The Pastor’s Pen: February 3, 2019

One of the Lectionary Scriptures for this Sunday is the very well-known and often quoted first Corinthians 13, “though I speak with the tongues of men and angels if I have not love I am a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal“. In this era of hyper partisanship and hyper tribalism, we are constantly bombarded by all of the things that make us different. Many whites feel that initiatives like affirmative action steal from them their rightful privileges. A number of Blacks believe that it is unfair that white society has kept its thumb on the scale so that life is tilted against African Americans. Many immigrants take personally the conversations about building walls to ensure that America will not become increasingly a brown society. These arguments are largely based upon an indifference to trying to understand and even perhaps celebrate the differences within communities.

February 14 is of course the annual day when we celebrate love, Valentine’s Day. Yet, there is quite a gulf between the sentimental and emotional feelings that this day promotes. Valentine’s Day conjures in many what the Greeks called “Eros” physical love. In the ancient Greek language, there were three words for love, “Eros”, “philia”, and “agape”. What we often think of as Valentine’s Day love, is “Eros”, the physical, and usually sexual, attraction we feel for the significant persons in our lives. However, we need to spend much time and attention in better understanding “philia” and “agape”. My hometown, Philadelphia, has as its root “philia”, i.e. brotherly love. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of love his starting point was brotherly love. For him, the way to break the stranglehold of tribalism was to incorporate brotherly and sisterly love into our relationships. He often said that it was very difficult to like those who use their power to bully and physically beat persons who were attempting to assert their legitimate rights. However, he said we may not be able to like certain people, but the Bible demands that we love them, in spite of what they do. The perfect example were the first words of Jesus from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”, Luke 23:34 (KJV). And here is where the word for love that Paul uses comes into the picture, agape. It is just about impossible to have brotherly and sisterly love without having the love of God in our relationships. Agape requires that we rise above our innate feelings of difference, learn to appreciate each other as fellow comrades and pilgrims on the journey from life to death, but understand that the move from antipathy, and indifference, to true community, which King called the beloved community, cannot happen without agape, the love of God.

Whether it is Valentine’s Day or the rest of the days of our lives, we would do well to remember what Paul taught us in first Corinthians 13. We may have great gifts, we may be able to exercise them in extraordinary ways, but our gifts only become truly effective when they are rooted in “agape”, the love of God.