When I was a kid, my family moved around a lot. All that moving around, and always being the new kid at school, really messed me up. When I was about fifteen years old, I started hanging out with a gang. I haven’t got time to go into the details of my involvement with this gang;
suffice it to say, if I knew what this gang was all about, I would never have gotten involved with them. What I didn’t know when I started hanging out with this gang was that the members of this gang all had one thing in common. These members of this gang were part of a Lutheran Youth Group. These gang members managed to convince me to run away with them. They were going on something I’ve never heard of before; a retreat, a weekend at a place called Camp Luther. Somehow, I found myself with a gang of young, socially aware, politically astute kids who wanted to change the world. As I figured out who and what this gang was, I thought they might be a cult. It was kind of exciting to flirt with a cult. So, there I was at Camp Luther on the shores of Lake Hatsick.
Pastor Don Johnson was one of the retreat leaders. Don was the father of our National Bishop Susan Johnson, he died just a few months ago. That retreat was where I first met the young woman who would become our National Bishop. The very first exercise that we were assigned was to team up with someone we didn’t know and share our favorite bible passage. This gang was about to discover that I didn’t belong. I didn’t have a favorite bible passage. I’d only been to church a handful of times in my life, and I hadn’t read very much of the bible. So, I decided to break the rules of the exercise and teamed up with someone I knew slightly and suggested that she go first.
Danna recited her favorite Bible passage from memory. I was astounded at her ability to quote such a long passage from memory. Later I would find out that she was a “PK”; that’s code for pastor’s kid. I can still remember the passion with which Danna described her love for this particular passage. Needless to say, Danna’s favorite bible passage quickly became my favorite passage as well. I told Danna so, right then and there; conveniently getting myself off the hook of trying to come up with a favorite passage of my own. 1 Corinthians chapter 13. Dana recited it from a brand-spanking new translation of the Bible; you may remember it was called “Good News for Modern Man”.
“I may be able to speak the languages of man and even of angels but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell. I may have the gift of inspired preaching, I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountains—but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have, and even give up my body to be burnt—but if I have no love this does me no good. Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable, love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail. Love is eternal. There are inspired messages, but they are temporary; there are gifts of speaking in strange tongues, but they will cease; there is knowledge, but it will pass. For our gifts of knowledge ad of inspired messages are only partial; but when what is perfect comes, then what is partial will disappear.When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child; now that I have grown up, I have no more use for childish ways. What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete—as complete as God’s knowledge of me. Meanwhile these three remain; faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.”
As Danna spoke of her love for this passage, I began to glimpse my deepest longings. With all of who I was at the age of 15, I knew that I wanted to know this kind of love. I was so overcome with longing, that right there in front of everyone, I began to weep. I was so overwhelmed. Pastor Don noticed my pain and gently encouraged me to simply weep. No one said a word. But I was keenly aware of their presence.
Later that evening, in the glow of the firelight, I mustered up the courage to ask Pastor Don what his favorite passage from scripture was. Pastor Don spoke these words:
“What will separate us from the love of Christ?Trouble?Calamity? Persecution?Hunger?Nakedness?Danger?Violence? As scripture says, “For your sake, we’re being killed all day long; we we’re looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.” Yet in all this we are more than conquerors because of God who has loved us. For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither heights nor depth—nor anything else in all creation—will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, Our Saviour.”
Again, I wept. The realization that the LOVE that I longed for was already mine and that nothing could separate me from that LOVE, overwhelmed me. The community that I encountered back then was not perfect. But I was a child, and I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. Over time, I began to see that gang of young people for the imperfect tribe that we were. As I grew in knowledge and experience, I also saw the church that introduced me to the MYSTERY that is LOVE as far from perfect. I’m guessing that most of us have had our illusions about communities, especially church communities shattered at one time or another.
In 1stCorinthians the apostle Paul was writing to an imperfect fractured community. Paul is writing to a community in Corinth that is engage in conflict; indeed, the followers of Jesus’ teachings in the city of Corinth were locked in conflict over a whole slew of issues. They disagreed on just about everything. The last thing these folks needed was a sappy love poem dedicated to love. What the Apostle Paul gives them is a piece of the Jewish wisdom tradition mixed together with a dash of Ancient Greek wisdom about “agape.” We translate the word “agape” simply as “love.” But our word “love” is not sufficient in and of itself to carry the full meaning of agape. Neither is the word “agape” capable of carrying the full meaning of the English word “love.”
In Greek, the English word love can be translated as “eros,” which has to do with the romance and passion between lovers. The word love can also be translated as “phila,” which refers to the affection between friends, or the ethics that foster harmony between people. Phila is considered necessary to foster peace among people.
Love can also be translated as “storge” which refers to the kind of affection of parents and children, or the empathy of the strong for the weak, or the healthy for the sick, or even the love of an enemy, affection or kindness based on the other’s need. So, there you have three different kinds of love, before you even get to the kind of love that the Apostle Paul is talking about. Agape is a kind of unconditional love; the kind of love that is not concerned with the lover’s needs, or wants, or status, but only concerned with the needs of the other. Agape is the kind of love that seeks the best for the other without regard to one’s own standing in the relationship. In other words, agape is a love that expects nothing in return. Agape is a love that is beyond emotion. Agape is beyond emotion because it has become compassion, or empathy. Agape is the kind of love that we only catch glimmers of in this life. Agape must be embodied in order to be. Agape is embodied, compassion, embodied empathy, embodied love. Agape is beyond description, impossible to fully define and yet we would all recognize agape when we experience. Agape is a dream; a dream embodied and enacted. Agape is the LOVE that is the MYSTERY we call God. Agape is the love that we call God embodied and enacted in the world. Agape encompasses eros, philia, and storge, and all the emotions that go along with these loves and is more than the sum of these parts.
