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What is love all about?

Love is one of the most over worked words in the English language. We use it to express our views on our favourite foods, films and clothes. The trouble is that he loves chocolate too much. My kids can’t get enough of Star Wars. They love those films so much. I really love that dress you’re wearing today. It really suits you. Then, at the other end of the scale, we use the same word to speak of close family and friends whom we could not bear to be without; our loved ones. When romance is building between two people, a significant milestone is reached when one has the courage to say the other: ‘I love you’. These are the words should be spoken and written, not just assumed in any marriage.
Then, for those of us who worship regularly, there is the way we use word in church. ‘Love Divine, all love’s excelling’ we sing along with ‘O Love that Wilt not Let me go’. We often hear love spoken of in bible passages, not least in what is sometimes referred to as St Paul’s great poem to love contained in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. ‘Now abide these three: faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love.’ (1 Corinthians 13.13) Is this love all of a piece with a love of Jammie Dodgers and the sentimental outpourings of a Valentine card?
A clue can be had in the way some of you might remember that passage from 1 Corinthians. Maybe you remember that in the old bibles, it read: ‘And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ (King James Bible) Why did it used to say ‘charity’ where it now says ‘love’? Was it talking about Oxfam! No! At that point, the old bible tried to find an English word which would translate the Greek word ‘agape’ accurately. Agape means a generous self-giving kind of love which does not look for anything in return. It must be distinguished from the kind of love we share within families or romantic love or the patriotic love we may have for our country. Hundreds of years ago, ‘charity’ was just that, self-giving love, but nowadays, we tend to associate the word with good causes and organisations so it does not translate the Greek word agape as well as it did once. The bibles we use today translate it as love, which is fine, but we need to realise that when the love is mentioned in the bible, it is more often than not this agape love which is spoken of. That’s certainly true of the passages we have been reading today.
The background of the second reading from Mark (12.28-34) Is a dispute between Jesus and a scribe. There had already been a political run in over the payment of taxes and a theological or religious one over what happened after death. Now the discussion turns to the commandments. ‘Which commandment is first of all?’ the scribe asks Jesus. He replies that it is to love God first and your neighbour second as you love yourself. Do you not think it strange that love should be the subject of a command? Surely love is about feelings? We don’t need to be told to love someone. If we have love it will come naturally won’t it. If it doesn’t, is it real love at all? This is very much the message we hear around us. The romantic films and books we read all give the impression that love is something which comes upon us like an urge which is almost uncontrollable like a hunger or thirst. I could pick any number of popular songs to illustrate the point, but Robbie Williams comes to mind with his song ‘Feel’ released in 2002. It includes lines such as: ‘And I need to feel real love, and a life ever after.’ and ‘I got too much love running through my veins going to waste.’ Love here is like an organic product produced somewhere between body and soul.
Of course, Robbie sings about what the Greeks would have called ‘eros’ from which we get the English word ‘erotic’. Eros was the Greek God of such sensual love, the one whose statue is a fancy traffic island in Piccadilly Square in London. The Roman equivalent is Cupid. I should stress that there is nothing wrong with this love in that it is a gift from God and properly used is a rich blessing, but we all know what happens when it is not controlled, when it is allowed to free reign fired by the hormones in our bodies. It results in much pain and hurt. As our society has made it less fashionable to control the physical desire which can masquerade as love, so more people have been abused. The evidence for this lies in the ‘Me Too’ movement standing against sexual harassment and assault. The rise cases of stalking, the abuse of children and the frequency of marriage and partnership break down are all in part caused by an inability or unwillingness to find the proper checks and balances for romantic love and the emotions which go with it.
In contrast, the bible majors on agape love. The love that gives and does not count the cost, which fights and does not heed the wounds, toils and does not seek for rest and labours without asking for any reward other than doing God’s will. (Based on St Ignatius of Loyola) It is the kind of love which God shows to us. Love that is costly and undeserved, which he does not have to give. In the old testament, it is ‘chesed’ in Hebrew which our bibles translate as ‘loving kindness’. It is the love which takes Jesus to the cross, the love which keeps him there more than the nails. It is the love that is God himself. (1 John 4.8)
That idea of God who is love is central to both Jewish and Christian traditions as both our old and new testament readings tell us. In Deuteronomy, we heard the ‘sema’: ‘Hear O Israel: ‘The Lord our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’’ (Deuteronomy 6.4-5) These words are repeated in Jewish households on all significant occasions to this day. When asked about the first commandment, Jesus, as a Jew, comes naturally to this one. For him it is fundamental. But he adds to it quoting from Leviticus 19.18 ‘The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Mark 12.31) The scribe affirms what Jesus has said, making the further suggestion that these dual commandments of love are so much more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices. (Mark 12.33) Jesus responds with heart warming words declaring the man to be not far from the Kingdom of God. (Mark 12.34)
The scribe supports Jesus in holding these two commands together whereas many of his fellow Jews would have put far more emphasis on the first. For Jesus, clearly, our love of other human beings should flow from the love that God has for us. This should always be an agape love, the love that seeks the best in others, not in the giver. It should be pre-eminent over all other loves. We may be romantically attached to someone or they may be a member of our family, but our first calling, the command of Jesus is that we love them as we love ourselves…. but then we need to love ourselves too!
In Luke’s gospel, a lawyer asks about eternal life. Jesus tells him he must keep this same double commandment; to love God and neighbour as you love yourself. The man pushes boundary and asks Jesus: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ The answer to the question we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10.25-37) Our neighbour is the one in need, even if that person’s background is repugnant to us. For Samaritan, we might read Palestinian today. Love in this case is as far from the romantic song as it is possible to be. This is the love we are commanded to show, not because we like it or want to but because Jesus tells us to and he showed that love even when he was betrayed in the Garden by his friend.
To conclude, words that I have always found powerful from the book ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’ which tells of David Wilkerson, a weedy evangelist in the late fifties called to minister Christ to drug gangs in New York who regularly used switchblades, a form of knife as a weapon. A memorable quote from the book is when one of gang leaders, Nicky Cruse threatens Wilkerson with a switchblade. He responds, ‘You make cut me up in a thousand pieces and lay them out on the street but every one of those pieces will still love you.’ Cruse himself is eventually converted and goes on to lead a fruitful ministry.
Kingdom 1 04.11.2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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