Scripture reading (which you may wish to read prior):
Lets talk a bit about love today, shall we?
When the Beatles came out with their song “All you need is Love”
It was a huge hit. Don’t worry. I don’t plan to sing any of it today.
“All you need is Love” seemed to speak perfectly to the needs of the age: the 1960s.
Think: the peace sign, or flower power, man.
But the 1960s were such a fractious, turbulent time:
The Vietnam war, the civil rights movement for people of color
Mainly for Black Americans,
The rise of powerful voices for female equality
All of this sparking a lot of discord.
According to David Cunningham, a Professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan,
Reaction to the Beatles’ classic came in two forms:[i]
On the one hand:
an enthusiastic embrace of love as the solution to the worlds’ problems
Maybe a simplistic solution, but the solution nonetheless
Or, on the other hand, a critical rejection of love as some dreamy emotion
That distracts us as our problems get worse.
Love is all you need? Get real.
These two perspectives toward love
Have arguably marked most of our contemporary public squabbles ever since.
It is more than a little turbulent too, these days.
Some arguing “can’t we all just get along”
And others demanding a clear-eyed acknowledgement
And denunciation of the base motives and evil intent of others.
However, in spite of the prevalence of these two perspectives,
Neither one of them is very satisfying. Isn’t there something more?
And more than that: neither of those two ideas find much support in today’s Gospel text.
This reading from John is all about love,
God’s love, Jesus’ love, and abiding in love, whatever that word means.
Jesus certainly praises love:
It is a gift from God, an excellence of character, a way of life.
There is nothing here that says we should dismiss it
As something fanciful, or naïve, a flight of fancy.
Pie in the sky, by and by.
On the other hand, that word “love” is more than a little ambiguous.
That’s maybe a failure on my part.
Just this week, around our house,
We uttered these phrases:
Man, I just LOVE chocolate and caramel together.
Wow, I might have had my doubts, but Alex Gordon has restored my love
(I confess, I was the one who said that one)
Good night. I love you.
I love sleeping in on Saturday morning.
Just what do WE mean around here when we talk so much about love?
Well, use it a lot around here. Its in prayers and songs.
I use it all the time in my sermons, I know.
And I’m glad you’ve not gotten tired of it, yet
Or at least you love me enough to show me some forbearance.
Partly, the ambiguity is because there are a lot of different Greek words
That we translate as love.
Lots of different concepts behind the same English word.
There’s eros: which is love wrapped with desire
And there’s a similar biblical word to that we don’t often get to
But is fun to try out at trivia night: epithymia
Both of these words—eros and epithymia—mean our longing for something
And mainly a love for something that fulfills something we need, in us.
That’s what desire is, right?
And while many people have written about some of the dangers of eros
Particularly when we don’t have healthy outlets for it
When channeled well it forms a foundation for romantic love
This word also gets used quite a bit for inanimate objects
Things we enjoy, an awful lot.
Like that dove chocolate with caramel previously mentioned.
Then there’s philia, which many of you know from Philadelphia, right
The city of brotherly love.
This is the love of friends and colleagues and maybe family, too.
A love of comradeship, of peers
A give and a take relationship where you want to be affirmed
And you offer affirmation too.
This is a love which, when well expressed
Breaks down differences between people and
helps us respect and admire one another.
Keep this one in mind for later in the sermon.
There are a few others you might never have heard of: storge, for instance,
Which is maybe best described as “natural empathy” for someone related to you
Quite often this is the love parents have for their children.
Parents who are trying to do their best to provide and care for
And nurture healthy, happy, responsible kids. That’s storge.
Then there’s ludus, which was a playful love, most often affection between kids
Or between people when they’re adopting a playful tone with each other.
One source likens this to an extension of philia, brotherly love
When we sit around bantering and laughing with friends
Over cards or a meal or dancing. Ludus.
All of these are translated into English as Love.
