This week the stained glass man was working in the new building. He installed the Gethsemane window in its new location and he also installed the small window that used to be high up over the altar in the Mary Chapel. That little window is similar to the small windows up high near the pulpit. Two of them contain words and images relating to poetry by Elizabeth Barret Browning. Though the poem quoted in our windows (The Rhyme of the Duchess) is not all that well-known, the Browning poem, along with the Gospel today, made me think of a better known Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. Some of us had to memorize that poem when we were in school.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death. (Sonnet 43)
The forty-four poems that became Sonnets from the Portuguese were written by the future Mrs. Browning between 1845 and 1846 while she was being courted by Robert Browning. I like that in those poems she speaks of a love that is complicated and multi-textured.
Love gets complicated in our scripture readings today. When Jesus says, “Love one another,” it can sound straightforward and simple. But then if we’re honest, that statement is overwhelming. In my own life, I realize the impossibility of those words when I begin to be honest and admit that I don’t always like everyone—much less, love them. Some people are difficult. I can try to see the good in some people and even try to pretend I feel something charitable towards them, but before long, such a feeling becomes the stuff of confession, as I feel defeated, hypocritical, and dishonest.
We can feel a similar feeling as a community as we recall that the earliest Christians were known by the love they showed for each other. And then we look at our church or denomination or the fragmented state of Christianity, and—again, we can easily feel defeated. We don’t love very well, and Christians would not necessarily be noticed for being especially loving. I recall the wonderful honesty of our former senior warden, Nancye Suggs, who would say, “I know Jesus tells me to love my neighbor, but sometimes I can only do that from across the street.”
But love isn’t exactly straightforward in the scriptures, either. Especially in John’s Gospel, there is a lot of complexity around this idea of love. John uses different words to talk about love—there is the love that is really more of a simple affection for someone. There is another kind of love that has to do with brotherly love or sisterly love. There is eros, (not really erotic, in the way our culture uses it), but eros is the romantic love that involves feeling, romance, and a kind of longing.
There is also the love John talks about most for Christians, the love of agape.
Jesus doesn’t call us to feel eros toward everyone we meet. We are not created for, nor expected to feel warm fuzzies every time we encounter someone. He calls us, he commands us, to love one another, but he commands us to love with agape love.
Agape love describes an attitude. This agape love has to do with a willingness to yield to the other, a kind of availability for others. In full expression, it has to do with giving of one’s life in sacrifice for another. Agape seeks to serve others and moves out of oneself into the realm of others—quite honestly, whether we like them or not.
This agape love is powerful stuff because it begins with God, not with a good feeling you or I might have. God gave himself to the world. God’s love came to live with humanity in the work and person of Jesus. That love of his has been let loose in the world making it possible for that same love to move through us, if we let it.
This is the love of God moving through us, and it has nothing to do with how nice I am, or how holy I am, or even how good we might be— it is the pure and perfect love of God that flows through us, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Agape love doesn’t even depend on the object of its loving power. This kind of love loves the other person not because they are worthy or good or in any way inspire love, but simply because it is the nature of God’s love to love. And that unloving person, by the grace of God’s love, can eventually be loved into being loving.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that when someone says, “Do you love me?” They’re really asking, “Do you see the same truth?” Or at least, “Do you care about the same truth, as I?” C. S. Lewis elaborates on this in his little book, The Four Loves. He points out that the person who goes through life simply looking for friends may never make any. This is because the very condition of making friends is that we should want something beyond the friendship. The friendship must be about something. Those who have nothing can share nothing, and those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers. Lewis points out that when friendship is based on agape love, the friendship doesn’t depend upon the particulars of this person or that. We become friends without knowing or caring about whether a person is single or in a relationship, how the person earns a living, or where the person lives. The real question remains, “Do you see the same truth?” “Do you care about the same truth?” Lewis suggests that friendship based in agape love is a little like world leaders from independent states who meet on neutral ground. In the neutral space they are freed from their contexts. They are freed to be something new.
This is a good day to think about love, this day many celebrate as Mother’s Day. Many of us have enjoyed a good and loving relationship with our mothers and today is a natural and easy day. But others have a more complicated relationship and the day shares in those complications. Some perhaps have never felt love from their mother and so find they find the whole notion perplexing.
But just as a mother’s love might be multi-leveled and complex, and our love for a mother might be complicated, we are called to be people of Christ’s love. The love of Christ is not a kiss to be caught, but rather, a willingness to look beyond the self for a truth that can be shared. To love one another means to give of ourselves—our money, our talents, our minds, our hearts, and to give to others that they may be loved into loving. This is how we will be saved. This is how the world will be saved.
Thanks be to God for the love of Jesus Christ that moves through us, that changes us, that brings us to God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.