Saturday, August 24, 2013

"The Four Loves"

Steinbach Mennonite Church
25 August 2013
“The Fruit of the Spirit is Love”

I admit to some surprise when I looked over the qualities in the fruit of the Spirit and found that this pre-eminent quality of love still available. All but two had been taken, and “love” was one of them. So I took it! Love is one of the primary qualities that our society admires. We have a variety of ways in which we lift up this one quality of love. “Love makes the world go round,” we say. For many people, the verse from 1 John that says “God is love” is the only part of the Bible they actually believe. We place love at the centre, and so does Paul in his list of the qualities in the fruit of the Spirit. Love comes first because everything else expands what it means and builds on this fundamental quality of love. So let’s talk this morning about love.

“The Four Loves”
Human Loves
You may have heard that where we have one word for love, Greek uses at least four words—storge, philia, eros, and agapé. Let’s look at these quickly.

Eros is the one most people know about. When the Beatles sang “All you need is love”, they meant eros: sexual love. The ancients knew all about eros; they called the goddess behind this love “Venus” (Roman) or Aphrodite (Greek). One of the odd things about our own culture is that we have decided that eros must be the centre and primary glue of marriage. In point of fact, eros is basic to marriage; but a lifelong commitment to another person goes much deeper than the physical love we call “eros”. That takes us into our second word: storge.

Storge means “family love”. The old saying tells us, “Blood is thicker than water.” That is, we stick by our parents and our brothers and sisters and children when we like them and when we don’t, when we like what they do and when we don’t. Storge is a milder creature than eros, but can be more stubborn and continue on when eros fades. At their best both eros and storge help us to build strong families with people for whom we care deeply and who care for us in return. There is a sense in which both of these loves are especially evident to us as strong feelings.

I have heard people say that love is not a feeling, but rather that love is a decision, a choice. These forms of love—sexual love and family love—are probably not what they are thinking of. We experience these as strong feelings in which we care deeply about the one who we love, and we want them to love us in return. You might say that in some sense these are “need-loves”. That is, we want something and we need something from those whom we love.

Eros wants and needs sexual satisfaction. Storge wants and needs to take care of other family members, and to be needed and taken care of by their family members. If a child spurns his/her mother’s love that hurts the mother almost more than anything else we can think of. To be cut off by our family is almost unbearable to us. We love each other, and we need to be loved in return. This brings us to philia.

Philia is friendship love, the love between friends who share interests and ideas and experience a deep bond based on their shared outlook on life. Philia appears in the name of the American city, Philadelphia, whose name means “brotherly love”. The first two words we looked at hardly appear at all in the New Testament. Philia does appear, for example in Hebrews 13:1: “Let brotherly love continue” (KJV), or in the NIV: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.” In the church we are bound together by our common commitment to Jesus and by the new life that we have when we are baptised into his death and raised with his new life in us.

In John 15:14 and 15 Jesus addresses his disciples as “my friends”. The Greek word for “friends” is related to this word, philia. The category of friend is one that carries special power in our context today. I remember the speaker from our older son’s graduation ceremony from the SRSS. She emphasized the value of friendship and encouraged the graduates to hold on to their friends from High School, wherever they went in their lives. I think we value friendship partly because we don’t choose our families, but we do choose our friends.

With family love there is great joy and power; but with friendship we step into a new area. Bound together by common ideas and commitments, friends give their love without demanding anything back. We care deeply for our friends, and we are able to face the world better because our friends are there.

When we first came to Steinbach to buy a house, we visited the library. Our younger son Nevin found Luke Janzen in the library as they both were looking at what books and videos were in the section on Star Trek. Two months later we moved into our new house, and Nevin saw Luke across the street! Nevin and Luke discovered that they were in the same grade, on the same street, going to the same church—and were both trekkies! There was an immediate friendship that has been good for both of them down through the years.

So there are three loves: eros, storge, and philia: These three forms of love encompass almost all that books and songs and human experience know about love. But the New Testament uses only the third as part of Christian love, and uses a fourth word almost entirely to describe God’s love, and to describe the Christian love that flows from God’s love. That word is agapé.

