Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC
RCL - Easter 6 B - Sunday 17 May 2009
Acts 10: 44-48
1 John 5: 1-6
John 15: 9-17
All this talk about love in this morning’s Gospel reading makes me think about words - isn’t that what you think of when you think of love... various words can be translated from their original language to the English word love... What aspects of love get lost in translation?
There is an old story that I grew up with. It tells us that the Eskimo language has more than 27 words for snow, while we have only one. When you grow up north of Albany, stories about other people with even more snow are important...
The story underscores the poverty of English in regard to snow as compared with the abundance of Eskimo. And my first thought is to compare the poverty of English, where we have only this one word - love - to the abundance of other languages where multiple words exist.
There are two problems with the snow story. First - it begs the question of what the word Eskimo actually refers to - and I’ll just leave that question begging... And second, and it’s a really big problem, the story is not true.
It is true that indigenous language groups found around the region now known as Alaska have many words that refer to snow. But so does English. Listen to any wintertime ski forecast and you’ll hear many words that mean different types of snow. The words mean more if you are an avid skier and less for the rest of us... but we have no poverty of words to talk about snow. So it may be a sweet and engaging story, but its basically a lie...
But back to this morning’s Gospel text - where we’re talking about love...
The Greek’s had three very different concepts that we call love. Agape, or Godly love, philia, or non-sexual affection, and eros, affection of a sexual nature. The Greeks were not at all shy about talking about eros... their ability to talk about sex is shocking to our current sensibility. And there was no reason to be shy about talking about philia. Curiously, agape was a bit vague until early Christians, starting with Jesus, more or less colonized the word.
And in English, we have just one word: Love. Just as we have a poverty of words for snow, so we have a poverty of words for love.
And, like the snow story, the love story is not true... we have many words to talk about love. We can easily talk about familial or brotherly love, sexual love, Godly love...
So why this poverty in English language scripture? Why the perversity of translators in using simply love when they could be so much more precise? For that matter, translators could just as easily use the words agape, eros, and filia - who needs translation ...
But what if it is the holy spirit, rather than perversity, that is driving the translation? What if the Greeks, including Plato, got it wrong? What if there are not three distinct forms of love - but there really is just love? What if, at its essence, all love is Godly love, agape? Sexual love is just a subset of Godly love... filial love is just a subset of Godly love. Maybe there is inspiration in this translation.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. I do not call you servants, but friends... love one another.”
Jesus is telling us what identifies great love - it is the willingness to sacrifice everything, including your own life, for another.
That is the love that most parents have for their children. It is the love the Martin Luther King had toward his brothers and sisters, some of whom surely did not deserve it. It is the love that leads some soldiers to die for their country. It is the love that called Jesus to lay down his life for us.
Albert Nolan in his book “Jesus Today” poses one profound and simple question: How seriously do we take Jesus?
Jesus is giving us one clear command: love each other. At the same time Jesus is putting an extremely high price on love, a price equal to our own lives.
How seriously do we take Jesus? Who or what are we willing to die for?
Sometimes we confuse risk taking with a willingness to die - and they are not at all the same. Teenage drivers often take terrible risks, not because they are willing to die for the sake of driving really fast, but because they are certain they are not going to die - they are invincible. People who climb mountains often end up losing their lives - it’s a risk they are willing to take in order to achieve a possible victory. They are willing to risk death, but not in a sacrificial way.
Gambling, risk taking, thrill seeking - these are not expressions of love. They are not expressions of a willingness to die for a friend.
This greatest of love that Jesus is telling us about, just by definition, is love for others. ... that you lay down your life for a friend. Not for a thrill, not for a cause, not for a great pot of gold, not for tremendous power, not for an ideal. For a friend.
Love people, not things. That is part of Jesus’ call to us. And love means sacrifice, including laying down our own lives.
Love, specifically some forms of sexual love, have been creating quite a stir within the Anglican communion lately. By tradition and culture we find some forms of sexual love acceptable and others not.
But Jesus tells us what is the highest form of love - and that is the love that is willing to sacrifice life for another. Its just my opinion, but I don’t think Jesus really cares about sexual orientation. Jesus cares about self-sacrificing love - the kind of love Jesus shows to us and demands from us.
Jesus gives us commands so that we may love. And what kinds of commands does Jesus give? Feed my sheep. Tend the sick. Protect the weak. Comfort the sorrowful. Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as you love yourself, love.
Love certainly can take many forms.
Some of them: Love of money, love of power, love of control, love of safety, can not be reconciled with God’s love, for all these loves require me to put myself first. Here is where another word, like lust, might be used. Lust for power is not a subset of Godly love.
Other loves can surely be Godly: the love that we, as humans, can hold for the rest of God’s creation. The love of arts, of music, and creativity. These loves require me to be part of something bigger; not to be centered in my self. While I love a great piece of choral music as much as the next person, I don’t see laying down my life for a cantata... Its not sacrificial to love a sunrise...
How seriously do we take this Jesus? Are we willing to love enough to be ready to lay down our lives?
Its not a question we have to answer once and for all. It’s a question we have to keep asking and keep living with. Learning from the answer and allowing the Godliness of our love to keep growing.