The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
E. Bevan Stanley
October 25, 2020
Proper 25, Year A
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Jesus said, “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.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
There is a stupid joke about the dangers of taking a Biblical text out of context. There was early heretic named Marcion, who thought that the Bible should not include any of the Hebrew Bible. When asked to defend this position, her replied, “Jesus himself said it: Hang the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus sums up all of the law and the prophets in the twin commandments to love God and love our neighbor. Our Presiding Bishop is fond of saying, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God. We Christians are fond of talking about love, but what do we really mean by the word? What follows is taken from a chapter of the book I wrote last year when I was on sabbatical. It’s title is The Love of God.
Love is indeed a many splendored thing. We use the word in many contexts. I love God. I love my wife. I love my children. I love my friend. I love my books. I love golf. I love music. I love chocolate ice cream. In the first reading we heard the obituary of Moses, a leader who clearly loved his people more than his own self. In the second we see the tender side of Paul who likens his affection for the congregation at Thessalonica to that of a mother nursing her child.
There are two main ways to think about love.
One approach is to think of love as a feeling. As such it is an effect wrought upon us by some stimulus. Or rather it is our response to an effect wrought upon us by some stimulus, usually a pleasurable one. I love chocolate ice cream because chocolate ice cream tastes good and eating it makes me feel happy. The logic of this is that I love my wife because she is kind to me, makes me feel good about myself, helps me with many things and makes me feel happy. I love my God because God has given me many blessings. While this way of thinking about love works all right for chocolate ice cream, it seems rather shallow and selfish when applied to relationships. It also seems very odd that God would command us to do something over which we have little control. If my love is contingent on my receiving pleasure from the object of my love, then how can it be commanded? What if my neighbor is mean and nasty? I can’t love such a neighbor as much as my chocolate ice cream no matter how much God may desire me to.
The other approach is to think of love as a choice, an act of the will. I choose, desire, and will good for the other. I love my wife then means that I want good things for her. It means that I will do what I can to make her life good, pleasurable, fulfilling, and joyful. Love in this sense can be commanded. I can choose to act towards my nasty neighbor in ways that will make his or her life better, more pleasurable, more fulfilling, and more joyful.
- S. Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves in which he explains that the Greek language, in which the New Testament is written, has four different words for love, when English has but the one. What follows is my understanding of these different kinds of love, not an attempt to paraphrase C. S. Lewis.
Storge (στοργή) is the dutiful love required by the nature of the relationship. It is the love a slave should have towards a master, a child to a parent, a citizen for his city or her country, a parent to child, a spouse to a spouse. It could be the love a creature should have toward its creator. In extreme forms it can involve the setting aside of the self and its interests in favor of the interests of the beloved.
Eros (ἔρος) is the romantic and sexual love of mates. It is the passionate love that draws two beings together and includes the desire to be one with the beloved. It also can involve the dissolving of the personal boundaries of both parties so that their individual existences are set aside in the ecstasy of union.
Philos (φίλος) is friendship. The love one may have for an equal. There is an ancient Greek saying that a friend is another self. This can go very deep, even to the point of being willing to die for one’s friend. Yet while self-sacrifice may be a possibility one does not give up his or her own selfhood. There is no obliteration of personal boundaries.
Agape (ἀγαπὴ) is the divine love that desires the highest good of the other even to the point of self sacrifice. It desires union without giving up the boundaries that make individuals unique. The love a mother has for her infant is a good example. The capacity for this kind of love to overcome every barrier and to outlast every resistance is illustrated by the great theological book, The Runaway Bunny. (By the way, it is pronounced ah-gah-pay, with the emphasis on the last syllable. It is a sad truth, however, that because this kind of love is so rare in human experience, when we experience it, it may leave us agape.)
God loves in all these ways and expects us to love in all these ways. In fact, perfect love is a combination of all these. We love all others with storge because we owe it to all our fellow creatures. We love all things with a kind of eros because we are all part of a meta-organism either of the earth or of the entire created order. We are friends with all because we are selves and we respect and cherish the other selves around us. We love all with divine love because we desire and strive for the highest good of all.
There is a poignant passage at the end of the Gospel of John. After Jesus rises from the dead, he meets some of his disciples early in the morning on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. After having fish for breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside. Jesus sets out to heal Peter’s self loathing for having denied Jesus three times when Jesus was a captive. He asks Peter if Peter loves him using the word agape. Do you love me with selfless divine love? Peter responds, Yes, we are friends, using philos. Jesus entrusts the other disciples to Peter’s care by saying. “Feed my sheep. Jesus tries again, “Do you agape me?” Peter responds a second time, “Yes, I am your friend.” Jesus says, “Tend my lambs.” A third time Jesus ask Peter if he loves him to match the three times Peter had denied him, but this time Jesus changes to Peter’s language. “Peter, are you my friend?” Peter responds, “You know I am.” Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” Peter’s love has not yet reached the selfless quality of God’s love, but it is the best he can do. And for Jesus, our best is good enough. And maybe feeding Jesus’ lambs will teach Peter how to love them as Jesus loves them.
This time of political division, pandemic disease, and racist guilt is a time to practice love. We need to choose the highest good for our neighbors, ourselves, our opponents, and our leaders. My prayer, on a good day, is, “Help me to desire, will, and choose the highest spiritual good of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, all my fellow citizens, all my neighbors and family, and for myself. Lord, help me to love.”
 John 21:15-17.