Part 5: Start with ‘Why’ Series
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, June 12, 2022
Reading: Matthew 5:38-48
God is love.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; love your neighbour as yourself. For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son…
“…as I have loved you, so you too should love one another.”
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love…” (I promise I’m going to resist the urge to sing!)
We know that love is one of the most central aspects of the Christian faith. The problem with love is… it’s messy. We all grew up on movies that present love as this warm, fuzzy feeling that makes our hearts flutter and draws us into a state of permanent bliss and solves all our problems; but if you ever actually loved someone – and I hope all of you have – then you know it’s not always all puppy dogs and cotton candy. Love is great, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the people we most love are the ones best positioned to push all our buttons.
I gave up on love once – romantic love, anyway. After a failed relationship I decided that I didn’t need that kind of stress in my life anymore. Loving makes us vulnerable, it exposes our hearts; and I had dared to love someone at great personal cost and was deeply hurt. I’m not going to call out the violins…you’ve all been there too! After that I was determined that I didn’t need love in my life. I’m a smart, competent, woman with solid life experience; I know how to look after myself, and I was just fine on my own. But as you all know, love did win they day…I dared to open myself up to love again, and it has been totally worth the risk!
Love is not about the warm fuzzy feelings we see in those movies…those feelings come and go, even within the most loving relationships with the people we are closest to. Think of your spouse, your parents, your siblings, your children, or whoever you love…I’m sure there have been times when your feelings towards them were less than warm and fuzzy. So, when Jesus says, “love one another” or “love your enemies” as he does in today’s scripture passage, he’s not talking about conjuring up some fuzzy feelings that aren’t there.
According to Jesus, when someone causes us injury we should respond with love, which is to say, we should respond to them in the way we would want others to respond to our sins. Loving our enemies is not about manufacturing warm feelings or denying how we really feel about being wronged. Loving them is about our attitude and actions towards them, despite our feelings. When we love our enemies, we can acknowledge our sincere feelings – to ourselves, to God, and even sometimes toward the other person, if appropriate – but then by our attitude and actions we seek their wellbeing instead of their demise. We don’t set out to make them pay for what they’ve done to us. We extend grace to them.
Love your enemies: forgive them, pray for them. It is radical; it’s ridiculous; but so is God’s love for each one of us. God’s grace is outrageous. The very definition of “grace” is being offered the love and forgiveness that we have not earned and do not deserve. All of us have been given an infinite amount of God’s amazing grace and love; and when we extend love to others, it flows from the love that we have been given. We extend it to others with an awareness of how blessed we have been by God’s grace.
So that’s “why love”: because we have been loved, even when we didn’t deserve it.
For human beings, being loved is particularly important: all of us are seeking love in one way or another; and many people go through life starved for it, which can – unfortunately – lead some to look in very unhealthy ways and places to try and find it. One well-respected psychoanalyst by the name of Erich Fromm, in his book entitled, The Art of Loving, – and I may have shared this with you before, because I love this book so much – wrote that our human attitudes toward love are based on several misguided premises.
The first, he says, is that we see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving; that is, we rarely concern ourselves with expanding our capacity to give love to others. Often, we give love to be loved back, and if our love is not reciprocated, it eventually fades away. So, we concern ourselves with how to be loved, and seek to learn how to be lovable, by trying to make ourselves successful and attractive and developing pleasing social skills. Our focus is on being loved, rather than on learning how to love others well.
We don’t really try to learn how to love our enemies; we think we’re doing well if we try to tolerate them. I use the word “learn” because the second misguided premise behind our attitudes to love, according to Fromm, is that to love is simple or natural – the difficult part is finding the right object to love. We think that once we find the right object, then loving them will just come naturally. This comes from a tendency in our culture – and not just among teenage girls, either – to confuse love with infatuation, which is that spontaneous emotional experience we have when we are attracted to someone.
The Bible does not command us to be lovable; it commands us to love others, and not only those we have deemed to be a suitable object to love. And the fact that it is a command, tells us that it is not something Jesus considered simple or natural, rather it is something that requires some effort and discipline on our part: it is something that needs to be learned and practiced.
