When I was a kid, my family moved around quite a bit. All that moving about, and always being the new kid at school, it really messed me up. It’s not surprising that I started hanging out with a gang. If I’d known 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, they were all part of a Lutheran Youth Group. This gang managed to convince me to run away with them. They were going on something I’d never heard of before; a retreat, a weekend at a place called Camp Luther. So, at the tender age of fifteen, 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 worried that they might be a cult. But it was kind of exciting to flirt with the idea of a cult.
The very first exercise that we were assigned was to team up with someone we didn’t know and share our favorite bible passage. Well, this gang was about to discover that I didn’t belong there. You see, 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. Well, I hadn’t read the bible at all. So, I decided to break the rules of the exercise and I 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. 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.
1st Corinthians chapter 13. Danna recited it from a brand-spanking new translation of the Bible; you may remember, if you are of a certain age, 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 and 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 own 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. The Pastor leading the retreat, 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 the Pastor what his favorite passage from scripture was. The words he spoke continue to resonate deeply in me: “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 God 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 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 which longed for was already mine and that nothing could separate me from that LOVE, overwhelmed me. The community which 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. I began to see them for the imperfect tribe that we were. As I grew in knowledge and experience, I also saw the church which introduced me to the MYSTERY which is LOVE is 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 1st Corinthians the apostle Paul was writing to an imperfect fractured, disillusioned community. Paul is writing to a community in which conflict was happening. 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. 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 which foster harmony between people. Phila is considered necessary to foster peace among the nations. 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 some other person’s needs.
So, there you have three different kinds of love, before you even get to the kind of love which the Apostle Paul is talking about: Agape. Agape is a kind of unconditional love; the kind of love which 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 which seeks the best for the other without regard to one’s own standing in that relationship. In other words, agape is a love which expects nothing in return. Agape is a love which is beyond emotion. Agape is beyond emotion because it has become compassion, or empathy. Agape is the kind of love which 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. AGAPE is a dream; a dream embodied and enacted. AGAPE is the LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call God. AGAPE is the LOVE which we call God embodied and enacted in the world. AGAPE encompasses eros, philia, and storge, and all the emotions which 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, DIVINITY is LOVE.
The best translation which I have ever come across of this WISDOM poem, from the apostle Paul goes like this:
The MYSTERY which 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 which I needed to learn or something that I need to find or something that I need 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. Theologian Michael Morwood has taught me 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 are 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 which I encountered embodied in people who opened themselves to the MYSTERY beyond their comprehension, this LOVE touched me in ways which continue to comfort me, nourish me, ground me, sustain me and challenge me again and again and again. Their 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 which 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 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 which over the years continues to nourish, ground, sustain and challenge me.
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 DIVINITY. “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 heights nor depth—nor anything else at all in Creation—will be able to separate us from the MYSTERY which is LOVE. So, be LOVE in the world sustained by LOVE, EROS, STORGE, PHILIA, and AGAPE. Let it be so among us dear friends. Let it be so.
View the full LOVE Sunday Worship video below: