I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there always seems to be a lot of talk about love in church.
Yes, I confess that I tire of it sometimes too — when we just talk. It does seem like it’s one of the two most talked about things in church and it always seems like we’re saying the same thing: God loves you, Jesus loves you, love your neighbour. Good stuff. Okay.
That other thing we talk about the most, by the way, is money. At least, everyone thinks we talk about it a lot. I’m not so sure we do. I think it’s just that we talk about it so badly that everyone thinks we talk about it a lot. The church needs money to keep its doors open, keep on doing good things and keep on paying their very gifted clergy. But when are the doors open and for whom? And what “good things” exactly? We seem to just assume that everyone knows what the church does and why more is always needed, so we talk very broadly and in generic terms. And who is this “everyone,” anyway? Shouldn’t we know people a little better?
Sometimes I think we handle love like that, too. We speak very genuinely and authoritatively and we talk about how God loves you, Jesus loves you, and you should love your neighbour (often by making a financial contribution to this church-based program or that one). But there’s more to love than that.
The Bible includes at least three kinds of love and, because the earliest translations of the Bible were in Greek, we often call them by their Greek names. There’s “filio” which means, literally, brotherly – and sisterly – love. Philadelphia, for example, is referred to as “the city of brotherly love” because that’s literally what it means. There’s “eros,” which is physical, sensual love (this is where we get the word “erotic”). And last, there is the one we don’t hear quite so much about, “agapé.” This is the kind of love Jesus speaks of, the all encompassing unconditional love of God.
More often than not, it seems like the church – the institution – speaks about love in only two dimensions, with moral pronouncements on filio and eros (especially eros…) on the one hand and encouragement to just go love everybody, on the other, because that’s what Jesus says we should do.
Except it isn’t, exactly. Jesus is a lot more specific. What Jesus says is that we should do more than love at a distance, as if it were some warm fuzzy sweater we can put on. Jesus says we should love one another as he loved us, and while that’s most clearly stated in John’s gospel, it’s as readily enacted in the others.
Jesus engaged people, got to know them, shared with them. Jesus asked people to come and do as he did, to learn about what it means to love by getting to know people, especially the people we least wanted to know and find out what love means to them. Jesus calls us to let go of those things that get in the way of relationship, like hate and anger, and to try to see things as others might and to do that with compassion and understanding. Filio and eros are spiritually empty without relationship. And yet, as much as the love of agapé is unconditional in itself, living it out is not: it’s work, it takes time and investment and how much or how little can only be found out in relationship. What does love mean to you?