That brings us to the question: what does it really mean to “love” others, anyway? Does it mean that we always give in to the whims and desires of others? Compromise what we know is right to make others happy? Agree with everything they say or do? Or tolerate abuse from someone? No, it means none of those things. As parents know, sometimes love means saying “no” when they know that what the children want or how they are behaving is not in their best interest; and often we must be willing to suffer the personal pain of their anger or rejection that often comes when we say “no” to someone, knowing that it is the right thing to do. If you are loving them well, your children will not always like you!
It helps us to understand the Christian idea of love in all the spheres of our lives if we look at the Bible’s use of the words for “love.” The Greek language in which the New Testament was originally written has several words to signify various types of love. The most common words for love in the ancient Greek are eros, philia and agape. “Eros,” which is sexual or romantic love, is the kind of love that most of us automatically think of when we even hear the word “love”. This word is not even used once in the New Testament. The two Greek words for love that are used in the New Testament are “philia” and “agape.” These are the words that point us to the Bible’s understanding of what it means to love others.
Philia is probably the biblical form of love that will seem most natural to us. The best way to understand the kind of love that philia refers to is to think of the city “Philadelphia” whose name combines this Greek word for love – philia – with another Greek word “adelphos,” which means “brother.” Phile-delphia: the city of brotherly love. So, philia refers to that kind of familiar or affectionate love that exists between family members or close friends, which brings with it some emotional response.
Agape is the word for love that is used most often in the New Testament, including this morning’s passage from Matthew. The word “agape” indicates a selfless concern for the welfare of others that has nothing to do with any quality of lovableness in the recipient; this kind of love doesn’t flow naturally but involves a decision to seek the wellbeing of others in obedience to God’s command. It is like Christ’s love manifested on the cross. It is a love that is willing to sacrifice all self-interest, all personal benefit, even personal rights, for the good of the other, whether they deserve it or not, and expecting nothing in return.
This is the love – agape love – that Jesus gives to us. It is sacrificial love, which led him to give up absolutely everything to the ultimate consequences – death on the cross – making it possible for us to be forgiven and restoring us to fellowship with the Father. This is the kind of love that we, as Christians, are called to give to others.
The way we love people and express that love, obviously depends on our relationship with them. We don’t love our neighbour as we love our spouse, for example. But returning to Erich Fromm, he says that all forms of love contain the following basic elements: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. This is consistent with the agape love that we read about in the Bible.
First, that love implies care is most evident in a parent’s love for their child but should be a part of the love that we show to all people.
Second, responsibility, does not mean obligation or duty; “responsibility” means to be able and ready to “respond.” We know, for example, that God responds to all our needs. To love others means to feel responsible for the needs of others, including both physical needs for food and shelter, but also spiritual needs for acceptance and a feeling of value.
Third, respect is the ability to see a person as he or she is, to be aware of his or her unique individuality. Respect means being concerned that the other person grow and unfold as he or she should, not just how we want them to, or in a way that is pleasing or comfortable or convenient for us. God created us and wants us to grow in the image of His son; and loving another person means that we will respect them, by allowing them to develop as God intends for them.
The fourth element of love is knowledge. To respect and love a person is not possible without taking the time to know him or her; care and responsibility, for example, would be blind if not guided by knowledge. There are many layers of knowledge, and the knowledge that is an aspect of love moves beyond the superficial and obvious things we can know about a person, to a deeper understanding of why they act the way they do and respond the way they do.
Nobody has a more profound knowledge of us than God, who – as the psalmist says – knew us before we were born, knit us together in our mother’s womb. God knows us better even than we know ourselves, and loves us the way nobody loves us, not even ourselves. That love is the most powerful thing on earth, and when we give it to others, it has the power to transform their lives, the way God’s love has transformed ours.
Godly love is difficult, there’s no doubt. It’s not something we do spontaneously or naturally, but rather a discipline, a fruit of the spirit that we must sow and cultivate. Becoming loving people is something we learn over time. That’s why Jesus had to specifically direct His disciples to do it. And it is through cultivating a godly love and becoming loving people that we demonstrate to others that we are friends of Jesus. Amen.