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Learning to Love: Three Loves

February 4, 2007

John 21:15-17; I Corinthians 13

Today, we begin a new sermon series entitled Learning to Love. The titles for the following two weeks are “Two Loves” and “One Love.” Today we will consider “Three Loves.”

Sometimes when Clare and I are traveling in the mountains, we have a brief discussion about geology, brief because neither one of us knows much about the subject. Clare took geology as a science course when she was at Furman University because it did not require laboratory time. She would be the first to say that she knows very little about that subject though she did make a wonderful grade in that class. She remembers one Saturday when she took a fieldtrip with her geology professor and the class to Lexington County to look at rocks. You know that Clare is originally from Leesville, South Carolina. Clare said, “I have been looking at rocks in Lexington County all of my life. I cannot believe I had to take a perfectly good Saturday to do this.”

One memory I have about geology is the fieldtrip I went on with Lynn Alexander and her sixth grade science class from E.P. Todd Elementary School. We traveled to Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to a place called Gem Mountain. Each child got a bucket of dirt, expensive dirt that cost about $5 a bucket. The children sifted through that dirt in hopes of finding a semiprecious gem. I am convinced the owners of Gem Mountain planted at least one semi-precious gem in those buckets so that every child could find something. The gems were not particularly valuable, but hunting for something of worth in the dirt was such an interesting experience.

Another geological experience I had was a backpacking trip in the Shining Rock Wilderness. The Scouts will know about that place in the high mountains between Waynesville and Brevard, North Carolina. As you hike along a trail toward Cold Mountain, you come to the top of Tennent Mountain, which is over 6,000 feet. This area is the setting of the Civil War novel and movie entitled Cold Mountain. As you hike along that trail, you see a gleaming rock about two miles away in the distance. Most of the rocks in that area are huge granite outcroppings, but this rock is very different. This rock, white quartz, was a spectacular site, especially in the sun. Rocks generally all look about the same to me. Occasionally though, I will see one that is interesting, maybe a little different.

Looking for love is a little bit like looking for rocks when you do not know much about geology. In our world, love is ever before us, particularly now during the month of February, the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day. We are going to hear a lot about love in the days to come. We will go into stores and see signs about buying gifts that express our love. We have trivialized love, even giving the name LUV to a disposable diaper and to a Chevrolet pick-up truck. We talk about “loving” the Colts or the Bears, “loving” the Clemson Tigers or the Carolina Gamecocks, or “loving” chocolate. Love must be something far deeper than that.

Today, I want us to think about three kinds of love and their relationship to each other, three kinds of love that come to us through Greek words. I am not going to bore you with a lot of Greek, but three words are important. The first word is Eros, love that is passionate and thrilling. Eros was the name of a lesser Greek god. His Roman counterpart was Cupid, the little god that fluttered around with wings and fired arrows indiscriminately. According to the myth, if Cupid hit you with one of his arrows, you would fall in love with the next person you saw. The idea of “love at first sight” originated from this myth. Eros is a thrilling feeling. It is the feeling of being awestruck. It is a romantic love, spine-tingling excitement, roses. People use the expression, “I am in love.” That kind of love is very capricious, fleeting. It is even fickle.

A group of Scouts is sitting before me this morning. The Cub Scouts, the younger boys, do not want to hear much about the type of love known as Eros. They do not want to hear much about kissing and romance. There is a point though in which “boy scouts” become “girl scouts.” The older Scouts, these boys sitting in front, know exactly what I mean. I can remember when my daughter, Betsy, became a boy scout. She was on the lookout.

The Bible never uses the word Eros. About as close as the Bible comes to talking about Eros is when Jesus talks about the human experience of lust. You remember that Jesus talked about Eros in the context of the sin of adultery, which he traced back to its lair, that first lustful look. Someone has said that for the Christian, lust is the experience of window-shopping in the sin district. Satan asks, “Won’t you come in and try some?” A Christian response is, “No, thanks. I am just browsing.” Eros is certainly a valid feeling, something most of us have experienced. Eros simply will not last.

Clare and I remember a woman, who, at her bridal shower, commented, “Please, when you buy my wedding gift, do not get anything monogrammed. If this marriage does not work out, I don’t want his initials on my stuff.” It probably will not surprise you to know that marriage for this couple did not last very long.

