Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ubi Caritas

A Sermon preached on August 31 (Pentecost XII) in Wiesbaden-Frauenstein at the St. Augustine’s Summer Open Air Service
Pentecost XII Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

It is often claimed that the various arctic peoples, Inuit etc. have many more words for snow than the English language, the estimates vary from over 100 to 15 in a study I looked at. That study included drifting snow, clinging snow, fallen snow on ground, fresh fallen snow …I think you get the idea. While this claim is sometimes disputed, what is certain is that New Testament Greek has more words for love than English, three or four depending on the definition. The authors needed so many different words because they felt that the idea of love, especially God’s love, could not be described in one single word. There is agape (self sacrificial love), eros (not erotic, but love as the striving for union with the beloved), philia (friendship-love), and some people even add nomos (love’s expression through a fulfillment of law – see Psalm 119). With my love of order, structure, and organization I’m probably quite susceptible to the latter!

In this morning’s Gospel we heard about a conflict between two kinds of love. Out of philia Peter wants to save Jesus and keep him from being killed, but in doing so he would prevent Jesus from his saving, sacrificial act of agape on the cross. That’s what earns Peter that very stinging rebuke: get behind me Satan and transforms him, briefly from being a rock to stumbling stone!

And in today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans, which is perhaps not quite as poetic and as well-known as the description of love in 1 Corinthians (13:4-7) that is so popular at weddings, Paul talks about love and defines acts of love through a series of examples. In the first verse (12:9) the word he uses for love is agape: let agape love be genuine and without hypocrisy, and what is more genuine than the love of the Cross! In the second verse (12:10) he uses philia, in fact in the original, the term mutual affection is the word philadelphia.

Paul’s very practical examples are not his own. Some are taken from that very practical book of the Old Testament, Proverbs (see Proverbs 3:4, 3:7, 25:21-22), while Paul’s command to bless those who persecute you and not to repay evil with evil sound very like Jesus’ commands in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5:43-45) This is one of the rare occasions when we find Paul quoting Jesus, or at least those sayings of Jesus that we know. Of course Paul couldn’t quote directly from the gospels as they had not yet been written. Paul’s letters are the oldest documents in the NT. And Paul’s focus is less on retelling the story of Jesus’ life and teaching, and more on how to live a life in Christ.

But regardless of how original his examples are, they are not easy.  We can manage contributing to the needs of the saints, i.e. of other Christians and showing hospitality to strangers is also OK. But blessing those who persecute us, living peaceably with all, feeding your enemies and giving them something to drink – those are tough commands, especially in times of conflict and especially when the enemy is as brutal, inhumane and violent as the terrorist organization that calls itself the Islamic State, a title the vast majority of Muslims reject. Yes it is tough, and you might have noticed that Paul qualified the command to live peaceably with all, with the words: (12:18) “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you.” 

Nevertheless we are called to love not the organization, but the individuals, each of whom is made in the image of God and none of whom was born hating. Let’s not forget that one reason for the current situation in Iraq is the past cycle of hate and revenge, of getting your own back, and of repaying evil for evil instead of trying to overcome evil with good. As we, in my opinion rightly, come to the aid of the Kurds, the Yazidis, the Shiites, and our fellow Christians, we also need to be thinking about how we can break the cycle of revenge that is behind so many of the current conflicts. Practical acts of love and generosity will be among them as well as the willingness to give things up and never to seek revenge!

Christian love is a very practical thing, at least initially it is often more about what we do than how we feel. It is directly connected to helping others in their various needs: literally acts of charity from the word caritas, which is the Latin equivalent of agape. But when we behave towards others as if we really love them, genuine love, care, and concern for the others welfare springs up.[1]

As Christians we are called to practice both agape love and philia love. Both have their source in eros love, our love for God, our desire for a closer union and participation in the divine. Loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength includes loving those made in God’s image.  Love is never just a matter of the heart or mind, but always also a practical affair, that’s what the word ‘strength’ stands for.

But in the end we don’t really need multiple words for love, because there is actually one single word for love, the word for the one we worship and follow: God. Or in the words of our communion hymn[2]: Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est: Where true charity and love abide, God is dwelling there.

[1] Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 2, Tom Wright, 77
[2] Wonder, Love, and Praise, 831

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