Toorak Uniting Church

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What will Survive us is Love

Psalm 23 and 1 John 3: 16 – 24
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Easter 4
29 April 2012

The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and
consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases."
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

The title of this sermon comes from a poem by Philip Larkin called An Arundel Tomb. The poem uses images such as a tomb, stone, jointed armour, scraps of history, and bone-riddled ground, to reinforce the idea that death is the end, but then when you don’t expect it the poem ends with the words "What will survive us is Love."

Earth to earth, dust to dust ashes to ashes, are words commonly heard at a funeral service. But for most of the time in the funeral service the talk is of love; the memories that will transcend the physical life of the person. True, we do talk of achievements, successes, giftedness and even the things a person has built and they shouldn’t be minimised. But without love we are lost; without the loving relationships established during one’s life the other things seem to lack and "eternal" value that gives hope and meaning.

All You Need is Love
As John said, that’s John Lennon, not John the Apostle, All you need is Love. And while both John’s believed that to be true, it has become a bit of a cliché and the very idea that it is love that makes the world go around needs a bit of a refurbishing.

Most would agree that the central message of the Christian faith is love; the love of God; love of one another and love of humanity. But I suspect that most would also agree that we are often dismal failures at living and showing that love to which we are committed! And that our high sounding words have not always matched our actions, particularly when we hear the fierce words from the First Letter of John. And I quote:

Let me say this as strongly as I can, all who hate their brother or sister are murderers and therefore don’t have God’s life within them. The strongest test of love is a person’s willingness to give up their life for another, that’s what Jesus did.

Now that’s an attention getter and the use of hyperbole catches the readers notice. But later in his letter he softens these words by saying:

I say, don’t condemn yourself, but rather be bold before God and then you will receive what you ask for because you are living a life true to God’s way.

So it is not a matter of becoming so guilt ridden that we are paralysed and give up on the whole enterprise rather, it is important to recognize that built into the human condition is the fact that we will never love perfectly and that love is more a process of becoming, rather than a destination we have to arrive at by mid-life.

Now some may find this hard to agree with, but I don’t think you actually have to love everyone in the same way or with the same intensity. In fact, it is impossible to do that. The grief one may feel at the death of one’s child or a parent can’t be replicated in the death of a stranger or even an acquaintance. And of course if that was the case we would not be able to function in the world in which we live.

But that doesn’t let us of the hook in regards to those around us. While love is an emotion it is also a way of being in the world and a commitment toward others. The Scottish historian and essayists Thomas Carlyle said a loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge. Loving is a way of being connected, as opposed to other ways of being connected. For example, power or exploitation, or utilization (our uses of things.) Love on the other hand connects us to the heart of whatever it is we love and forms relationships that are whole, healthy and helpful.

I have heard it said, I love humanity, its people I don’t like! And I know others will say, I don’t like everyone but I do have to love them. I understand what they are saying, and there is some truth in those sayings, but that’s not the best way to understand love. 1 John says it better when he links loving with actions:

My Children, don’t show love only in words, show it by living and acting truthfully. That is how we know that the truth is in us and when we are unsure we know that God is greater than our self-doubts, in fact, greater than everything.

So to follow the directive to love those around us, we don’t focus so much of the emotion or feeling of love, rather we looked at our behaviour our actions and even our thoughts. We can ask ourselves, "Am I respectful of that other person. Do I want the best for them? Or can I change my attitude to them to make their life better." You might say that that is a rather minimal view of love, but I think it is recognizing that love is a on a sort of continuum, that there are degrees of intensity and that it is a process and not just something that is there either fully or not at all.

The Four Words for Love
It is strange considering English is the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Beckett, that we really only have the one word love, to describe the many positive relational experiences we have in life. Over 50 years ago the Christian literary scholar C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled The Four Loves in which he drew on the four Greek words for love:

Affection: storge, στοργή;
Friendship: philia, φιλα;
Desire and longing: eros, ἔρως;
Unconditional love: agapē, ἀγάπη

This was his attempt to see the experience of love as multifaceted and expressed and seen differently in varied contexts and relationships. While in the Christian faith we are often told of the importance of agapē love, a word really only used in the New Testament and describing the love of God toward humanity, Lewis suggests that in fact affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives. The genuine affection we show not only to one another, but also toward ourselves and even the things in our lives gives us much of the meaning and purpose that sustains us.

Each of those words builds a rich tapestry from the experiences of love in our lives. And love is never a negative thing. You can never have love too much. You can never love something or someone too much. That may sound strange. I know that we in the Christian faith have in the past been critical of what one might call self-love – to love yourself was regarded as a sin. Well let me say, if you don’t love yourself you probably don’t love other people either. It’s not loving one’s self that is the problem, it’s the lack of empathy or compassion for another person, that’s the problem. And when we don’t have a strong centre of self-esteem or self-care we tend to use the love of others to fill something we need in ourselves. Whereas a mature love says 'I need you because I love you.' Not ‘I love you because I need you.’

The same is true with the love of things and objects. It is quite natural and even desirable to have a love for one’s home and the items in it. The spiritual teacher Thomas Moore advocates a "soulful materialism" where the objects in our homes are appreciated, and cherished for their beauty and their usefulness. When was the last time you said thank to you toaster or microwave? The relationship counsellor Daphne Rose Kingma says:

"Fill your life with beauty. . . . Annoint your house with beautiful things: objects, fragrances, movements, moments, sounds, emotions. . . . Beauty in this life is a reflection of our souls."

Our problem is not loving things but not loving them enough. So we end up with a greedy and rampant consumerism which is not a love for things, but a form of material gluttony.

And of course we are to love our families, our communities and even our country. But not to engage in forms of tribalism that exclude and are intolerant of, or xenophobic toward others. And finally perhaps the greatest teaching of Jesus and the Christian faith is the radical notion that we can love the stranger. And again there is nothing naïve in that statement. We all know that the stranger can pose a threat to us. Although statistics tell us that you are more likely to be attacked by someone you know than by someone you don’t know. Nevertheless, evolution has given us a fight or flight response to stranger danger and to the unknown! But perhaps the first step toward loving the one we don’t know, or who is different from us is to meet them face to face. Not to try and feel love and affection, but to act truthfully and respectfully toward them as the author of 1 John suggests.

What will survive us will be the love we have shown to others. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said,

"being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage."

That’s the way we get in touch with loving God. Not only through act of devotion or contrition, but by the simple act of loving others.

Really, there are only two commandments and they are to commit to Jesus who is the anointed one, and to love each other as Jesus instructed us. If we follow these principles we will be in the spirit of Jesus and the spirit of Jesus will be in us and we will know the gift of God’s spirit.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.