All You Need is Love
Ba da dadada…
Seriously though, here’s my Valentine’s Day sermon from this morning.
Well, as I’m sure you all know, today is Valentine’s Day, a day that we set aside for expressing the love that we have towards our significant others, be they spouses, fiancées, boyfriends, girlfriends, or just the wonderful people that make our lives unique. Samford’s been celebrating Valentine’s all this past week, with hearts and red streamers everywhere. A group called restoring Eden spent three days selling Valentine’s made from recycled materials. Last night, the Reformed University Fellowship partnered with our Swing Club and hosted a Valentine’s dance to raise money for RUF’s spring mission trip. A mysterious new group on campus called the Sons of Light even hung three huge posters bearing traditional love poems in honor of all of Samford’s women. Love is, and has been for several days, in the air.
I even tried to look up the story of St. Valentine, to try and get myself into the Valentine’s Day spirit, but all I found were some conflicting accounts about two or three unknown saints buried on the road to Rome. One of the accounts, though, bears repeating. One of the St. Valentines, supposedly, spent his time as a bishop in the third century performing marriages for good Christian men and women. Now, if you know anything about the Third Century CE, you know it wasn’t a good century to be a Christian. Christianity was actually illegal in those days, and Valentine was eventually caught practicing and propagating a religion that did not honor the emperor. He was thrown into prison, and for some unknown reason, met the emperor Claudius Gothicus. Now Claudius took a liking to this funny little priest up until the moment Valentine attempted to convert him to Christianity, at which point the emperor promptly ordered Valentine to be beaten with clubs and stoned. That didn’t quite kill him (he was only mostly dead) so our faithful bishop was beheaded outside the Flaminian gate and buried along the Via Appia. And now, two thousand years later, we celebrate his feast day with cards, candies and expressions of undying love.
And all this love talk got me thinking. What is love? The Greeks have four distinct words for it: agape, phileo, storge and eros. We talk about loving food (and I admit, I have some stories I could tell about good meals). We talk about loving places; favorite vacation spots, our childhood homes, even our alma mater. We love sports teams, and pin our hopes upon their success in the coming season. We love our pets, even though they mess up our carpet and steal food from our tables. We love media; books, television, movies, so much so that we often structure the course of our day to engage with one or another of these forms. We love things; we expect lavish gifts on various holidays, today most of all. But what does it mean to love these things? Do we love a pizza the same as a person? Do we love gifts the same as we love God?
The answer to this question must be an emphatic no. We must enjoy things like gifts and pizza, vacations and television, and we must love people and we must love God. Aristotle argues that repetition creates virtue, but in our case, repetition has created a supreme ignorance of what love truly means. The vast proliferation of the casual use of such a powerful term in our modern society has lead to a lack of respect and a lack of understanding. We must, as the Church, rethink and reexamine what it means to love. To love God, to love others and to love ourselves
We may not have a grasp on this deep, all-important concept of love, but the Apostle Paul did. In arguably one of his most beautiful, poetic passages, Paul writes: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end” (From 1st Corinthians 13:4-9).
Did you hear that beautiful language? Paul gets it. We would never use a type of love that radical to describe a pizza or a present. We will never again say “I love this weather,” or “I love the color red” when we think about love in the context of 1st Corinthians 13. When we imagine a love that is patient, a love that waits for its lover instead of forcing action, then we understand better. When we think of love as kind, as merciful, as forgiving, as self-giving, as all-giving, then we approach the picture of love Paul has painted for us. When we remove all envy and strife from our love, and do not use it for evil or in arrogance but instead love humbly and for the sake of others, then are we taking the first step to reclaiming the church’s radical vision of love.
Aside from his moving imagery, even the specific words Paul uses in this passage are of the utmost importance. I mentioned earlier that Koine Greek has four words that are often translated as love: storge, eros, phileo and agape. Storge is familial love, like a brother for a brother. Eros is erotic love, like a man for a women. Phileo is a general type of love, more akin to our modern use of the word ‘passion.’ It implies a deep interest in something, but is typical of a human response to a pleasurable thing. (This is where the English suffix –phile comes from, like bibliophile or technophile). Agape, the fourth type, is Paul’s word in this passage, and it represents a radically different kind of love. In Greek texts, agape represents selfless, live-giving love. It is the unconditional love of a parent for a child, a love that sees beyond faults and foibles to the beauty of the relationship and suffers long. Agape is the divine love, a Greek complementary of the Hebrew ‘chesed,’ what my pastor has oft called “dogged, determined love.” This is the kind of love we need to think of and think on, the kind of love we need to have.
