Isaiah 44:1-8, Matthew 5:43-48
February 8, 2015
I borrowed (“stole”) this sermon title from a popular ‘80’s performer named Steve Winwood. Anyone heard of Steve Winwood? Any Steve Winwood fans here? I loved his music! And of course, I’m giving him the credit here. So I’m “legally covered” …I think.
However, as much as I like Winwood’s music, I’m pretty sure the understanding of the word “love” in this “love song” is typical of the understanding of “love” in our modern culture. When Steve Winwood sang about a “Higher Love,” he was describing a higher “intensity” of love, a greater depth of love. And he was describing a love that had to do with a “mutual desire” or “strong feelings for” another person. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
But I want to point out today, that there’s a difference between that, and what Jesus describes in John 15:13, when he says, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” He said that in the Upper Room. And that was a time when he was getting ready to do just that – to lay down his life! “Greater love has no man than this…” So how does that “Greater love” – that “Higher love,” look in our lives? That’s the thought for today.
If you’ve heard speak me enough times, you know my belief on the subject of “Love.” You’ve heard me say that love is not an emotion. It is not “warm fuzzy feeling,” like it says on all those coffee mugs and wall plaques! Yes, love has an emotional side to it, absolutely! Love has wonderful feelings associated with it. But love, in it’s purest essence, in it’s “higher sense,” is a choice of how to treat one another. Otherwise, what Jesus said in our scripture for today about “loving enemies” would make no sense at all, would it?! And that “Higher love,” that “Greater love,” is not easy, and it doesn’t happen all by itself!
Maybe the Greeks did get it right! As you may remember, they had three words for love. They had “Eros,” from which we get the word “erotic.” That’s the physical love, the emotional love, the “feelings for another person” love. And again, that’s great! In fact, that’s all God’s idea in the first place! But if you think about it, if Steve Winwood were Greek, (Steve Winwood-ookas) he would have been singing about a “Higher Eros.”
That’s the first word. Then the Greeks had the word “Philos” or “Brotherly Love.” And as we know in this part of the world, if you put the Greek word “Philos” with the Greek word “Delphos,” meaning “city,” you get “Brotherly love city,” – “Philos-delphos,” or (what?) “Philadelphia.” (“You give me any word, and I’ll tell you how it comes-a from the Greek!”)
Then we have the final Greek word for love. And this is the main word we’re thinking about today. It’s also a word we think about during Holy Week. It is, of course, the word “Agape.” And as you also probably remember, Agape is the word that describes “God’s love.” It has been called the “Highest form of Love.” It is that “Greater love” Jesus described. Maybe that’s helpful for us today.
If you think about it, there is sort of a “hierarchy” of love. Or maybe it’s like three branches of meaning. We might say to someone “I have feelings for you.” Or we might say, “I love you like a brother.” And then how do those statements compare with, “I love you so much I would die for you!” Maybe putting them together like that helps a little. Because this is not an easy thing!
Well, let me make a further observation about this. And this has to do with our theme of “Commitment,” which we’ve been dealing with so far this year. We are committed to Christ and his kingdom. We are committed to follow. We are committed to serving. And now, as Mr. Harold told the good people at the first service, we are thinking of how we are “committed to love.”
So, my observation is this. In our world’s understanding, people often think of love as something that “happens to you.” It as a response to something. You are “inspired” to love. Perhaps you are “smitten” by someone. As we used to say, you like the way someone’s “molecules are arranged!” You know, you “look across a crowded room,” and… “you’re in love.” That happens in the realm of “Eros,” doesn’t it? But it can happen in the realm of “Philos” as well. You’re not physically attracted by someone in that same way, but you realize because of the kind of person he or she is, because of the way they love others, because of the way they’ve treated you, the response is that you love them – like a brother or a sister. And again that’s great! Love begets love in that way, too. Doesn’t it?
Well, in his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus was trying to tell people something different about love. He’s telling them about love that is not a response, but a choice. At the point of our reading for today, he had already given the people some shocking statements about the “Old Commandments.” And we can only imagine the Pharisees listening that day! We can only imagine their indignation with this young “rabbi,” who had the audacity to give his own interpretations of the ancient Law!
That’s what Jesus was doing here. And it probably was shocking! He said to the crowds, “You have heard it said ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” That’s the Commandment. “And whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.” That’s the traditional “interpretation” of that Commandment. They would have expected that. But then he said this. “But I say to you, whoever insults his brother will be liable… to the hell of fire.” That was his interpretation! And we can just imagine the murmuring going on at that moment!
So, when we come to our passage for today, he says, “You’ve heard it said ‘You shall love your neighbor…’” And there he was quoting from the full version of that from Leviticus 19:18. There it says, “You shall not take any vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then he adds the interpretation – which is his pattern here in this Sermon. “You shall love your neighbor,” and then the traditional interpretation of that, “and you shall hate your enemy.” But then he gives them his interpretation. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” Seriously, Jesus? The murmuring just increased dramatically! The people heard his words, and I’m sure they looked our of the corner of their eyes at the Romans standing in the background.
Then Jesus gives his “explanation” of this. “For if you love only those who love you…” In other words, “If you love only as a response to something coming your way, rather than a choice,” “what reward have you?” “Anyone can do that! – Even the tax collectors!” And it’s funny that he used as an example right at that moment, those who the people also hated! The tax collectors collaborated with the enemy!!
Those are great words! And of course they’re challenging words! But that’s what we are called to. That’s what we commit ourselves to when we commit ourselves to Jesus, to follow him, and to serve in his kingdom. We are committed to love. And it makes sense when we think of love as a choice to treat one another, rather than a “warm fuzzy feeling.” But it’s still difficult!
So I’d like you to think about how you love. That’s always a good thing to do – especially as we head toward the introspective time of Lent! Who do you love in your life? Friends? Family? Spouse? Children? Why do you love them? Is it because they loved you? Is it because they are “easy to love.” And what does that love look like? Is it a response? Is it a choice? Is it an effort? Are there feelings involved? And again, feelings are great! Don’t get me wrong!
When I was writing these words the other day, I happened to click to another part of my screen and there I immediately found this story! A woman wrote this on Facebook. “I made a conscience effort this morning to be nice to a stranger. I say conscience because I had been waiting a long time in a drive thru line, I was tired and cranky and just wanted to get to work. But I saw this lady waiting, too. She was a mom that probably also had someplace she needed to be just like me. So I decided to let her in front on me in the drive thru line. I was delighted when she had asked the cashier to say ‘thank you’ to me for her. That really would have been enough. But she also paid for my sandwich and iced tea, which was extremely nice of her. It was just the thing I needed this week to remind me to treat people the way I would treat a friend because everyone deserves that.”
It was amazing to find that, just when it fit into what I was trying to say. It’s almost like God was saying “You’re on the right track, Skip. So tell them this!”
Jesus challenges us to take the harder road – the higher road! He challenges us to make the choice of love, to “make the effort” to treat others with love, even when we don’t “feel like it.” Anybody who thinks that’s easy isn’t taking it seriously! But it’s often true that things that are difficult to do are worthwhile doing! And such is the case with the “Higher love” to which we are called! God knows that. I hope we do, too!
Eternal God, we love because you first loved us. Help us to know better how you love us. Help us to love and pray for those who persecute us. Help us to choose the ways of compassion and humility. Help us to seek peace with all people. We know those things are hard, but we know we can do them if you are with us, and if your spirit is in our hearts, and if we listen to and follow that spirit. Help us to do so, Lord. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen!