Love is at the centre of what it means to follow Christ
In Matthew 22 we have a reading that really gets at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. In our reading we have the command that sits at the heart of our faith. All that is required by God (both the law and prophets) is summed up in one word: love.
What does it mean to love?
In English the word love describes lots of different kinds of relationships. If we had windows into each other’s minds when the word ‘love’ was spoken I’m sure we would see all sorts of faces, people and feelings materialise. Such a small word can evoke such diverse and broad images and feelings.
In the language of the New Testament, the things we bundle together in one word are delineated and split into four different words. The Greek language of the New Testament is more precise in talking about love than we are. There is storge (store-gay) which usually refers to the affection between family members – of a father’s love for a son for example. There is phileo (phil-ay-o) which is the love friends have for one another. There is eros, the love and desire traditionally seen between a husband and a wife. And lastly there is agape (a-gap-ay). A love that is not quite like storge, phileo, and eros.
Agape does not flow from our preferences like the others do. Agape does not rely on conditions being met by the other: A father loves his son in a way he does not love other people, he loves his son because he is his son. A friend loves a friend because of something about that friend that they like or admire, or simply because of a shared history. An erotic lover loves his or her partner because of all sorts of things that I do not need to specify here. The point is that there are conditions to all of these loves. And because there are conditions attached to them, they are necessarily exclusive. To call someone a son, a friend, or a lover is to label them in a way that distinguishes them from everyone else. This perhaps is seen most strongly in the relation between lovers. In that relation one is naturally led to say to the beloved you are the one I love and no other. To a lesser extent it can sometimes be seen in friendships where one is led to say to the other you are my best friend, I prefer you over many others…
Agape love is not like that. Agape love is unconditional and therefore universal. It loves the unlovely. It is agape that Jesus is talking about here. Now, do not mishear me. I am not pitting agape against all the other loves and making you choose. I do not think Jesus would upbraid any of us for loving someone too much; of loving our families and friends too much. Rather the issue is not loving enough, of loving our friends and family a great deal, but loving God and our neighbours too little.
The first of the two commandments Jesus gives is to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. God must occupy the top spot in the order of our loves; you cannot get any higher than loving with all one’s heart, soul and mind! The second of the two commandments is to love our neighbors as ourselves. It may not occupy the same exalted position as the first but again it is a level of love we often fall-short-of. And our neighbour is not just the person who happens to live next door. Our neighbour is whoever we see. It is the person physically nearest to us at any given moment. It could be a stranger you pass in the street, it could be the person sitting next to you now.
So the problem is not that we love our family and too much, it’s that we don’t love enough. We are called to love God with everything we have and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
What does this kind of love look like?
When we look around for examples of agape we may find glimpses in the actions of some individuals some of the time. But if we want a full and complete example we have to look no further than Christ himself. In the life of Christ we see agape for God and neighbour in every moment. We see Christ healing the sick, loving the unlovely: the tax collectors, the lepers, the prostitutes. We see Christ’s love in the anger he felt towards those who were misleading and harming his people; and supremely we see Christ’s love as he is lifted on the cross for the sins of the whole world. The love we see in Christ is a love without boundary. It is a love for all who come to him.
There then is the challenge. I don’t think anyone would want to dispute the assertion that everyone should love each other more. That isn’t the problem. The world would certainly be a better place if we did. The problem is how difficult it is. It is something we all fall short of. It is the reason we always have something to confess at the beginning of every communion service.
How do we do it?
The message is we should all love more. We should love God with more of ourselves, and we should love more people with more intensity. That’s all well and good you might say. But how do we get anywhere close to that standard? Many of us may have tried really hard to reach this peak for a day, two days, a week, a month but have found sooner or later, our fallen nature slips back into its old ways. We become weary of the effort, we meet someone who is unlovely. We fail to love. What then is to be done?
The answer is that we must make love a habit. True transformation takes place only when we start doing new things without thinking. True transformation requires that love becomes second nature to us; that it becomes so woven into who we are that it is as natural to us as breathing and blinking. How then do we cultivate this habit of love? Two things: Imitation and practice.
The cultivation of any virtue requires both imitation and practice (and love is the highest virtue). If we wish to develop a particular virtue we have to begin by studying and imitating good examples. Who then is the best example of love? It is Jesus himself. Like children learning by imitating their parents, we learn to love by watching Christ. And we do this by participating in worship at least once a week whether in church or listening at home. Every week we contemplate the image of Christ as he is set before us in scripture and the Eucharist. In Sunday worship we look to Christ as an example to imitate.
The second way of acquiring a virtue like love is practice. We work at making love second nature by practising rhythms routines and rituals over a long period of time. By self-consciously adopting loving practices we will eventually become unselfconscious in the way we love. Love will become part of who we are. We will become loving people. How do we practice love? Again, a key way is to participate in worship whether online or at church. By participating in the liturgy together, we have the opportunity to practice loving God with all our heart, mind and soul in worship; and in prayer we practice loving all our neighbours as ourselves. In Sunday worship we practice loving God and neighbour as Christ loves us.
Our message today, then, is to focus-in on the heart of what the Lord desires of us: that we become people who love God and each other with the perfect agape love we see in Christ. And the way we develop that virtue is through the regular imitation of the example of Jesus – both of which are a large part of why we join together Sunday by Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist.
And so, as we come to that part in our service where we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, let us focus on him as our example, and practice loving both God and neighbour in our lives. Amen.