Love covers a multitude of sins, or something like that! Love can be romantic, but that’s not always true. When I say "I love Cheryl," hopefully that means something different from saying "I love the San Francisco Giants" or "I love pizza." Because "love is a many-splendored thing" it’s about feelings and emotions, but all too often feelings and emotions can change from one moment to the next. And so love can be fickle and fleeting. Consider the teenager who falls desperately in love, one day, thinking it’s the real thing, and yet more often than not, by the next day they’ve moved on to someone else.
We say "God is love," but do we have in mind an emotion that’s fleeting and dependent on the moment? Our English word "love" has many nuances and uses, but the Greeks had four very precise words for love, which C.S. Lewis placed into two categories: Gift-Love and Need-Love. Lewis wrote:
"The typical example of Gift-love would be that love which moves a man to work and save for the future well-being of his family which he will die without sharing or seeing; of the second, that which sends a lonely or frightened child to its mother's arms."1
1 Corinthians 13 sings a hymn about this gift-love, which Paul places right in the middle of his response to church conflict. Though we use it regularly for weddings, this hymn isn’t simply about emotion, it’s about practical living. It’s a love that calls on warring factions to lay down their arms and embrace each other. Now, that’s powerful love.
LOVE IS ESSENTIAL
The hymn begins in the first person: "If I speak with tongues"; "If I have all prophetic powers"; "if I give away all my possessions"; "if I embrace the flames of martyrdom." But none of this matters, Paul says, if you don’t have love. It’s not that these gifts and abilities and even the willingness to die is a bad thing, but without love they have no purpose or power. They’re nothing more than noise and useless gestures. But when accompanied by divine love, these gifts and abilities and sacrifices, take on power that can change the world.
LOVE IS PRACTICAL
The Greek word used here in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape, a word that’s related to the Hebrew word hesed, which means "steadfast love." Though we tend to think of love in emotional and romantic ways, this kind of love is very practical in nature. It looks outward and seeks the best for others. It’s patient and kind; it isn't jealous, boastful, arrogant or rude. It doesn't insist on its own way, nor does it become irritable or resentful. It protests injustice and rejoices in the truth. As the New Living Translation puts it: "Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance." This kind of love is full of hope and it’s welcoming to all.
Such a love isn’t easy to come by, and yet as we are transformed by the love of God that dwells within us, it can and will take hold. It doesn’t happen overnight, because that transformation requires maturity and commitment. Although none of us will perfectly live out this love, it’s still our calling and purpose as followers of the one we believe perfectly embodied God’s love, and that person is Jesus. As Jesus said to his disciples, "I came not to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45).
LOVE IS PERMANENT
This "gift-love" does have an important partner that fits in the category of "need-love," a love that lasts only as long as the need lasts. Despite it’s fleeting nature, it’s not without its value. Lew Smedes, my ethics professor in seminary, says this about Eros:
"Eros flickers and fades as the winds of desire rise and wane. Change is the way of life for Eros. This indeed is part of the power of Eros. Its very fragility creates the possibility of repeated excitement. We could not endure a steady stream of Eros at its highest pitch: we need the valleys to be inspired by the peaks."2
Eros ebbs and flows, it rises with the excitement of newness and dies when that newness fades. That doesn’t make Eros something to be despised, it just highlights its impermanence. As wonderful as it is, agapic love needs Eros, in spite of its limitations. Eros, Smedes writes,
"is the driving power for personal growth. It may not endure unchanged into eternity, but its unrelenting urges move us beyond ourselves in this life. All creativity rises from the need-power of Eros. Eros is a drive created by human need for a share in what is beautiful; it is life's aesthetic power. . . . Eros is a drive rising from human need for personal completion and human communion."3
Eros drives us, but agape transforms us. Eros drives us out into the world, but agape motivates us to serve the leper, the homeless person, the one who is dying, even though we know that no reward is in the offing. It enables us to do what we wouldn’t otherwise consider possible. Consider the love that enables a husband or wife to stand by their spouse through serious and even debilitating illness. It’s the love that allows a parent to keep loving and caring for a rebellious child. Agapic love is what allows us to risk our lives for one another. But this love only exists because of an infusion of God’s grace. Perhaps this is why the older translation of the word is Charity.
Divine love doesn’t replace natural love, as if we must, in Lewis’ words, "throw away our silver to make room for the gold." 4 It’s simply this: that which is natural is transformed by grace into sweet charity. And there’s no better expression of this than the incarnation. As Christians we affirm the mystery that God has become flesh and dwelt among us. In Christ the human and the divine come together to perfectly display the power of love. And it is a love that embraces us and empowers us to love even as he loves.
- C.S. Lewis The Four Loves, (HBJ, 1960), 11.
- Lewis Smedes, Love Within Limits, (Eerdmans, 1978), 120.
- Smedes, 120-21.
- Lewis, Four Loves, 184.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 28, 2007