We know this word in Steinbach as the name of the centre for abused women in Southeast Manitoba: Agapé House.

Agapé is the Greek word used throughout the New Testament for “love”. Consider:
John 3:16: God loved the world so much—God Agapéd the world so much.
John 13:34: I give you a new command, that you love one another—that you Agapé one another.
Over and over again the Bible talks about love, using this word—not sexual love, not family love, not even friendship love; but Agapé love. What is Agapé?

I observed earlier that a dominant characteristic of sexual love and family love is our own need. We love, because we want receive something in return, and we need what we give. When we sing, “love makes the world go round”, that is part of what we’re thinking of. When the Beatles sang, “The love you take is equal to the love you make,” that’s what they were thinking of.

Now please understand me here. This is not a bad thing. Sexual love has been called “the exchange of mutual felicity”—that is, we give each other joy. That’s good! Family love binds us together powerfully: “blood is thicker than water!” That’s good! Even friendship love, which Jesus used to describe the relationship between him and his disciples, contains this element of mutual exchange, of giving and receiving. We need each other. That’s good!

Because these forms of human earthly love have this element of mutual exchange that binds us together in love, they include a strong aspect of emotion and feeling. We care for each other. We care about each other. Paul describes this kind of caring in Romans 12 with the words: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” When someone I love is hurt, I feel that hurt. We care deeply for each other.

Even God cares in this way through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus. You remember how Jesus responded to the Jews when they rejected him, recorded at the end of Matthew 23: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” By living on earth as a 1st century Jewish male, Jesus the Son of God knows the forms of love that we know.

So the various forms of love we know on this earth are good gifts, given to us by God. But Agapé love goes a step further. Where eros, storge, and philia are primarily emotions and feelings, Agapé is pure will. The old English word in the KJV for this love is “charity”. This perfect love does not decide what to do based on feelings, but has only one question: “What will make you more like Christ? What will make you into what God wants you to be?” In his perfect love, God does whatever is needed to make us like himself. If we complain that it hurts, God continues to love and to do what we need. If we say that we don’t like what is happening to us, God continues to love us and to do what we need to make us perfect. This is a difficult concept, one that I can hardly grasp; but it is basic to what it means to be a Christian.

When Jesus and Paul and John say that we are to love each other, they use the word Agapé. So they aren’t asking us to feel good about each other, or telling us simply that we should care about what happens to each other. Indeed it is good that we care for each other and like each other, but Agapé goes deeper and further than our feelings. To love each other with God’s love means that we are ready to do whatever is needed for each other to help each other become fully what God wants us to be. That is why Paul describes this kind of love in the verses after the passage on the fruit of the Spirit by saying that it means carrying reach other’s burdens by “restoring those who fall into sin.” God loved us so much that he sent his Son to die for us, and John draws the lesson in 1 John 3: “16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

To put it another way, real Christian love, the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit, has to do more with how we treat each other than how we feel about each other. To be sure, feelings follow action, and the various kinds of human love all go together. We will indeed care about each other and feel life together. But the crucial piece is that we live lives of love, not just that we feel “loving”.

I like being able to give some specific examples of what I’m talking about. This morning I won’t do that, but I will give you a homework assignment. Stop and think through the way that you treat people around you. How can you and I live in ways that show real Agapé love?

Ken Medema has a song that says, “Don’t tell me that I’ve got a friend in Jesus, without showing me that I’ve got a friend in you.” How do we become truly the family of God? How do we love each other with both human and divine loves, loving each other as family and friends with the very love of God?

These are easy questions to ask, and we can give simple easy answers; but they are really very difficult questions to answer well and to live out the answers that we give.

They generate other questions too: Since Agapé love focusses on the other person (cf Philippians 2), we get the old acronym: Jesus; Others; You—putting Jesus first, others second, and yourself last gives a life of Christian joy. But people sitting here can relate examples of how this formula has become destructive, leading to people whose self-image is so bad that they have hurt their families and themselves by trying to show “Christian love”. How do we avoid this danger, well known in Mennonite circles, as we live lives of Agapé love?

