Harrowing Of Hell
March 5, 2023

Love is more than a Feeling

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

This morning I want to preach about a topic that seems easy, and self-evident in the Kingdom of God, and I’m going to make it really complicated. (Typical.) The topic is love.

It is a many splendored thing. It’s big and it’s sweet. It’s a playground. And it’s for puppies…It’s all you really need because it’s what makes the world go around. Love, and it makes me smile.

How about you? Who doesn’t love love? Who doesn’t love to feel love? That feeling of butterflies in your stomach before going on a first date. Or that dreamy feeling you get as you lull in a hammock watching the sun set, maybe a glass of wine in hand. Love, it makes the world go around. It’s all you really need.

Maybe the love that is most moving to you is when you’re sitting in your family room, Sunday afternoon, watching a football game. When suddenly, flashed across the screen, as the camera pans fans in the stands, you see plastered on a poster board John 3:16. And your heart jumps, then just fills with love. And in your mind these words ring out: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”

Suddenly you’ve become a Christian, and you put down your beer, turn to your buddies and declare: “I’ve been changed by John 3:16, and I’m going to church!” You leave, get into your car and you drive to Epiphany. It is nice to see you. Is that the story of anyone here today? Silly me… it is not football season. The only signal John 3:16 on a placard sends is that the person holding it probably doesn’t know much about love. Love is complicated, and more than that, it is risky.

To better understand the love-risk relationship we begin with a survey from C. S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves. There are three earthly loves, and one heavenly love; with the three earthly loves being storge, which is affection; philia, which is friendship; and eros, which is “being in love.” And then there is heavenly love, agape, which loosely means charity.

Let’s review all four beginning with storge. It is the least discriminating of the loves. It is comfortable, modest, and informal; it’s the kind of love a grandparent might have for a grandchild, or schoolteacher for a student. It’s the love that brings happiness, like a smile across a child’s face.

Storge is the love we want to spread around this church. It’s spontaneous. It provokes joy. It is my hope that Epiphany is a storge styled, love spreading, church. And the good news is that we can get better at storge by just smiling. Try it. Try it again. Now smile at someone. There you go. Can’t you feel the love? That is storge love.

Then there is philia, friendship. It is instinctive, organic, and natural. It’s the kind of love I have for my prayer group now and my hockey team when I was a kid. Philia relationships are freely chosen, usually with people who share a common interest.

Philia is the least demanding and jealous of all types of love, and can exist easily between two or three or four or five people simultaneously. This love is the proverbial, “brotherly love.”  It is fraternal. Philia what we develop in small groups here at the church. It’s what happens when you participate in service and outreach activities over and over again, or in the choir, or Vacation Bible Camp, or on pilgrimage. These are the people who are really bummed when we move away, or die. They come to our funerals and tell great stories. That is philia love.

Then there is eros. It is physical. It is sexual. It is one-on-one. It’s the thing you fall into. Eros is “being in love.” At its best there is mutuality. Jealousy can erupt in the world of eros. Passion is the point. That is eros love.

Storge, philia, and eros are all earthly loves, and the hope is that we experience each of them at some point in life. The church is organized to encourage two of them through its activities: storge (smile) and philia (join a group), and Eros we blessed in marriage ceremonies.

Agape is the fourth love. C. S. Lewis believed this transcends all other loves. It is the love that binds the Trinity: Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost. It is the love that is generated by the Trinity. It is the love that initiates creation, resulting in the presence of humanity. Reciprocity in-kind by humans to God is virtually impossible, at best, finding recourse, through love of neighbor. Agape is the love that aligns us with God, which is why it generates steady equanimity irrespective of who we are with, how we are feeling, what we are doing, or where we intend to go… that is agape love.

It is the love that inspired John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that all who believe in him may have eternal life.” Beautiful and profoundly risky, so risky it could land you on a cross, which is what happened to Jesus.

Let me further explain why by sharing with you what I stumbled across when leading our Epiphany 400 series theology class last year. We were studying Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book, Prayer. He is a 20th-century Jesuit theologian from Switzerland, whose three hundred-thousand-word systematic theology is based on the concept of beauty.

What we learned about love from von Balthasar was that agape love manifests itself when one abdicates their privilege, advantage, and pleasure in favor of the others preference. Think about that for a moment ——————Let me say that again because it’s a pretty powerful statement: agape love reveals itself when a person abdicates  their privilege, advantage, and pleasure in favor of the other person’s preference.

Now you know what I’m talking about when I say love is risky. von Balthasar’s insight here is into the nature of God’s love. For it is only through the complete abdication of privilege, advantage, and pleasure that three can become one in perfect unity. This is the love that describes the nature of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit three beings, one God; because all three simultaneously, fully and equally abdicate their privilege and advantage and pleasure for the other’s preference, and when this happens perfectly, three are one without losing their identity. And, when love at this level happens it can’t stop happening, which explains why we are here.

Humanity was created to be recipients of this unstoppable love, generative within God’s very nature. This is the love that Jesus came to articulate and model, and it is this love that humanity exploited by their privilege, through their advantage, for their pleasure enabling them to hang Jesus on the cross.

And yet, because God is love, resurrection was inevitable and unstoppable. The resurrection is God rejecting human rejection out of love, without denying human’s the freedom to still reject God’s love. Agape love is risky.

Let’s go one level deeper by looking more closely at privilege, advantage, and pleasure. Privilege is the situational power we were born into. Advantage is what we accrue through maximizing our context, contacts, and natural ability. Pleasure is what we feel in our bodies.  Very eros. And so, I ask you: What is your privilege? How have you created advantage? Who do you exploit for your pleasure?

Now you can see how risky love can be. Now you can see how very quickly agape love can flip into something else. What if your partner was Putin, or a person with a predilection for narcissism? What would your work relationships be like if you really practiced agape love at work?

When you say to somebody: “Oh, you just gotta love on them…” Think again. Love is risky. Maybe it’s better to just be kind, and fair, and judicious. Maybe it’s better to just be generous, and charitable, and thoughtful. Maybe it’s just better to be patient, and caring, and kind. But love? Agape love? Divine love? God’s love? Trinitarian love? Love is risky.

There is only one reason to love this way, because: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” That’s it. If you do not believe in eternal life, don’t waste your time trying agape love. It makes no sense! It is a bad idea! It is too risky!

On the other hand, if you believe in God even just a bit; if you have an inkling that there is something to this John 3:16, then take the risk; because God took the risk on us, punctuating this risk with a promise, made through the resurrection, that we are loved by God, unconditionally and for eternity.

It is worth the risk of foregoing privilege, advantage, and pleasure to get a taste of agape love. And the secondary benefit is that full pursuit the heavenly love, brings a sweetness and joy and even beauty to the earthly loves: storge, philia, and eros.

That is my soliloquy on love, and if it has left you more confused, I invite you to take a copy of my sermon home, and maybe meditate upon it this season of Lent. Maybe it can even become your Lenten Intention. That said, if you have made a Lenten Intention please sign the board in the Narthex after church.

And so, I’ll end where I began, acknowledging that love is as simple as a song, and as complicated as human freedom. Love is a many splendored thing… for God created all things out of love. Love is big… because God is omnipotent and omniscient and mysterious. Love is sweet… because God is merciful. Love is a playground… in which God set us. And love is for puppies… because God made puppies, and puppies are cute. And so, what I’m writing on my football placards is: “Real Christians love puppies.”        

Love is all you really need, love does make the world go around. Love is worth the risk… “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”