October 25,2020

Devotional: Agape

At our Easter Sunday service I mentioned that I had been taking in the free Metropolitan Opera streams most evenings. The Met streams a different opera from their immense catalogue every 24hrs. I have not watched every day- but on average I have watched 2 a week since March. I have watched over 50 operas. The most pervasive theme in opera is love, and usually it involves a tragic love. Whether it is the complicated love triangle between Jose, Escamillo and Carmen or the dangerously passionate love between Mario and Tosca, or the gut wrenching heartbreak of Madame Butterfly, love is sung about in arias and stanzas throughout most operas. Often in operas this love happens in an instant, at first sight. In La Traviata the moment Alfredo sets eyes upon Violetta he is determined to make her his one and only love. In Die Zauberflotte, Tamino only looks at a photo of Pamina and determines that he is in love and will do anything to find and save her.  Characters are willing to give up their lives for the person they have just met because they are madly in love. I will admit that often I watch these characters and hear their songs of desire and desperation and I think to myself, “Oh, get a life! You’ve only just met him!” But that could be because,I have a slightly more cynical view of romantic love- or even just love in general. In fact, modern language does a disservice to understanding love and as I encountered these often recited lines in the Gospel this cynicism about love came up.

Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord Your God and love your neighbour as yourself.” As well known as this passage may be it is rather problematic to our contemporary understanding of love. We often think of loving God and loving neighbour as an emotion- as a passionate feeling of deep commitment that might inspire us to sing a great aria of how our lives are forever changed. It certainly does happen…that’s what a lot of our hymns are about. But the love that is described in this passage actually has very little to do with emotion. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

First, this passage is the last of the various debates and entrapments that the religious leaders, from the Herodians to the Sadduccees, the Pharisees to the Scribes, have had with Jesus while he is in Jerusalem. Within the arc of the overall narrative, Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a colt, cleansed the temple by turning tables, delivered some pretty damning parables and is now answering questions meant to trick him. This is likely the Tuesday of Holy Week, three days before the last supper. You might remember from last week that Jesus has managed to amaze the religious leaders with his wit and wisdom. But the Pharisees decided to take one last crack at him and ask, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responds with, “ You shall love the Lord, Your God, with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” It is a variation of the great Shema found in Deuteronomy- a passage that is placed on doorways within Judaism. And then Jesus builds upon it and says, “A second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” It likely comes from the ancient Rabbinic statement, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole law.”  But in order to understand what Jesus truly meant we need to know what kind of love Jesus was talking about.

I have turned to scholar Clayton Schmit to help me clarify. As I mentioned we often think of love as an emotion, and it can certainly be that in many of our interpersonal relationships. We also often think of love as passive, something that just happens to us. In opera, the female lead will just look at the man and his heart melts and he becomes fully invested even before they have shared a word. In the Old Testament, however, there are references to all kinds of love, most of which are active responses by people towards God or vice versa- God chooses to love Israel and therefore the people of Israel choose to respond to God with their heart, soul and mind. It is an active choice that both parties make- and it should be pointed out, within the Hebrew tradition emotions came from the gut, thought came from the heart, living came from the soul and devotion came from the mind. Which means to love God with all our heart, soul and mind has little to do with emotions and everything to do with study, breath and dedication.

Within the New Testament there are actually three main types of love. I’ve talked about this briefly before. There is Eros, where we get our word erotic from, which is the word for passion or desire. This is the love that is sung about by two people deeply enamoured with one another.  There is Philia which is a passionless love and is often translated as brotherly love or friendship. In scripture it is used to describe love between family. Interestingly enough the word in English usually comes as a suffix when describing obsessions, like a bibliophile is someone who loves books. Both Eros and Philia are sparingly referred to in the Bible. The third kind is Agape love and it is this kind of love that Jesus is describing in this law. Agape is a sacred and divine love but it is also often called loving-kindness. Which means that this is a very active kind of love or mercy. As Clayton Schmit states, “It is marked by patience and generosity…both acts generated by the one who loves. In short, [agape] love is a choice, not a feeling. Biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical agape love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous.”

We have encountered this discussion about love in our recent Bible study. Augustine wrote, “When you see love, you see a Trinity.” In his understanding, there is the lover, the beloved and the love that they share. Now originally when I encountered this statement I was thinking about romantic love- but then as we studied the active trinity I began to think of this agape love. There is the lover- the one who acts with loving-kindness. There is the beloved- the one who receives this action of loving-kindness. Then there is the love itself- the transforms the situation. It is a transformation that takes place when true acts of loving-kindness happen.

This being Reformation Sunday it seemed appropriate to quote Martin Luther in his understanding of this Gospel passage. He wrote, ‘Thus you are to regulate your life and conduct. There are in our day many customs, many orders and ceremonies, by which we falsely think to merit heaven; and yet there is only this one principle, namely: the love to God and to our neighbour, that includes in it all good works.” Meaning, that our liturgy, our expression of worship, our doctrine, comes second to this commandment of love- not a gushy feeling but a discipline.

Quite honestly I am mixed with a bit of relief and concern. For example, I am relieved to know that loving neighbour doesn’t really involve the emotion of love because in my own cynicism about love I don’t think I can feel love for people I don’t know.  But then, honestly, I struggle with doing love for people I don’t know either. God chooses to love me and us. God chooses to forgive me and us (even when we fail to love in action). Therefore we are told to choose love of God which, as Jesus pointed out can not be separated, from loving people. Loving God and our neighbour is not something we feel it is something we do. And this is a key distinction because it means that we are meant to reach out in generosity and kindness, even when we don’t feel like it. Trust me, I fail at that often. However, God has chosen us- sometimes that notion is so wonderful it causes me to sing about it- so I will continue to work at choosing loving-kindness for it is through loving kindness that I can be reformed- made new, each day. Amen