You can think of other questions, and your homework is to try to answer them—in your families, in care groups or talking with your friends, and as you engage in your own private devotions on your own. This particular quality is the foundation, the very centre, of the fruit of the Spirit. Without God’s love at work within us, we can hardly even call ourselves Christians. Remember: The fruit of the Spirit is love!

Scripture Passages
You may have noticed that we did not read a Scripture. That is because I wanted us to hear the Scripture with this conversation about love in mind. So now we read the Scripture. We start with Ed reading 1 John 3: 1-3; 11-18. Then Keith reads 1 John 4: 7-21. I conclude with 1 Corinthians 13.

There are so many other passages we could have chosen, but these three remind us a little bit of what the New Testament says about love: the beginning of God’s Spirit at work in our lives bearing his fruit.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Musical Heaven

We had finished supper and the Scrabble game was out. Commonplace in our family. Then I was taken completely by surprise and transported almost it seemed to heaven itself.

We have a record player and have inherited several hundred vinyl records from various sources. From one of these records rose the voices of a choir from St. John’s Cambridge. I enjoy English hymnody, and their music made a pleasant backdrop to the word game in front of us.

“The Lord ascendeth up on high,
The Lord hath triumphed gloriously,
In power and might excelling:
The grave and hell are captive led.
Lo, he returns, our kingly Head,
To his eternal dwelling.”

Trebles and tenors soared in their upper range, while altos and basses provided a quiet underpinning. I sat, the game forgotten and the evening light transformed. Words by A.T. Russell (1806-1874) and melody by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621). A bit of research in Wikipedia shows that Russell was an English hymn writer and Praetorius was a musician in the Lutheran church. Such details give no hint of the music that soared around and above me.

“The heavens with joy receive their Lord.
By Saints, by Angel-hosts adored,
O day of exultation;
Glad earth, adore thy might King,
His rising, his ascension sing
With thankful adoration.”

An August evening, but it was Resurrection morning as the voices shook the evening and my world. Angel voices—almost the voices that I imagine sounded in Rivendell and Frodo and his companions first descended into that blessed valley, but singing of a reality greater and more terrible and more wonderful than anything in Middle Earth.

“Our great high priest hath gone before,
On all his church his grace to pour,
And still his love he giveth:
O may our hearts to him ascend,
And all within us upward tend
To him who ever liveth.”

This is a new hymn to me. I know many, but I had never heard this one. Nor did YouTube help: I could not find a recording of it to listen to again, only my old vinyl record. In my own estimation Praetorius’ music outranks Russell’s text. But the combination of both, coming so unexpectedly gave me a gift that evening that cannot be properly described, only experienced. A wonderful gift. A gift of Heaven.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Ruthless Love

Colossians 3:1-11
Living as Those Made Alive in Christ
3 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Luke 12:13-21

The Parable of the Rich Fool

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ b But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Walk with me through the verses we heard read.
Col 3: 1-4: We have died [that is, the kind of life we lived before we met Christ has come to an end], and now we live with the life of Christ within us. We are on our way to Heaven, becoming like Christ as we go and made perfect in him when he returns and takes us to himself forever.
Col 3: 5-11: Although we have “died to self”, our old ways of living are persistent. They keep coming back, and we have to “put them to death” repeatedly. These old ways include “whatever belongs to your earthly nature”: sexual immorality, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language from your lips, and lying. This is not an exhaustive list, but gives a clear picture of what we are to set aside.
In their place we put on the new self, which is the perfect image of our Creator. This image is most notable for living completely in Christ, so that all human distinctions (all class and social standings) are done away with. We stand united with each other when we are united in Christ.

Luke 12: 13-15: Someone asked Jesus to arbitrate a dispute over inheritance. Jesus replied that they did not need an arbitrator; rather they need to be set free from their reliance on material possessions. The parable that follows indicates that God calls every person to judgment at the end of life; in response we rest on our life in Christ, not in material possessions. The problem, of course, is not that the rich man planned for the future, but that he left God out of his plans.

