We began this series on July 20, 1969 – not literally on that day of course, but looking back to the day the Apollo 11 astronauts gazed upon the earth, standing for the first time in human history on the surface of the moon. From their vantage point 238,000 miles out in space, the earth looked like a beautiful blue and white marble suspended in inky darkness. From this distance, it was not apparent that the Earth’s two great super powers were locked in a deadly Cold War threatening to annihilate humanity; that unspeakable atrocities were being committed in Viet Nam; that our country was in the midst of cultural and social upheaval. The astronauts caught a glimpse of the peace and wholeness God intended for us, where no lines of division exist – no national boundaries, no divisions according to race, gender, social or economic class. No gay or straight. There was just Earth, and children of the Earth.
It’s easy to fall in love with the earth and its inhabitants at a distance. If you’re too far away to see the way we fight and claw at each other, or hear our perpetual arguing and complaining, it’s easy even to imagine how God must feel, loving us unconditionally, as a proud and affectionate parent.
Throughout this series we have suggested that from a God’s Eye view, Jesus was like a stone tossed into the world’s pond that has caused ripples of God’s embrace to spread ever-wider, breaking down barriers, turning outsiders into insiders in God’s Realm of love and grace. From this God’s Eye view the ripples look smooth and calm, but closer to the surface – where we “live, and move, and have our being,” those ripples can feel like tsunamis!
Oh, if we could only ever see the world from a distance! Perhaps you can relate to the physician in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov who observed about himself:
I love humanity, but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.
The good doctor’s confession strikes at the heart of why we human beings have a problem with God. We may sing God’s praises and show up for church on Sundays or synagogue on Saturdays, but when it comes down to it, when it finally occurs to us what God is trying to achieve in our world, we tend to back away. Strongly! If not externally, we back off internally.
We back away because God is trying to take the love we experience for humanity in general, from the 238,000 mile view, down to the surface of the earth where we actually live. God keeps poking and prodding us to love not simply those who love us back, but the “good, the bad, and the ugly.” And if we ever allow God to stick around in our lives long enough, we get the distinct impression that loving the “bad and the ugly” is a huge part of God’s program – like, if we don’t do it we’re really not participating in God’s Realm. The apostle Paul articulates the dilemma well in 1 Corinthians 13:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end … And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-8, 13)
We normally hear these words read at weddings and swell with warm, fuzzy feelings (or we ignore them entirely because we’ve heard them at every wedding we’ve ever been to). But Paul didn’t write these words to a pair of love birds standing before the altar in holy matrimony. He wrote them to the church in Corinth – a church that was deeply conflicted. If you want to get an idea of how deeply divided the church at Corinth was, consider what going to church would be like if a third of the congregation were mainline liberal, a third were fundamentalist, and a third were holy roller Pentecostal. That could be an extremely interesting and lively mix, actually – and it was much of the time. However, you can imagine how quickly a mix like that could combust if a little heat were applied! When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, the whole congregation had exploded and was in melt-down mode. Into this situation, Paul basically says, if you fail to love your neighbor – even your neighbor who is your enemy – you fail to experience God’s Realm.
Think about this for a moment. Let it sink in. If Paul is right, then no matter how right you may be in comparison to the person you’re in conflict with – so right even that you are speaking in the tongues of angels and understand all mysteries and have all faith and knowledge – if you don’t have love, you have nothing. One might reasonably conclude, even, that if you are right, but unloving, and your opponent is wrong, but loving, you’re the problem far more so than your neighbor. You lose not only in God’s eyes, but you fail to experience what life is meant to be like in all its richness and glory.
Picture someone you’re in conflict with right now – or a class of persons who are on the opposite side of the religious or political divide. Given that many of us who are following this series are supporters of LGBT equality, you might want to turn your attention to those who you feel are most injurious to the cause. Conversely, if you feel we are misrepresenting God’s will and intention with respect to LGBT persons you may want to turn your attention to LGBT activists. Either way, I invite you to repeat this phrase to yourself: “If I am right but unloving, and my opponent is wrong but loving, my opponent is both closer to God and closer to what’s important in life than I am.” Does this phrase slide “trippingly off the tongue”? Oy vey!
Now, you may wonder how on earth you will ever be able to feel love toward those who you so strongly – and perhaps rightly – oppose. And you may be starting to think that this reflection is aimed at persuading you to join hands with your opponent, pretend there is no conflict, and sing Kumbaya around the campfire together. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound much like an experience of the Kingdom of Heaven to me. That sounds like hell on earth!
No, if Paul’s words have some basis in reality, then what he means by “love” cannot mean simply the warm, fuzzy, Kumbaya kind of feeling. It must mean something more substantive than this. A lot more! And it turns out, it does. There are four primary Greek words that may be translated as love, only one of which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13:
storge (στοργή), which is “affectionate love” (Kumbaya kind of love)
philia (φιλία) or “brotherly love”
eros (ἔρως) or “romantic love”
agape (ἀγάπη) which has been translated as “sacrificial love,” and “unconditional love,” but is more accurately translated in the Bible as “covenantal love.”
In 1 Corinthians 13, the kind of love Paul speaks of is this last form, agape or “covenantal love.” What is “covenantal love”? In the Bible, a covenant is an agreement or contract between two parties. Covenantal love, however, is more than simply an agreement. It is a commitment one makes toward another to love the other person as one’s very self. It is expressly not a commitment to agree with or bless everything the other person ever says or does. It does not carry an expectation to sing Kumbaya around the campfire with our opponents. The expectation is that at all points of conflict, the covenant partners will treat each other in a manner that they themselves would want to be treated.