But it’s not enough to simply understand what love is, to possess some sort of esoteric knowledge of the thing itself and yet have no praxis. As Paul himself said a few verses before we started reading, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy going or a clanging cymbal.” Knowledge without application is simply useless facts, stored away in the back of one’s mind like a useless party trick, waiting to be trotted out at the next lull in the boring conversation at next week’s lunch meeting. “Did you know Greek has four words for love? There’s your random fact of the day.” That attitude is not what we want. Christianity has never been simply about knowledge and facts. From day one, this has been a faith of thought and action. And so we must needs take action.
But now that we know what love is, how do we love? More importantly, whom do we love? Christ expounds upon this point beautifully, and we can find his teaching in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, verses 37-40. “‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” It’s so simple. Love God. Love others. Love yourself. Two commandments with three objects, and yet we manage to lose sight of the brilliance and simplicity of it all. We get tangled up in rules and regulations. We lose sight of the wild and the radical and trade it for the boring and the mundane. We forfeit the amazing love of Christ for a watered down Jesus who spouts axioms like a guru seated in the lotus position. We ignore his passionate desire for us and instead replace him with a sedate, middle class Jesus.
So what does this all mean, all this love business? I’d like to tell you that it’s simple, but it’s not. Love is probably the most intense, messy, painful, ill-defined and dangerous condition on the planet, and it’s worth every minute of it. Some days you hurt so bad it doesn’t seem worth it and some days you’re high as a kite, but every day, you are engaged in the wildest, most fulfilling adventure humanity has ever known. It’s risky, this love stuff; it cost Christ his very life, but it created true communion, right relationship. And so who do we pursue this love with? What is to be the object of our agape love?
First and foremost, we are taught to love God. This is the greatest commandment, and has been from time out of mind, in the Judeo-Christian context, anyway. From birth, a Hebrew child was taught the Sh’ma Isra’el, a brief saying that encompassed all of Hebrew theology. It reads thus: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4). A Hebrew child would wear this in boxes tied to his head and arms as he prayed, and it would be one of the most important part of his early education in the Torah. Likewise, it is ingrained into our collective religious understanding, and yet we ignore it so casually that we might all do well to hear it again. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4).
Jesus quotes this verse in Matthew as the Greatest commandment. It is the most important phrase in a law code that exceeds six hundred commandments. Love. Love overtakes duty, dry ritual and boring legalism to produce a faith filled with passion. We are to love God with all of our heart; that is, with all of our emotions, with all of our passions, with all of our desires. We are to love Him with all of our soul, with the very thing that is our being, our essential us. And we are to love Him with all of our might, with every breath, with every ounce of strength, exceedingly above all other things. In short, our love must be total. Heart, soul and strength combine to produce an entire human being, and we must love God with the totality of our beings, devote our every moment to Him, fall before Him and worship with a love like the love we saw in 1st Corinthians.
This is not always easy. This total love requires us to be patient, to wait on God’s own timetables instead of depending on our own. It requires us to be kind, instead of angry, when it seems God is not answering our prayers the way we would have him do. It asks us to not envy others, when God blesses them, or to boast when he blesses us. It demands that we are not arrogant about our love, that we do not parade it around for others to see in hopes of making them jealous. It asks that we not be rude, that we not make cruel demands and callous remarks. This love requires us to not seek our own way, but to seek the ways of God, and to delight in them and take refuge in them. It demands that we not rejoice in suffering, but instead extend compassion and rejoice only in righteousness and goodness. It demands hope and longsuffering, sometimes for many years, but the ultimate beauty is that it never ends. Those this world passes away, our love for God will endure forever, and we will spend an eternity bonded together in that perfect love.
