checklist against which we can measure our fulfillment of God’s expectations for us as conveyed by Jesus and, in the of Corinthians, interpreted by Paul. That would be like the pharisees. But Paul’s poetic reflection practically begs to be understood in that way.
Are we patient?
Are we kind?
Are we jealous?
Do we put on airs?
Are we snobbish?
Are we rude or self-seeking?
Are we prone to anger?
Do we brood over injuries?
Do we rejoice in what is wrong?
Or do we rejoice in the truth?
Is there a limit to our forbearance, to our trust, our hope, our power to endure?
Each one of these questions is deserving of in-depth investigation and contemplation. What is kindness, anyway? Is rejoicing in the truth we have come to know a form of brutality against those whose experience is different that our own? Paul proceeds to point out that God lets us off the hook, so to speak – or maybe down from the cross. Of course, we cannot live up to this impossible standard. Certainly not as individuals. Probably not even as narrowly defined or constituted communities such as our congregation. We can’t even see clearly now. The promise, though, is that perfection – which is knowing fully and being fully known – will come. And, in the end, it all comes down to love. Not a saccharine or sappy love. Not a love of convenience or preference, but a love that is work, and that calls upon us in ways that are at odds with hierarchy and empire. It is a love to which we can turn even when faith and hope are lost. I am certain that you each have an idea of what this love is that Paul says is greater than faith or hope. I’d like to give you a few minutes now to reflect and jot down your thoughts on your pink slip. Don’t worry, nobody is getting fired with these pink slips. Instead I hope your hearts are strangely warmed! If you wish, you may return them in the offering basket, and I will share some of them with the rest of the congregation in the coming weeks.
The poet artist Jan Richardson writes this about the love chapter of Paul.
“Loving is always risky, because we cannot enter into it without being changed. Altered. Transformed. In the face of this, we might well ask, Do I really want this? Do we really desire to be so undone?
“Loving is never just about opening our heart. It is about being willing to have our heart become larger as we make room for people and stories and experiences we never imagined holding. It is about being willing to have our heart become deeper as we move beyond the surface layers of our assumptions, prejudices, and habits in order to truly see and receive what—and who—is before us. It is about being willing to have our heart continually shattered and remade as we take in not only the brokenness of the world but also the beauty of it, the astounding wonder that will not allow us to remain the same.”[ii]
Beloved, I hope and pray that love breaks you open, astounds you, and continues to change, alter, and transform you.
[i] Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds, Geoffrey W. Bromley, trans. and abr., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 8.
[ii] Jan Richardson, citation not found.