And then there’s the word for love most often used in the Bible: agape
Selfless love. Love concerned for the other above oneself.
And while this word has been translated into Latin as Charity
And thus sometimes gets mistaken for a form of
Someone with some means or status or power
Giving away something to someone who is in need
Agape is never about that, not as its used in the scriptures.
Its more about selflessness, having concern and passion for what the other needs
Love infused with altruism and deep care.
So many different concepts for love. Only one sermon.
When we talk about love, the point is that we should do so with intention and with care.
Not just me.
We are all theologians, after all: we are people who think about God
And who use ideas and emotions and words carefully in God’s presence.
Sometimes we draw to sharp of distinctions between these different concepts
When God wants us to tie them all together.
Eros, or desire, properly ordered by selfless love for other people, agape.
Philia, or friendship, properly centered on the selfless love of God.
That word, Agape, or love concerned for the other
Is primarily the word that the bible uses when it talks about what God is doing
When it talks about who God is.
God is love, writes the first letter of John.
God is agape: God IS selfless love
And when you love in that way, God is in you, and you are in God
And wow, look at that, you get a bona fide experience of what God is all about.
Love, when Jesus talks about it
Jesus cannot just say “love one another” and leave it at that.
He describes this love. He offers examples.
“There is no greater agape, no greater love than laying down your life for someone.”
Jesus says, foreshadowing holy week, the trip to the cross.
Just a few chapters before this, Jesus just washed their feet, the disciples
Much to their dismay, as he took the posture of a servant of the household.
He asserts that the greater our power, the greater our position,
The more we are in charge, the greater our calling to use that position
For the sake of those without.
The first must be last, and the last must be first.
In the face of disbelief, incredulity that this sort of love matters:
Jesus went all the way to the end for it.
All of these: concrete, specific examples of the calling of the
Christian to love one another.
You likely heard two things, when I was reading the scripture today
Not only all this love talk
But also how Jesus made a shift to talking about his disciples as his friends.
They aren’t merely servants, but friends.
Jesus isn’t merely a master, but a friend.
Friends are important.
I’m not talking about the number of Facebook friends you have
But friend friends.
People who love you and who have your back.
We need friends.
They’re more important that we sometimes acknowledge.
On Tuesday this week,
USA Today reported on what is called the National Loneliness Score.[ii]
The Health Services Company CIGNA
Conducted a national survey of 20,000 adults.
It was new to me, but the UCLA Loneliness Scale is a widely referenced metric
For measuring feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
Results of the most recent survey are sobering.[iii]
Nearly half of respondents report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent)
or left out.
One in four rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
Two in five regularly feel that their relationships are not meaningful or that they’re isolated from others.
One in five report not having someone close that they can talk to.
People who live with others are less likely to be lonely,
but this doesn’t hold for single parents or guardians,
who, even though they live with children,
are more likely than the average to report loneliness.
Only about half of the respondents reported meaningful, daily,
in-person social interaction
Like having a conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family.
And two particularly important findings:
The loneliest group was Generation Z: 18-22 year olds.
Which had a loneliness score of 48 on a 20-80 scale
Compared to a score of 39 for those 72 and older.
And social media does not seem to be at the heart of all of this:
Those who reported heavy social media use—Facebook or Twitter
Don’t have any statistically different loneliness score than those who don’t.
According to CIGNA,
Loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
And while the findings didn’t look at connections with the opioid epidemic
or suicide rates,
officials believe that loneliness is deeply connected.
One of the best ways we have of sharing the love of God
Is opening ourselves up to make and build friends with one other.
This doesn’t mean, introverts,
that you’re being asked to be more social with EVERYONE.
This doesn’t mean, extroverts, that your enjoyment of a social scene is enough.
True friendship requires mutual care, and concern.
It is rooted in a willingness to learn about someone else, to support them
To offer honest feedback, rooted in shared regard.
Friendship doesn’t extort loyalty, or demand that a friend only spends time with you.
