May 19, 2019
A little over 20 years ago I began the process toward becoming a Lay Pastor. 20 years! Wow! One of my instructors was a wonderful Pastor and chaplain, Frank Brown. He taught the class on pastoral care. One of his main lessons was that Pastors can't fix everything. I am naturally a fixer and that was hard for me to hear. In fact, I took his class twice hoping that he could pound it into my head. He recognized this trait in me and he worked to help me focus on being a presence of hope and care with people in times of trial and in times of doubt and sorrow and changes.... I still struggle with wanting to fix everything. Even as a husband, it took me along time to realize I couldn't fix everything for Julie and to learn that what she often really wanted was someone to come alongside, listen, support, and love her through it.
I've had 11 church meetings in the last 9 weekdays. It's a lot of meetings with a lot of different people. It was busy and hectic. And not every meeting was easy nor entirely peaceful. Most were productive and uplifting, but not all. And some led to a kind of spirit of disillusionment of which Dr. Brown wrote. And sometimes in all these meetings, there was a strain on that new commandment that Jesus gave to the disciples in today's gospel reading.
In order to examine that command, I want to start with the reading from Acts that Ruth read. It is an interesting, unusual story. If you were reading through the book of Acts, you'd discover this same story told three different times. First the author described how it happened to Peter, then Peter told the Gentile Cornelius about the vision and then, what we read today, Peter goes to Jerusalem and tells the church leaders what happened. There is the trance and the vision. The vision included permission to eat foods that had been declared unclean under the Old Testament law. God reinforced the truth of the New Covenant that the Old Testament law was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The food question meant a major shift was needed in Peter's thinking about how Jesus changed things. And that was helped along when he was led by the Spirit to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. Those of us who were in the Bible study on Ephesians and Galatians have a better understanding of the enormity of this step. The Old Testament law made it clear that the Jewish race was pure and was not to mix with Gentiles. In Leviticus 20 God tells the people, “26 I have set you apart from other people to be my own.” But here God leads Peter right into a Gentile's house. Not only that, Peter taught them and they, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came to belief in Jesus as Lord.
Peter mixing with the Gentiles was a giant breach of the law, particularly the law as interpreted by Jewish rabbis. So leaders in Jerusalem called him back to Jerusalem and called him on the carpet; “the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?"” In other words, “why would you, a good Jew, eat unclean food with unclean people, with Gentiles?” Peter explained the vision and the results and this, added to the work of Paul with the Gentiles, was key for the Gentiles being accepted into the Church of Jesus. The question, which we still face in many ways today, is who do we break bread with in the fellowship of Jesus? The Church in Jerusalem chose to include everyone.
But that didn't mean that everything went smoothly. The New Testament doesn't paint over the issues that caused division in the church from the very beginning. In Acts, there is the story of the Greek widows receiving less food than the Jerusalem widows. Paul wrote to the Corinthians because church members were taking one another to court over secular matters. Also the Corinthians had, what Paul called “factions among you.” The Galatians had divisions about whether or not new Christians had to be circumcised. The Colossians got caught up with rules which interfered with real fellowship. And so on. We like to think the church began with perfect unity, but it didn't. And we certainly don't have perfect unity today. How we baptize, how we worship, how church membership is determined, doctrinal beliefs, how we govern our churches are divisions we face. And we read the words of Jesus in today's gospel and wonder if he was naïve in his commandment of love.
If you've been around any study of the bible in your lifetime, you've probably heard that the Greek language has several words that are translated love in English. A quick review: Eros is the Greek word for sensual or romantic love. The term is from the story of the Greek god of love, Eros, whose Roman counterpart was Cupid.
Storge is a term for love in the Bible that you may not be familiar with. This Greek word describes family love, the affectionate bond that develops naturally between parents and children, and brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances.
Philia is the powerful emotional bond seen in deep friendships, commonly translated brotherly love. Philia is the most general type of love in Scripture, encompassing love for fellow humans; care, respect, and compassion for people in need.
Agape is the highest of the four types of love in the Bible. This term defines God's immeasurable, incomparable love for humankind. It is the divine love that comes from God. Agape love is perfect, unconditional, sacrificial, and pure. Jesus Christ demonstrated this kind of divine love to his Father and to all humanity in the way he lived and died. Agape is in fact the Greek word Jesus used in today's passage. I'm afraid it is a high standard indeed, and one that we fail to fulfill more than we practice it.
So as I consider our church family and how we love, I want to borrow from Scott Bader-Sayehy in his article in Christian Century, on-line. He is considering what love looks like in a congregation. And in truth, in our reading, Jesus is talking about how we love other believers; brothers and sisters in Christ, not how we love the rest of the world. “ I wondered why storge had never been given the same theological attention as eros, philia, and agape.” He defines storge simply as affection and shares how affection works in a community that is not uniform. As we look around our faith community, we have many differences here, democrats and Republicans, pro-choice, pro-life, Vikings fans and Packer fans.... But in community, in the body of Christ, we become one. Because our fellowship goes beyond common interests. He writes, “Affection grows by virtue of shared time and space. Its most basic form is the love shared within families, but it includes the fond feelings we have for people in our neighborhood or workplace or for pets. What is most interesting about affection is that it does not rely on shared interests, ideas, or passions (as does friendship). Rather, it grows out of the regular routines of shared life, short conversations, exchanged pleasantries, and proffered gratuities. Affection is of all the loves most linked to place—it arises among those who find themselves sharing a common life.” That's us. As members sharing our confession of faith that Jesus is Lord, we are indeed blessed to share the affection that is in this room on Sunday mornings. But we can't take it for granted. Our call to worship and our prayer of confession today both remind us that we need to be thoughtful in how we try to show love; to be aware of God's presence and so see the Lord in others. And it reminds us that we are too often foolish and self-centered. We need to continue to pray for the Holy Spirit's leading and to be intentional with our acts of kindness, our words of correction, our acceptance of differences.
How have you done at showing love with one another? It should go beyond the sharing of the peace of Christ and visiting in coffee hour. It includes things like providing food for the Lilac Luncheon, and working together to serve and cleanup. It includes being willing to serve on committees and as an officer. It includes supporting one another in times of hardship; with words and with gifts of time and money. It includes visiting our shut-ins. I have reminded you several times about the opportunity to share our fellowship and love with Jim and Lila as their days are spent in Meeker Manor... have you followed up on that?
More from Scott, “Cultivating affection requires a deep commitment to presence. It cuts against cultural trends toward mobility and virtual relationships. Physical presence, bodily quirks, and simply brushing up against one another all contribute to affection. Affection grows from the soil of time and space, from commitment to place and community. Gathering becomes the critical practice through which one learns to love those we thought we couldn’t love, those who are not like us, those who will never be more than acquaintances.”
That is not a description of agape love, but it may be the most realistic description of what we are capable of. As we gather and share, as we consider similarities and differences, we have learned to enjoy and appreciate the others who are here. Not because we are all the same, but because we all seek the fellowship found in Christ Jesus. We had a new member join this morning, joining not because we all share his political views or opinions, but because he recognized a sense of community here that goes beyond the bonds of like-thinking, that goes to the soul. And while we fail to love perfectly, we continue to try.
Jesus told his followers, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” We need to be realistic that even as we seek to obey this great commandment, only Jesus loved perfectly on this earth. But every one of us can be more intentional about how we interact, how we show love, how we reach out to those we see in our midst who are lonely or sad or fearful or angry or confused. And maybe the words of an old camp song will be fulfilled, the words based on the closing words of Jesus. He said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." the hymn, our hymn: “And they'll know we are Christians by our love.” insert