Philia, the second type of love, is a little deeper than Eros. Philadelphia, which means “City of Brotherly Love,” uses this same Greek root. This type of love suggests more permanence. It connotes friendship and high regard for another person. It clearly understands other people and accepts them for who they are. All of us have experienced Philia as friendship. Friendships, of course, are very valuable to us; but you know that friendships can change when the circumstances of life change. Think about your closest friends in high school or college. What kind of relationship do you have with those people now? This past week, I saw one of my best friends from high school for the first time in probably forty years. He used to be such a dear friend. We immediately picked up with conversation about having algebra together. Our lives have gone in different paths over the last forty years. People can certainly maintain closeness, but friendships can become vulnerable, drifting apart if time, distance, or perhaps harsh words interfere. Friendships can continue as long as each person in the relationship has a sense of enjoyment and mutual appreciation.

The deepest level of love is Agape love. John 21:15-17 provides a good example of the contrast between Philia and Agape in the dialog between Jesus and Simon Peter. You remember that Simon Peter had previously denied Jesus three times, saying, “I don’t know him…I don’t know him…I don’t know him.” My Bible subtitles this little section Jesus Reinstates Peter. While having breakfast together on the beach, Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” Jesus uses the word Agape in that first question. Jesus is asking Simon if he loves him with a deeply committed love. Simon Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” When Peter answers, he uses the word Philia, changing the word Jesus had used for love because he is not committing to a deep love at that point. He is saying, “Lord, I love you like a brother, a friend.” Jesus asks a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?” He is again asking his disciple, “Do you love me with an Agape love, a deeply committed love?” Again, Peter answers, “Lord, you know that I love you like a friend, like a brother.” Then Jesus moves to the level at which Simon Peter is answering him, changing the word he uses: “Peter, do you love me like a brother?” Simon Peter answers, “Yes, I love you like a brother.” They both use the Greek root word Philia in that third exchange.

Why are Jesus’ questions to this disciple and his use of words important? Simon Peter had denied his Lord. He had violated his previous commitment. At this point, he simply could not acknowledge that he loved Jesus with a deeply committed love. What is interesting is that Jesus took what Simon Peter could offer. Simon Peter’s life demonstrated a deeply committed love, Agape love, from this point forward. We know that he later became a martyr because of his love for Jesus.

No greater treatise exists on this wonderful Agape love, the deepest level of love, than I Corinthians 13, which we call the Love Chapter. We sometimes quote this chapter at weddings, sometimes at funerals. The application for this passage in the Bible is far more than just married love; but as I present this message today, I want to speak directly to married couples. I know that some of you have been married and are no longer with your marriage partner. I know that some of you have never been married. Nevertheless, it is appropriate for us to look at the core section of I Corinthians 13, Verses 4-7, in the context of married love.

What does Paul say about this level of love? I must hasten to say that I can find places where I need to shape up at every point in the Apostle Paul’s description of Agape love. Paul begins his ideas by making two very strong comments. First, Paul says that love is patient. In the context of marriage, everybody knows that being patient means you do not have a short fuse. More than that, it means that you are willing to take the time to demonstrate your love to the person you love. As I prepared this sermon, one person was constantly on my mind, Clare. We frequently have conversations with each other. I hope that fact does not surprise you. What might surprise you though is that I may assume we are finished with our conversation, but Clare does not think as I do. I can finish a conversation in about half the time it takes Clare. If she is not finished, the conversation continues until she has completed the discussion. We must make time to give a person we love the time he or she needs.

Second, Paul says that love is kind. It has a gentle quality about it. Love does not call names. It does not insult. Love does not use sarcasm, a word that technically means, “to cut flesh.” We allow so many of our words to cut, wounding another person. Love certainly does not have any taint of emotional or physical abuse.

Following his description of love as being patient and kind, Paul launches into a section that summarizes eight qualities love should not have. First, Paul says that love does not envy or become jealous. Love is glad for the other person’s successes, glad for the other person’s delight. Love is the epitome of self-giving. Second, Paul says that love does not brag. It is not boastful. Love never thinks that it is the center of attention. It is about us, not me. It is not self-centered. It is about people beyond us.

Third, love is not arrogant, judgmental, and condemning. It does not look down on others. The attitudes and comments of some people reveal that they think they are right and the other person is wrong. Love does not take that posture. Marriage partners must view each other as intellectual equals. Both are students, and both are teachers. They each have something to learn from the other. Each must have a sense of companionship and mutual respect.

Fourth, Paul says love is not rude. It is considerate, polite, and well mannered. Fifth, love is not selfish. It does not insist on its own way. As love grows, love knows what the other person prefers. Rather than demanding something that is self-serving, love becomes self-giving. It will be deferential in that regard. Sixth, love is not easily provoked. It is not irritable and grouchy. Men, has this situation or one similar to it ever happened to you? You are watching the Super Bowl at the two-minute warning, and a voice from the kitchen calls, “Honey, I need your help.” It would be so easy to get mad; but according to Paul, having Agape love gives you the desire to help without any form of anger or resentment. Next, Paul says that love does not hold a grudge. It keeps no score of wrongdoing and grasps no ill feelings. That is not to say that the marriage partners do not deal with the bad feelings. Love does not just hang onto those bad feelings, harboring them and mentioning them repeatedly.