A primary biblical example of covenantal love is found in 2 Samuel 7 where God makes a covenant with King David to establish his reign forever through David’s family line – no matter how faithfully or unfaithfully they may serve God. (This is why people expected the Messiah to come from David’s line.) God’s covenant commitment gives neither David nor his descendants carte blanche to do anything they want and receive God’s blessing. God tells David that when future kings in David’s line “commit iniquity,” God will punish them. “Yet” God promises, “I will not take my steadfast love from him … Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Sam 7:14-16)
In the context of God’s covenant with David and his line, God fully expected to be at odds from time to time with the king. Yet because of God’s covenantal love, God’s punishments will only be used for correction, not condemnation. God’s justice will only ever be restorative, not retributive. In other words, God will treat David’s line the way God would want to be treated if God were in the wrong. (Fat chance of that – which makes God’s commitment even more startling!)
A prime example of covenantal love in our day is between two married people. A marriage is a covenantal act founded in love between two people who agree to stick by each other through thick and thin, in good times and bad. If a marriage is not founded in, or loses, its covenantal commitment, it is not worth the paper the marriage license is printed on. (So reading 1 Corinthians 13 is perfectly appropriate at a wedding after all!)
Looking at how love works in a marriage actually helps us understand quite a bit about the agape of love Paul is talking about, which goes well beyond warm fuzzies. For instance, as any married couple knows well, it would be a big mistake for a young couple to assume that the things they find annoying in one another will magically change when they get married. When entering into a marriage covenant, each partner must ask themself, “Am I willing to marry this person if they continue to annoy me in these particular ways throughout our marriage?”
When Melanie married me, therefore, she didn’t give up her right to express her true feelings about my flaws. (I might say, my alleged” flaws!) Nor did Melanie give up her right to push back, argue, give me the cold shoulder, or tell me what a jerk I’m being. She simply agreed not to let the things that annoy her cause her to lose sight of her commitment to be in loving relationship with me. This means that no matter how much I annoy her, she is committed to acting in ways that respect my humanity and build up our relationship.
Applying this principle to the agape love that Paul thinks we should apply to anyone we are in conflict with, one thing becomes clear: No matter who is right and who is wrong, only those who act in ways that respect their opponent’s basic humanity and that seek to establish a loving and just relationship are doing something worth living for. The rest are worse than wrong. They have no stake in life.
Thus, you can memorize the Bible from start to finish, and even act in ways that are morally upright and pure. But it means nothing in God’s eyes if your actions are not loving. Here’s a poignant example:
One of the places you’ll find definitions for each of the Greek words for love is in a set of books called the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT). TDNT is a massive, ten-volume work of over 9,000 tiny-print pages containing extensive, scholarly articles on every Greek word of the New Testament. The volumes were published in 1933. While the articles are a bit dated by today’s standards, they are still considered important enough that even today anyone with an advanced degree in biblical studies likely owns the whole set. I have it in my library.
You would think that the person responsible for the creation of TDNT would be about the most holy person on earth. You might reasonably suppose that he was someone who really got the message of Jesus and the whole New Testament better than anyone.
This was not the case.
What is astonishing here is that it is highly likely that Gerhard Kittel loved his family. And it is equally likely that his close friends would have considered him loving toward them as well. But he completely and utterly failed to love those whom he considered his enemy. In the end, it did not matter how much he loved his friends or family, or how thoroughly he dedicated his life to the study and knowledge of Scripture. Gerhard Kittel had no love for those he considered his enemy. He neither respected his enemy’s basic humanity nor sought to establish anything even remotely like a loving and just relationship. In the end, therefore, he did nothing worth living for – and what he did do contributed to immeasurable pain and suffering.
The life of Gerhard Kittel stands as a dark and humbling reminder to any of us on either side of the debate over LGBT equality. It reminds us that how we love those who are different from us is the Gold Standard by which all life is judged. If we cannot love those with whom we are in conflict, it does not matter how right we are. We are not acting in ways worth living for, and we are likely causing a lot of pain and hardship in the process.
Yet this is not the end of our story, thank God (literally!). No matter how badly we ourselves may fail to offer the love and grace required of us, there is a significant note of hope here. Our hope is that this life is not about us, but about God. Therefore our salvation is not dependant on our love but on God’s love. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 apply not just to us, but to God as well. This means that even if we act as God’s enemies, there is always hope, for God acts toward us in a manner that God would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.
Read again the words of 1 Corinthians 13, only modified to speak of God’s character as the Source of love. Perhaps you will find in these words the source of your hope in God, but the source of God’s hope in you:
If God speaks in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but does not have love, God is a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 13:2 And if God has prophetic powers, and understands all mysteries and all knowledge, and if God has all faith, so as to remove mountains, but does not have love, God is nothing. 13:3 If God gives away all that God has, and if God hands over God’s very self so that God may boast, but does not have love, God gains nothing. 13:4 God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant 13:5 or rude. God does not insist on God’s own way; God is not irritable or resentful; 13:6 God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 13:7 God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 13:8 God’s love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. … 13:13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is God’s love.
God’s agape-oriented, covenantal love, is the generative force behind the ripples that make waves on earth. It is what makes outsiders insiders, and sets oppressed peoples free. It is love that offers concrete reasons for hope, not only to those who are outside of society’s circle and oppressed, but hope for those on the inside who are the oppressors – people whose lives are far more removed from the goodness and glory of God’s Realm than they have ever dared to think.