I bring these two passages together through the lens of standing before God in the judgment. We are on our way to Heaven, God’s realm, where God calls us to judgment. Life in that realm, eternal life, depends on dying to “earthly things”, dying to self, and becoming alive in Christ with the life of Christ. This new life includes the continuing process of “putting to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (illustrated by the list that follows).

We can describe the earthly life as “life centred on things and self”. Earthly life asks, “What do I want?” It is selfish and self-centred. Life in Christ asks, “What does God want?” It is Christ-centred and other-centred. Notably, when Paul describes this life in the passage we read, he uses language that emphasizes our essential equality and unity. It is the language of love.

This makes sense. When Jesus summarizes his own teaching (Jn 13), he says, “I give you a new command: That you love each other as I have loved you.” In Galatians Paul talks about the way that we support each other: “Carry each other’s burdens (spiritual and physical), and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This law is the law of love. Paul feel so strongly about the importance of loving each other that he places it at the centre of the Philippian church’s life (Phil 2), and he places it at the centre of the gifts that the Corinthian church seeks (1 Cor 13).

John describes the ministry of Jesus with the words: “God loved the world so much that he sent his only-begotten Son ….” In 1 John the writer places love for God and love for each other at the centre of Christian living, and bases this centrality on the truth that “God is love”. Over and over in the NT we see that the new life of Christ is the life of love—God’s love for us and our answering love for God and for each other.

What does this have to do with the warnings of judgment in the passages we read?

A Ruthless Love
Here’s where I’m going with my thoughts: God’s Judgment (or God’s Wrath) is an expression of God’s Love. First, we take a detour through the study of culture. Paul contrasts two different centres for living: Either we live with self at the centre—an individualistic and self-centred life, or we live with God at the centre—a life focussed on God and on others. The former is the old way, the earthly way; the latter is the new way, growing in the image of our Creator.

As I study various cultures, I find it interesting that cultures in general are not self-centred. Modern Western cultures do centre on the individual. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it clear that the rights and freedoms of the individual stand at the heart of our society. The Declaration of Independence in the USA similarly places the equality of the individual at the heart of American society.

For centuries one society after another has placed the larger community at the centre. The Southern African proverb says, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu—A person becomes fully human only in and with community.” In place of the Western, “I think, therefore I am”, other cultures say something like, “I come from this village and family, therefore I am” (Palestinians), or “I belong to this clan and family, therefore I am” (Zulu). The essential point is that the community matters more than the individual.

Sherwood Lingenfelter has a book titled Transforming Culture, in which he describes four different types of culture: Collectivist, Corporate, Individualistic, and Bureaucratic. Curiously, our own culture is more bureaucratic than individualistic. Lingenfelter illustrates each type with a society from some part of the world—individualistic is the hardest to illustrate, because it is the rarest. He cites an Amerindian group from the Amazon jungle who are remarkably individualistic in their lifestyle. One can illustrate with the way that they handle conflict. When a husband and wife have a conflict, the wife may go across the road from their house in the village, where her friends come and stand beside her. There she begins to shout her case against her husband for all to hear. His friends join him on his porch, and he shouts his case back at her. As their friends cheer them on, they argue loudly, and in extreme cases start wrestling in the middle, with their friends making sure they don’t actually hurt each other.

Lingenfelter describes how he and a missionary friend, Dan Koop (Canadian of course), spent the day clearing a landing strip for the planes that brought them and their supplies into the village. At the end of the day they were hot and sweaty and went down to the river to bathe. There they found women and children occupying their usual bathing spot, so they went to another part of the river. It was also in use, so Dan went back to his house. Lingenfelter, however, decided to try to use what he had observed of their ways for resolving conflict. He went to a spot near both bathing areas and started shouting at the top of his voice how he and Dan had worked all day, but when they wanted to bathe, the women and children were using all the space. Although they could not understand his English, they knew what he was doing, and he soon had the river to himself! That night the villagers told Dan how they enjoyed this stranger who understood their ways.