Finally, love takes no joy in wrongdoing. Seeing your marriage partner acting with integrity delights love as much as anything else does. Several years ago, Clare and our daughter came home from the grocery store. Betsy walked in the house and said, “Guess what! Mom was paying the cashier for the groceries, and the woman gave her back $10 too much. Mom counted the money and returned the extra money to the cashier.” What a wonderful delight to know that your marriage partner acts with integrity and honesty and that your children are witnessing that example. Love rejoices in what is right.

In the next section of I Corinthians, Paul provides five strengths that define this deepest level of love. First, love delights in the truth. The truth is sometimes hard to hear, and it might humble us. Love lives in a world of reality, not fantasy. Love wants to know the truth. It speaks the truth. It speaks the truth in love.

Love bears all things. In other words, love must have good shock absorbers if it is going to survive. The road of life is full of bumps and potholes. Marriage partners are not perfect. People we love are not perfect. Sometimes they have flaws that last throughout life. I talked with a woman about a year ago who said, “My husband was just never able to find his niche. He tried first one job and then another. I promised him I would be with him, and I have kept that promise. We have been through all of this together. I would rather do that than try to do it without him. I love him.” That kind of love understands that life has many trials along the way.

Love believes all things. The very foundation of marriage is trust. Without trust, a marriage cannot survive. Think of trust as being like a coral reef around an island. When the storms come, a reef takes the battering and protects the island. That is the function of trust in a marriage. A sledgehammer can do a lot of damage to a coral reef in about five minutes, damage that will take a lifetime to repair. Likewise, a marriage partner can easily damage trust. I caution you not undermine the trust in your relationship. Trust is so essential. Love is grounded in trust.

Love hopes all things. It expects the best and looks forward to the future. It knows that the next stage of life is going to be even better than this one. Robert Browning comments on this attitude about love in a line from his poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra”: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be…” Consider how Jeremiah 29:11 expresses this concept: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans not to do you harm, but to give you hope and to give you a future.’” Love believes that God holds the future and that He has a good plan.

Finally, love endures all things. A couple repeats wedding vows, promising “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish and keep only unto you as long as we both shall live.” Some people have changed the final words of those vows to read, “…as long as love lasts.” This wording suggests a sense of impermanence. They may be talking about Eros, which is fickle; but they are not talking about Agape love. Agape love will last. The vows properly say, “…until we are parted by death.” Some may think this a little irreverent, but I have thought of adding a phrase to those vows, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, come hell or high water.” Satan will attack your marriage as you go through deep waters. It takes the whole armor of God for both husband and wife to fend off Satan’s attacks. When you go through deep water, you need a love that can endure all things. Clare and I have taken some hard licks to our marriage. In a fourteen-month period, her mother died, our son died, and my mother died. Our love has endured. Our marriage has endured. Agape love never fails; it never quits.

Agape love between husband and wife nurtures Eros and Philia. You are going to be both friends and lovers if you have Agape love. Agape love is the strong, sturdy support that allows the other two to thrive.

Hearing of a gold rush in Dahlonega, Georgia, a man moved to the area and built himself a little cabin. He spent the rest of his life there, panning for gold in a creek in northern Georgia. He never found gold. When he died, his children came to clean out his house. One of his children decided to take home a big rock that the father had used as a doorstop. The son accidentally dropped the rock, ripping away some of its exterior and exposing a shiny metal underneath. That rock, a huge gold nugget, had been there in the old man’s home. He had been futilely panning for gold all those years when the object he was searching for had been within his grasp all along.

Where do you find this kind of love? Agape love grows in Christian homes. I have seen it growing in many of you. I have seen it in nursing homes. I have seen it in the Intensive Care Unit at hospitals when one person sits at the bedside of another person. People that have been married for many years look into each other’s eyes the way they have done so many times before. Holding hands, one tells the other, “I love you.” The response is, “I love you, too.” That is not Eros. That is not Philia. That deep love is Agape, love that is a decision, a commitment, an act of the will. We are looking for that love.

God loves us with this type of deeply committed love. He has loved us supremely in Jesus Christ. Have you experienced that love in your life? If not, we invite you to make that decision to accept Jesus Christ. Some of you have other decisions to make as well. This is your opportunity as we stand together and sing a hymn of invitation, “I Am Thine, O Lord.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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