A sermon for St. John’s, Versailles, KY. Proper 25 (30) (October 29, 2023)
Matt. 22:34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 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.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In the name of Father…
When I was a little boy, perhaps about 7 or 8, my grandfather used to have chocolate marshmallow ice cream. It was wonderful stuff and the chocolate was a nice, light chocolate, what today I would assume was a “Swiss chocolate.” My brother and I were eating some in their kitchen and I said, “I love this ice cream!” My brother said, “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it.” It was a common kid-response to confessions of love, but it nicely exemplifies the trouble we have with the concept of love. We struggle to define it, to express its multifaceted and complex meanings.
Love. Is there a single word, a single concept, more desired, to which we aspire, in all of human history, than love? John says, “God is love” (1 Jon 4:8) and that seems to settle it. Those who were at our diocesan convention yesterday may have picked up a bag emblazoned with the motto of one of our parishes, “Love is all.” The rector is a beloved friend and that is his refrain, “Remember beloved, love is all!” But what is love?
CS Lewis’s famous booked called The Four Loves, opens with his observing, “‘God is love,’ says St. John. When I first tried to write this book I thought that his maxim would provide me with a very plain highroad through the whole subject.” He was wrong and he admitted it (throughout the entire book). Love is much more complicated. The “four loves” Lewis expounds are from four forms of love found in Greek. They are usually enumerated and defined as: (1) agape – love of, by, and for God; (3) philia – friendly (lit. brotherly) love; (4) storge – love between parents and their children; and (4) eros – sexual passion. There are, in fact, two other Greek terms for love that we might add (philautia – self-love; xenia – hospitality). But we don’t speak Greek or write in Greek and when Jesus says we are to “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he is quoting the Hebrew Bible and Hebrew only has one word for love, ʾahēḇ. So, I ask again, what is “love”?
Paul gives us a long and seemingly exhaustive answer. “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.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8) For the record, Paul uses the agape in this passage. Most of us know this passage well because it is so often selected to be read at weddings and for good reasons. It reminds us of the selfless nature of how we are to treat others, especially those with whom we are committing our lives. I am fond of pointing out that Paul never tells us that we are to “like” each other. Indeed, many of these elements of love outlined by Paul are required particularly when we are being unlovely towards one another. So, what is love?
When Jesus tells us what the greatest commandment is, he is citing perhaps the most famous passage in all of Judaism. It is, in fact, the heart of the Law, coming from Deuteronomy chapter 6.
Deut. 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
To “love the Lord our God” then is to keep all of his commandments, to teach them to our children, to always have them at the forefront of our hearts and minds (and literally on our foreheads and forearms). And the command to love “with all your heart, and soul, and might” means that we are to love God with our entire being. I suspect that this is not sort of legalistic reply that Christians normally envision when we read this passage. The second commandment that is like it is…well, very much like it.
Lev. 19:17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. 19 You shall keep my statutes.
This is right in the middle of Leviticus, the most legalistic of all the Law and even comes within a passage with commands to not mix materials in garments, forbidding witchcraft, and to not slandering your neighbor. Again, all of it is much more legalistic that I think you expected when you heard me read it a few minutes ago from the middle of the congregation. Yet here it is, Jesus’ statement that the greatest commandments are, in fact, the key to keeping all the commandments. When Jesus said he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, this is what he meant. So, what is love?
Love is not a feeling, it is not a sentiment, it is not an attitude. Love is action, but not just any action. Love is obedience to God. When we love God, we keep his statutes. That is easier said than done. An action (or even an attitude, which is an action in itself) in one context may be an expression of love, yet in another, it may not. This is the difficulty with simply saying “all you need is love.”
The father who loves his young child will take care of all her needs, bathing her, dressing her, tying her shoes, feeding her. But if the father never teaches his daughter how to care for herself, keeping her dependent upon him always, what had been love becomes obsession and possession. It is not healthy or good for either father or daughter. When Jesus repeats God’s command that we “love our neighbor as ourselves,” if we do not love ourselves well and properly then our “love of neighbor” is, in fact, simply the perpetuation of that same improper and unhealthy behavior.
Perhaps a more specific example would be helpful. At a church where I served, we once had a member of staff who was emotionally unhealthy. He knew things were not right in his life and, most importantly, that it was affecting the people around him, including those he loved the most. Yet he did not want to get professional help. While doing the hard work of confronting him, some objected, saying that we should “love him as he is” and not demand him to change. The church, they said, should be a “safe place” and not a place of confrontation and discomfort.
On the face of it, such statements are not incorrect. We are called to love everyone just as they are and everyone, regardless, ought to be welcome in our church and feel safe her. The church is where we receive the love of God. God loves us and receives us just as we are, but God rarely leaves us just as we are. The church, in this way, ought to be a hospital rather than a hospice. People enter into hospice care when there is nothing more that physicians can do except try and make someone as comfortable as possible in their final days. A hospital, in contrast, is (ideally) where we are healed of our illness. They treat our infections and cancers. The doctors might put us on a strict diet and tell us to drink less alcohol and exercise more. The goal of a hospital is to heal us and enable us to continue to live, fully and abundantly. That is God’s love for us and the love we are to have towards one another.
That is what makes love so very difficult, because just when we think we are loving someone, we may, in fact, be failing to provide them with just what they need. When the woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus he famously said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” They all dropped their stones and walked away. When he asked the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” She said no, not one. They realized that they all had sin in their lives. Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Jesus did not condemn the woman, but neither did he condone her behavior. Jesus – God’s love incarnate – forgave her and called her to a life of holiness.
Love is obedience to God and his commands, and God’s love changes us. The love of God will take us in, regardless of our condition, regardless of our status, regardless of our attitude, regardless of our sin. But God does not leave us as he found us. God’s love works in us and through us, transforming our “all our heart, all our soul, and all our might.”
Love is obedience to God and his commands and God commands us to love one another. Jesus later in his ministry emended his prior statements about the greatest commandments when he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) The truth is, we do not love ourselves very well, we often do not want for ourselves what we need to be truly healthy, to be truly loved. Too often, we do not think we deserve love. You do! You deserve the love of God, unconditional in its graciousness and unbounded in its ability to transform us. Love yourself, just as Jesus has loved us, and then love your neighbor with that same gracious, self-sacrificing, all-consuming love.
“Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.” Amen.