It is not a one way street.
Friendship, in the end, isn’t just about you.
Its about you and your friend together,
and your happiness in your friend having other friends too.
It is about nurturing relationships where you can talk about your joys and concerns
Learn from one another.
Friendship enjoys the time you have to spend together,
Thomas Aquinas noted that ancient philosophers
described three different types of friendship.
Some people are our friends because they are useful to us.
They allow us to make business connections
Or get us into a fun social group.
These can often be thin friendships,
because they’re based on using the other person
To get something we want.
Other friendships are pleasurable. They’re fun.
The people we hang out with take our minds off our troubles.
We cultivate these friendships because we enjoy them.
These can also be thin, when our friend needs us,
And is stressed or hurting or had a bad test at school
Are they still friends if they’re not being fun in the moment?
A third kind of friendship, on the other hand,
The best kind, Aristotle would say, is for the sake of friendship itself.
Friends built on love for one another:
Where people care for one another
Are available to each other
Assert that you are loved and worthy of being loved
Help one another and seek to offer advice and support
So that their friend can build a healthy, flourishing life.
Back to the Beatles for a second.
While “All you need is Love” might come off as too trite
It is so, so true that love is essential to our friendships
To true friendship.
Its not essential that we have a lot of friends
But we all need friends
And we all have the ability to be good friends to others, too.
For many of us, for a good span of our life
We have close friends in our partners, husbands and wives.
Sometimes our children or our parents develop into a sort of friendship.
We meet people at school or at work and, for some of them, we nurture relationships
Of mutuality and respect.
These aren’t just fun and nice.
These are so, so important for our spirit.
One of the critiques of the church over the last several years
Is that it is a social club
By which the criticism, it is meant that a church concerns more about itself
Than about the outside world
That they only get together for merriment, rather than service, or faith development.
Of some churches, alas, this critique is warranted.
But when a church does its work well
And embodies the love of God that Jesus talks about here
It seeks to help people form true and lasting friendships.
Around a game of bridge.
While serving together a local elementary school.
While gardening in the neighborhood or in a peace park.
When milling about after worship
Drinking coffee and noting that the sermon didn’t quite land the way it should.
At its best, the church is a community of people who find friendship
In and through God
Friends with each other because Jesus is our friend
And because God calls us brothers and sisters in Christ.
I don’t think that its coincidence, how the rise of loneliness corresponds
To fewer churches and communities of faith.
There is a real need out there for people to find friendship.
We are people who follow Jesus out into the world
Jesus who asks us to do what he teaches us: to love one another
Just as God has loved us.
In this, Jesus says he will be our friend
There to listen to us, to care for us
To support us, not because we are useful or fun all the time
Not because he demands loyalty from us,
But because we are truly loved, just as we are.
May we, as we live out our days
As the people of God in this place
May we recommit to nurturing friendships with one another
To invite people who are in need of a friend to sit down and talk
To do the things we can do to spend time with one another.
How can you deepen your friendship with your pew mates?
How can you grow in your friendships, whether here or at work or at school
So that you can help others feel the love that we feel in God?
It starts with accepting Jesus as our true friend, the one who loves us beyond measure
Who is always there to talk with us and listen to us and counsel us
The one who wants us not to feel lonely or alone.
And then bearing that out into the world as we share it with our friends and our neighbors.
May we seek to do that, with as much energy as we can muster.
May it be so.
[i] “Sixth Sunday of Easter: Theological Perspective” for John 15:9-17, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville, Kentucky; Westminster John Knox Press. 2008 ) pp496-498.
[ii] Jayne O’Donnell and Shari Rudavsky, “Young Americans are the loneliest, surprising study from Cigna shows” in USA Today accessed online on May 5, 2018: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/05/01/loneliness-poor-health-reported-far-more-among-young-people-than-even-those-over-72/559961002/
[iii] For more about the survey and its data, see https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/ (accessed May 5, 2018)