Agape is Beyond the Beyond, for Agape is the MYSTERY at the very heart of all that IS. The MYSTERY is LOVE. The best translation that I have ever come across of this wisdom poem, from the apostle Paul goes like this:
The MYSTERY that IS God is patient
The MYSTERY is kind
The MYSTERY is not jealous
The MYSTERY not brag
The MYSTERY is not arrogant
The MYSTERY does not take into account a wrong suffered
The MYSTERY does not rejoice in unrighteousness
The MYSTERY rejoices with the truth
The MYSTERY bears all things
The MYSTERY hopes all things
The MYSTERY endures all things
The MYSTERY never fails!
When I was a child, I spoke like a child; I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. When I was I child, I thought that love was something I need to learn or to find or to do. As I become more fully human, I am learning to put an end to childish ways.
Pierre Terhard de Chardin wrote that , “Love is the very physical structure of the universe. “ Tehard believed that at the very heart, at the core of all reality was God who is LOVE, the source of all that is, the core of everything is LOVE. Michael Morwood has taught us that, “after 13.8 billion years of evolution, the DIVINE is at work in the universe, coming into expression in us.” If we are created in the image of DIVINITY, then LOVE is what we were made for because LOVE is who we are. Is it any wonder then that LOVE becomes known when we see ourselves in the other?
The embodiment of LOVE is achieved when we who are made of LOVE, recognize ourselves in the other, because LOVE is not something that we do, LOVE is who we are. LOVE bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, LOVE never ends. Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. When we recognize ourselves in the other, we are the embodiment of LOVE. Now we know only in part, then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. When we recognize ourselves in the other, faith, hope, and LOVE abide, these three; and the greatest of these is LOVE.
Looking back at the child that I was during that long-ago retreat, I can see that the LOVE that I encountered embodied in people who opened themselves to the MYSTERY beyond their comprehension, touched me in ways that continue to comfort me, nourish me, ground me, sustain me and challenge me again and again and again. The words touched so deeply not because of the words themselves, but because of the way those words found life in the people who treasured them. Looking back, I can see that the LOVE that I was searching for, longing for was living in that gang of kids who drew me into the LOVE they shared with one another.
All those years ago, in a rundown church camp, I encountered the LOVE in the flesh, LOVE in the guise of some very imperfect people; people who have gone on to struggle to be LOVE in the world. That nothing can separate us from that LOVE is a gift that over the years continues to nourish, ground, sustain and challenge me. There have been times in my life when the knowledge of the LOVE that is described in Corinthians, coupled with the knowledge that nothing can separate me from that LOVE, has nourished me and continues to challenge me.
These days, as the LOVE continues to work in and around me, I am beginning to see beyond my own need of LOVE to the reality that the LOVE that is God abides in every aspect of creation. I am also continuingly challenged by the knowledge that the LOVE that is the MYSTERY that we call “god”, is also present in everyone including people I have trouble getting along with, people I disagree with, even people who wish me harm, and yes even in those that some would call our enemies. The knowledge that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate anyone from the LOVE that we call God, challenges me in ways that are both enlightening and frightening.
When we begin to see that everyone, including our enemies are encompassed in, with, and through, the LOVE that is God, quite literally infused with God, it calls forth a response that will not let me hate my enemies, nor will it let me ignore my neighbours. This LOVE challenges us in ways that can terrify us, because it threatens our tribalism. When Jesus challenged the people of his home town of Nazareth to push the boundaries of who is and isn’t their neighbour, they were so frightened by the implications of seeing competing tribes as part of the LOVE that IS, that they dragged him out of the pulpit and threatened to push him off a cliff.
When I read this gospel, I suspect that Jesus’ homies recognized the power of this LOVE in the nick of time, and while they were taken aback by what they saw reflected in Jesus, he was able to pass through the stunned mob, unharmed. I pray that the LOVE that was embodied in Jesus does not challenge or frighten us so much that this LOVE simply passes through the midst of us and go on its way. As challenging and even as frightening as the clifftops that we might end up on might be, my prayer is that the LOVE that is embodied in everyone that we meet compels us to open ourselves to the pain of the world. I pray that this LOVE will pass through us in ways that may be overwhelming, and yet, in ways that will allow our neighbours, to see in us the reality of the LOVE that lives in, with, through, and beyond us.
May the power of the MYSTERY continue to open us all, so that LOVE can continue to BE in the world. May the power of embodied LOVE, alive and living in, with, through, and beyond us, transform the world, so that all may know the LOVE that is the MYSTERY we call God. “Meanwhile these three remain; faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is LOVE.” For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither heights nor depth—nor anything else in all creation—will be able to separate us from the MYSTERY that is LOVE.