Rev. Teri Peterson|
love all the way down
4 November 2012, Ordinary 31B
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “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 mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
You probably remember that this summer we asked for sermon suggestions and questions, and then we tried to preach on all of those. Well, we had more questions than there were Sundays in the summer, so we sprinkled a few of the questions on other days—and today is the last of those questions. We were asked about the four different Greek words for love: which one is being used when our English Bibles just say “love”? What’s the difference between those four words, and why does it matter?
Every time I started to think about this question, my brain kept pulling up that classic moment in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, where a teenage girl explains the difference between like and love: “I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.” And we do use the word love in some strange ways—I mean, I love mashed potatoes, I love my cats, I love you, I love Jesus…are those all the same? How did I learn to love all these, in their different ways? And what does that mean, anyway?
There are a lot of things “love” can mean. One of the things it usually doesn’t mean is “asking trick questions”—as the scribe did when asking Jesus to prioritize—among the 613 laws of the Torah, which one is most important? This is a question designed to force Jesus into heresy. But Jesus answers with the Shema—the Bible verse that every Jew would recite multiple times every day: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” In other words—with your whole being, love God. Then he adds a verse from everyone’s favorite book, Leviticus: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The word “love” here is agape—one of those four choices in Greek. Others include eros (erotic love), storge (familial affection), and philia (friendship or loyalty). As you can probably already tell, the distinctions between these words are not as clear cut as we might like—the differences are more in implication than in definition. For instance, Philia and Agape are both words that usually imply self-giving, sacrificial, unconditional, steadfast, loyal, all-in love that is not necessarily the same as emotional feeling. So when Jesus, or Paul, or Deuteronomy, or Leviticus, call us to love God with our whole being, they’re almost being redundant—the poetic repetition tells us they really mean it, every word. In fact, the latest English translation of the Bible says “everything depends on these two commands.”
Everything depends on these.
I’m reminded of The Five Pillars of Islam, which are confessing your faith in God, prayer, fasting, giving, and pilgrimage. In other words—the whole of the Muslim faith is held up by these five practices. Not five beliefs, not five words to say, not five books to read, but five actions to do regularly. They might say that “everything depends on these.”
What would the five pillars of Christianity be? We probably share some in common with our Muslim brothers and sisters—confessing our faith in Christ, prayer, and giving are fairly obvious. We may even say fasting or pilgrimage too. But Jesus says there’s one big pillar, and all these things are more like supporting columns—our big pillar is to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s love all the way down.
How does this foundation play out in our faith and life? Just as the five pillars of Islam are practices, not simply beliefs, this pillar Jesus lays before us is also a practice, not a belief. It should be visible in our lives. I can say that I love God, and I can claim to love my neighbor, but does that mean anything more than that I love mashed potatoes? How does my neighbor—or my enemy, or the person with a different political leaning—know that I love them? How does my neighbor know that I love God? Just as the letter of James says: ‘faith without works is dead.’ Or, to put it in terms most of us know: talk is cheap. Christian faith is not cheap, nor is it just talk. It’s a way of life, a practice. This kind of love, this agape love, is a choice that we make every day, regardless of how we might feel. This is love as a living verb, not just a word on the page. And this way of life changes us, and changes the world. Or at least, it should. But there are a billion Christians in the world, and still we wonder where and what love is, still our public discourse is marked more by vitriol than compassion, still we forget that they will know we are Christians by our love.
So if love is more than a feeling and more than words, then how do we do it? How do we learn love? What does it mean in a world where we apply it to backpacks and shoes and food and people and God all in the same breath? How do we go about making this choice every day, to love God not only intellectually or spiritually, not only on Sunday morning, but in every aspect of our lives?
Well, love may be a choice, but it is also a gift—a gift from a God whose very being is love. The only reason we can make that choice is because God first loved us. God loved us before we could think about it, before we could feel it, before we could do anything about it—and God loves us with loyalty, with passion, with feeling and intellect, as a parent and as a friend and even as a lover. God has literally given God’s all for us. All four of those Greek words are summed up in God. And this is how we are to love God, too. In other words, we need to move out of the way and let our true selves, the people God created us to be, to shine through—because love is already planted within us.
Of course, then Jesus throws in the kicker: “and a second is like it.” It’s not only God we are to love, but also our neighbors, and also ourselves. Again, agape—the self-giving “true-love” word. And since these are alike enough to be mentioned in Jesus’ same breath, it’s a pretty safe assumption that they are connected. Which means that no matter how much we try to love our neighbor, if we haven’t devoted our whole beings to loving God, we’re missing the point. And no matter how much we devote ourselves to loving God, if we ignore or demonize or patronize our neighbor, we’re missing the point. And if we say we love God and our neighbor, but then we say things to ourselves we would never dream of saying to another, then we have lost an opportunity to choose love.
Everything depends on these.
Saint Francis de Sales, who lived in the 17th century, says, “the only way of attaining that love is by loving. You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and people by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves. If you want to love God, go on loving God more and more. Begin as a mere apprentice, and the very power of love will lead you on to become a master in the art. Those who have made most progress will continually press on, never believing themselves to have reached their end; for charity should go on increasing until we draw our last breath.”
In other words, we learn by being disciplined in our practice. By doing it over and over until we have mastered the skill, taking every opportunity to practice loving God and loving others. Eventually the training will change us—just as you never forget how to ride a bike, you can never forget how to love. And then our lives will be the evidence of God’s love. So let’s get out there and practice together, because everything depends on this.
May it be so.