Because the reality is that this monumental love which we are asked to give to God is given us in return. We are not asked to love a cold statue or a dancing flame. We are not called to give reverence to a dead teacher but to the Living God, the Holy One of Israel. He is not dead, nor does he sleep, and he returns our love ten-thousand-thousand fold. If our love can be kind and selfless, his is infinitely more so. His love is so selfless that it actually brought him to the Cross of Calvary, where he laid down his very life, his self, so that we might know him fully and enjoy true communion with God Most High. If our love is patient, how much more his divine love, waiting eagerly until the day we come home, and then running to us with arms flung wide open, like the Prodigal’s dear father. His divine love is not callous or cold, not does it make cruel demands or incite fear. Nor does his love rejoice in our suffering. Rather, he rejoices in our righteousness and triumphs in our holiness. Our love for him is but a candle compared to the blazing forest fire of his passion. It was this passion that drove him to a Roman Cross, and this passion that he daily continues to extend to us. How foolish are we to renounce such a love?
But there is a second command, equal in importance to the first, and it reads thus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God comes first, and love of neighbor flows naturally from that divine communion. Once Divine love and grace has been extended, one cannot help but feel great and fiery passion to go and share that wondrous love with our neighbors. Isaiah described this missional urge as “a fire shut up in my bones. I grow weary from keeping it in; indeed, I cannot.” Once we have tasted of divine love, once that great and free agape has been given to us, we want to give it away. Romeo, describing love, says to Juliet “the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” The same is true for us. The more we love others, the more we experience the love of Christ. The more we love, the more we can love, and the more we desire to love, and the more we are capable of knowing love. It grows and grows and grows, knowing no bounds, not even time. Søren Kierkegaard may have said it best of all: “When one has once fully entered the realm of Love, the world — no matter how imperfect — becomes rich and beautiful, it consists solely of opportunities for Love.”
What does this agape love look like then, when directed at the neighbor? First, it is of the same variety, but not of the same caliber, as our love for God. It glories in the worth and dignity of the other, but never elevates the other to the position of Deity. Instead, its sole goal is to point the other to the Deity. It is selfless and giving, but never out of obligation or jealousy. It goes the second mile not because it has been commanded to, but because to go the second mile is to extend mercy, to exhibit the quality of Christ to a fellow human being. St. Francis of Assissi is commonly quoted as saying “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” The Good News of Christ’s love is living in you, is embodied in you and in your life. Can your neighbors see the radical agape love in your actions? Do they see Christ’s mercy in the way you treat them? Have you offered the least of Christ’s brethren a cup of cold water? Is His grand and all consuming love burning through you like the wildfire that it is, extending to everything that you touch? If not, why not? Today is the day, dear ones, to embrace the all-encompassing love of Christ and to begin sharing its mighty power with your neighbors.
On these commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Christ says. Typically, an explanation of the greatest commandments would end there, but I feel there’s a third command in our text. One that isn’t explicitly vocalized, true, but one that is clearly implicit: the love of the self. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must indeed, actually love ourselves. Please, don’t tune out now and misunderstand the whole point of this third command. I am not advocating a self-serving love that exists only for the pleasure and gain of its owner. We’ve talked time and again this morning about how true agape love is selfless and self-giving, about how the powerful love of Christ drove him to Calvary, where he died to restore right relationship between us and God. True love for the self is honest and temperate. It does not revel in vainglories and constantly stroke its own ego in attempt to build false security. Instead, it recognizes the passion of God for our souls and acknowledges the deep worth he attaches to us. Hear the words of the Psalmist. “O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me!” (Psalm 139.1-6)
Indeed, a true love for the self recognizes the inherent worth given to it by Christ. It joys that God has created it free and equal, that Christ has died to save it and that the Spirit daily renews it. It does not wallow in self-pity, for it is loved beyond measure by the Lord of All Creation. It does not revel in self-pity, but embraces the radical nature of the worth that sent Christ to Calvary. It honestly acknowledges the sin-broken context in which it lives, but it likewise embraces the resurrected Christ and joys in the new nature he brings. It sees in itself the same beauty that Christ sees, covered with precious blood.
St. Augustine was once pressed to give a succinct summation of the Christian faith just as Christ had done in Matthew. His words are still with us today: “Love God and do as thou wilt.” I might take Augustine one step further and condense his summation to one simple command: love. This is the essence of the Christian faith, and its lifeblood. And so love. Love God. Love others. And love yourself. Embrace the picture of agape love described by St. Paul. Embrace the ultimate picture of self-giving love lived by our Lord Jesus. Live these great commandments in your walk with Christ and in your daily life. Extend, as best you know how, that same love which has saved you. Show mercy, and walk humbly with the God Who Loves you. And remember these other words of St. Paul: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-29). Go, dear ones, and celebrate this Valentine’s Day with true, agape love.