In Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, John Boswell explains the problem with translation: “Only a naïve and ill-informed optimism assumes that any word or expression in one language can be accurately rendered in another.” This is the prelude to Boswell’s discussion of love. He makes the profound point that it’s not just the language that is confusing. In translation, one is trying to decipher the feelings and desires of a person who no longer exists to help navigate. But even worse, “the feelings themselves are often jumbled, shifting, and imprecise.”
This stands in contrast to the Biblical wisdom I received as a youth. I was told that the Greeks recognized different kinds of love and had different words for all of them. They were clearly differentiated and clearly labeled. Some loves were better than others. Eros, I was told, is lust, something with which God does not concern Godself. It is base and dirty. Then there is affection and friendship and, finally, agape. Agape, I was told, is the best love, the love that God has for us. We are mostly incapable of this kind of love, so it is good that God is not. Agape is self-giving, all-encompassing, and unconditional. If only we could do that, have that, all the time. If only we could treat each other that way.
In the limited amount of translation I have done, I can assure you that Boswell is right: it’s never that simple. It may even be impossible. And I’m sure that in the living you have done, you have discovered that Boswell is also right about love. It’s messy. It’s confusing. It may even be impossible. One might argue that this is the problem of life, constantly negotiating the gap between one person and another.
So, when we talk about a church built on love, and John’s church in particular, we have to admit that it lacks specificity. As we mentioned last week, John does not tell us what to do about divorce or wealth or prisons. This would seem to vacate the ethical ground. One can easily ask, when asked to love, “But what do I do?” While John does not lay this out in detail, there is one very clear statement to guide us. In John 15:13, Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
First, the nerdy part. John uses two words for love: agape and phileo. Agape is unconditional, divine love and phileo is human friendship. Much has been made of chapter 21, wherein Jesus asks Peter three times whether Peter loves him. The first two times, he uses the word agape, but the third, the time Jesus seems satisfied to let Peter off the hook, he uses phileo. As I heard it growing up, this meant that Peter was unable to love the way God loves, so Jesus settles for friendship, a very human kind of love. But John does not make such distinctions: “No one has greater agape than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s philon.” The greatest love is to be a friend. In John 5:20, Jesus describes God’s love for him, the love that is the model for all love, as phileo. Jesus also uses phileo to describe God’s love for us, Jesus’ love for Lazarus, and the disciples’ love for Jesus. Agape is used in a similarly broad and complex fashion. John collapses agape and phileo, making them equal. When Jesus shifts vocabulary in talking to Peter, he is not settling for a lesser love, but acknowledging that they are the same. He raises up friendship into the realm of the divine and brings the divine love of agape down into the world in which we live. The physical and the spiritual are inextricably bound. The life of humanity and the life of God are the same. Love requires our whole being.
The second implication of the “greater love” is that, whatever love is, it requires risk. You give something up. You take responsibility for the other – ultimate responsibility. As the existentialists have taught us, we are beings for whom our own being matters. Generally speaking, we care if we exist. Individually, I care if I die and you care if you die. My own existence matters to me. Ultimately. There’s probably nothing I care about more. But living in love requires me to be concerned about you and your existence. Your existence must matter to me. Ultimately. And not just your existence, your life. All those things of which your life consists, whatever they may be: house, car, job, money, family, church, ego. Love asks us to lay those down, to put them on the line, for one another.
More importantly, love asks what those things are to us. What does my job give me and what does it take away? How are my friendships constructed around money? How does church form me? How is my identity constructed around these things? And where is love in that? In asking these questions, love reveals who we are to ourselves and to one another. In losing our lives, in laying them down for one another, in deconstructing the identity and ego we have built around possessions and institutions, we find ourselves and have true life. Love is the necessary condition of revelation, of knowing God and knowing ourselves.
In making ethical decisions, what are you risking of yourself? What are you giving up?
As a church, what are we risking? What are we willing to risk?
John is not alone in extolling the value of love. In Matthew, when Jesus is asked: “What is the greatest commandment?” He responds: “Love God; love your neighbor. On these hang all the law and the prophets.” Everything his culture knew about God and what it meant to live life with God was put to the test: “Is it loving?” Some read this and presume that whatever they take God to be about, whatever they take the law to be about, it must be loving. But it’s the reverse. If it is loving, it is what God is about. If it isn’t loving, it is not from God and it is not the law. In John, Jesus only needs one commandment – love one another – because without that, you have nothing.
Love is the ground of Christian ethics. Love says to systems of power, to oppression, to rules, to morality: “Where am I? Have you forgotten my name?” Love tears down walls and builds up people. When I hear Robert Jeffress and others condemn queers, I ask, Where is the love? They of course claim that they are preventing people from going to hell and nothing could be more loving. But that’s not what John’s Jesus tells us. John’s Jesus tells us that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life, to risk something, to risk ourselves. So, when Robert Jeffress says with a smile that “gay is not okay,” when he says hateful things to a church that pays him handsomely to do so, what is he risking? When he attempts to destroy whatever peace and love a person has managed to find in the world, what is he putting on the line? Nothing. He risks nothing and he loses nothing. And so he finds nothing and has nothing to give. Love tears down that hatred.
Love looks at the stranger, the alien, the queer and says, “You have a home here.” Not if you become less strange, less alien, less queer, but precisely because you are those things. Because love requires the other. Love is not a mirror, a glass into which we see ourselves darkly, but an encounter, face to face. Only in love can we go out to the other and return to ourselves, whole but transformed. Love is fecund, it’s creative, it’s generative. It is a vast abyss in which we all swim and from which all things rise. It is the possibility of all things, the strength and support of all things. If we live in love, we live in God, in that confusing, tumultuous abyss of not knowing, but creating love. Figuring out. Having things revealed. Risking the uncertain for what might be. That is church.