A SIMPLE THING TO DO
In radio days, many boys would listen to “The Batman,” syndicated program. The episode would end with a reminder like “tune in next time to see what happens to the Caped Crusader!” The “Batman” series of the 60s on television had two episode programs on television every Wednesday and Thursday night. The 1980s created the age of the mini-series when audiences were urged urged to tune in for the next show in the series. Two weeks ago I introduced you to a new way of hearing Jesus’ questions about love to Simon Peter. The research I shared had many people telling me how helpful it was to share ministerial tools—that is, the original Hebrew for the Old Testament and the original Greek for the New Testament. That even led to one person commenting on the translation of Psalm 23 in the New Revised Standard Version reading last week. So I researched it. We all love to hear King James declare: “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” As Christians, most people tell me they picture themselves living in Heaven in God’s big house for an eternity, because they believe in Christ and the everlasting life he made possible. But when David wrote Psalm 23, he had no such concept. So I learned that the NRSV translation “and I shall dwell in the House of the Lord my whole life long,” was accurate. Dr. Charles Briggs in the International Critical Commentary of 1906 said this about that line: “the House of Yahweh [or The Lord] is indeed the Temple, and the feasts [mentioned] are the sacrificial feasts continually provided in the Temple. That conception that Yahweh is the host to those partaking of the sacrificial meals in his Temple is not uncommon.” He further translates “forever” as “for length of days,” or, more commonly, “for as long as I live.” David had a different idea of how long he would live compared to followers of Jesus who believe in the resurrection from the dead; and in the words, of Revelation 21 that we heard this morning: in the New Jersusalem “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
But today let’s return to the description of love two weeks ago. (Think of this as the second and final episode!) I told you that Greek had more than three terms for love while English has only one single word that represents them all. You may recall that Eros is romantic or sexual love, from which we get the word “erotic.” Philios is brotherly love, from which we get the word “Philadelphia.” And Agape is unconditional love, sometimes called “Christian love.” Today I will tell you the fourth word that means love: it is “storge.” [Pronounced “Stor-gay”] Storge love is the love human parents give their children, or that animal parents give their offspring. We could call it “instinctive” love. And although the Song of Songs in the Old Testament talks about erotic love, in the New Testament we are dealing with Philios and Agape. Two weeks ago Jesus learned the way Simon Peter loved him. Jesus asked him twice if he loved him unconditionally, but Simon Peter would not go that far; he would only say he loved him like a brother. So relenting, the last time Jesus asked if he loved him “like a brother.” And the answer was yes. But brotherly love is not the gold standard when it comes to Christian actions. God loves unconditionally, as we learn from stories like the prodigal son in Luke 15. Jesus loved unconditionally as we learn in today’s text and also at the cross. There John was called “the disciple who Jesus loved.” Jesus did not love him erotically, nor just like a brother. Jesus loved him with agape, unconditional love: so-called Christian love. And today we find Jesus instructs his disciples to love in the same fashion. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Perhaps it was painful to Jesus to realize that he taught this all his disciples in John 13, but much later, in John 21, Simon Peter could not even love Jesus unconditionally! Goodness, was that disappointing? The man seen as the top disciple could not love even his leader the way Jesus was teaching people to love. It seems like a simple thing to do, but Jesus had asked twice, and never got him to commit.
Early in today’s passage, he says the same words that sound simple in English, but are a big request in the original words: It’s in the part of the New Testament called “Jesus’ Farewell discourse;” some of his last instructions were included in this section, like: “Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me.” In these final instructions, Jesus asks the high bar question that sounds simple to English ears: “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another unconditionally. Just as I have loved you unconditionally, you also should love one another unconditionally.” That is what followers of Jesus ought to do. But doing it is another matter. I watched the two-night PBS story of Jackie Robinson last week, featuring the man for whom our ballpark in Daytona Beach is named. He not only broke the color barrier for baseball, but he also campaigned tirelessly for equal rights for men and women of color. But there have been, over the years, some who claimed to be Christians that burned crosses in the yards of families of color, and that torched black churches. Such actions cannot square in any way shape or form with the Christian life. Some people today claim to be Christians too who show acts of extreme bigotry toward people of other faiths, or people of other backgrounds, or other countries or toward men or women with gender issues. There can be disagreement on these subjects, but without vitriol, and hatred, and violence. Jesus spoke to and showed kindness even toward a foreigner who did not even believe in God: the Syrophonecian woman! She challenged him in Matthew 15: 27. Jesus also did not judge or show hate to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jews considered Samaritans unclean, yet he received water from that woman and he drank it! She was living with a man who was not her husband and she had been married five times before! There was no hate; no ugliness; no violence.
Let those who have ears, hear. There are believers and non-believers in our world who show brotherly love; plenty of people on Facebook claim they have a BFF- a “Best Friend Forever.” But I know some who have former best friends forever because of a conflict, where one decides that she or he is through with the other. Sadly that happens sometimes in eros too- in marriages or with boyfriends or girlfriends. It happens in philios too- when a friend who was once a friend becomes un-friended. Sadly, sometimes it happens with storge too, when a parent cuts off a child forever. But there should never be a time when Christians do not show agape, unconditional love, to another human being. It doesn’t mean you like everyone. I don’t think that even Jesus liked everyone. But it means that you give your bigotry, your racism, your sexism, your hatred, and you ugly condemning language to the devil who seeks to divide our world night and day. Our world cannot survive with the hatred of the underworld; it needs the love born in Heaven to take hold. Do not let the conversations you have or the television reports you watch, or the blogs you read lead you into less than Christian living. Jesus’ instructions are so simple, yet so difficult, aren’t they? To love unconditionally, not selectively; and of course, loving like that can lead to people disappointing us with their choices or actions. Or making us sad when the person we love dies. So some people give up on people; they just love their pets. But the kind of love God offers, that Jesus lived, and that he asks of us, does not give up on the human race! I’m so glad the love God offers has never given up on the human race [with the possible exception of the flood in Genesis 6-9, when God promised never to do that again.] C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian author and encourager of Britain during World War II, offered these intriguing words:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung or possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe…. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
So love is risk; agape love is great risk. But so was Christianity in the first century, and so it is in the twenty-first century. If we are working to change the world, rather than being corks bobbing in the waters of media and popular opinion, we have to think differently and act differently. We have to put on, as the Apostle Paul tells us, “the mind of Christ.”
Let me close with the words of American poet and novelist Madeleine L’ Engle:
In his own day, Jesus was a monster to many; disconcerting them with his unpredictability and the company he kept, vanishing to go apart and pray and to be alone with his Father just when people thought they needed him. Perhaps if we are brave enough to accept our monsters, to love them, to kiss them, we will find that we are touching not the terrible dragon that we feared, but the loving Lord of all Creation. And when we meet our Creator, we will be judged for all our turnings away, all our inhumanity to each other, but it will be the judgment of inexorable love, and in the end we will know the mercy of God which is beyond comprehension…. To the ancient Hebrews the love of God for his chosen people transcended the erotic love of man and woman. For the early church, it was the love of Christ for his church. For all of us it is the longing love of God for his creation, a love which is too strong for many of us to accept.
There is an old legend that after his death, Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated if for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures, he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you Judas,” Jesus said. “We couldn’t begin until you came.”
Agape. It can change the world.
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 24, 2016