The point is not that we should try their methods of conflict resolution—that would be a good way to get arrested in Winnipeg! The point is rather that this is a most unusual culture, because most societies around the world have placed the value of the community above the value of the individual. We in the West are plotting a different course, in which we use laws and bureaucracy to enshrine the value of the individual, so successfully that we have made selfishness a positive value. Not even these people in the Amazon basin saw selfishness as good.

The truth is, of course, that God wants us to be centred on Christ and on others: “Love God with all your being; and love your neighbour as yourself”: this is the whole of the Law. Whether we are Amazon villagers, or Chinese peasants, or Zulu city-dwellers, or First Nations in Manitoba, or Anglo Canadians—whatever our background, whatever our social location, whatever our culture, God wants us to become like Christ. God wants us to put on Christ.

This brings us back to God’s ruthless love. God loves us so much that he took our death into himself on the cross, in order to give us life. That feels good! God loves us so much that he will not allow us to continue in anything that draws us away from himself. That can hurt! As C.S. Lewis puts it, it is the action of a surgeon who stops at nothing to cut out the cancer within us.

I just re-read Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy. I enter into this thought coming from his book with real hesitation, aware that I can easily become trite. But I think that the relationship between judgment and love within God’s great purpose takes us here. Vanauken describes his relationship with Davy, his wife, leading up to her death, and then the time afterwards.

Sheldon and Davy fell in love and got married. They were remarkably in tune with each other, appearing almost to read each other’s minds. One friend having supper with them noted Davy glance at the unlit candles on the mantel, without any further look at Sheldon. A moment later he got up and lit the candles. Their friend said the unspoken communication was almost creepy.

They were not Christians, believing that Christian faith was for people who really did not have a vital intellectual life. Then they went from their home in Virginia to Oxford University for further studies. There they found one friend after another who was intellectually alive, who shared their interests and values, and who were thoroughly Christian. Under their influence they began to examine Christian faith, reading especially the works of people like C.S. Lewis. Vanauken describes their conversions—first Davy’s then his own (Vanauken: 95ff).

They became friends with Lewis and others within the Oxford setting. Then their studies came to an end, and they returned to Virginia, where Sheldon found a job teaching college English. Although they found the return to the USA difficult, life was good. They were in their 30s, doing work they enjoyed, part of a vital Christian community, and in love with each other and with life. Then Davy developed an unspecified virus that took her life in a matter of about six months.

As Vanauken processed her death, he went through the various stages we all experience when tragedy strikes. One thing stood out, as he reflected on their lives together. Davy had developed an intense close relationship with Jesus. At one point she had made the commitment that if it took her own life in order for Sheldon to know Christ as closely as she did, she was willing to give her life (Vanauken: 145f). Vanauken himself realized that he had actually become jealous of Davy’s relationship with Jesus. Although we cannot say God took Davy so that Sheldon could know God better, he himself does conclude that losing Davy was a basic step in his own pilgrimage to a closer life with Christ.

That is the meaning of the title: “A Severe Mercy”—that God used the death of the one Sheldon Vanauken loved best to bring him closer to God. That is also what I mean by the phrase “ruthless love”. God uses everything that happens to us to draw us to himself. He pursues us to the ends of the earth. He will not rest until we are fully “in Christ”. Nothing can turn God aside from the pursuit of our very souls.

This idea is expressed clearly in the hymn: “How Firm a Foundation”. Hear verse 3: “When through fiery trials they pathway shall lie,/ My grace all sufficient shall be they supply./ The flames shall not hurt thee, I only design/ Thy dross to consume and the gold to refine.”

Please understand, I am not drawing a line from any tragedy we have experienced to anything else. My mother did not die because my Dad was not fully committed to God. My sister did not die as an infant because my parents needed to cling more closely to God. We dare not explain God’s ways so lightly.

But I can say that God uses everything in our lives to make us more like Christ. I told you some time ago of a personal crisis I experienced almost five years ago. Resolution to that crisis came in a series of three dreams. In the third dream, I was floating in the sea (a difficult image for me, since I do not swim and fear the water), and I realized that the sea was the sea of God’s love. No matter how stormy it became, I knew I was safe, because it was the sea of God’s love. Ruthless? So it sometimes seems. Love? Absolutely and forever.