Friday, July 02, 2010

Love Means ...

Love Means …
Gal 5:1, 13-25[1]
I think some of the goofiest myths that define our culture surround the notion of love. For example, there are many people out there who live their whole lives looking for “the one.” You know, the single solitary individual out of the roughly 2000 cities the size of Houston that could contain the population of the world! Another is “happily ever after.” It is the fairy-tale ideal that when you find “the one” you will spend your lifetime in honeymoon bliss. One of the silliest love-related myths must have come from the tagline to the 1970 film Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” What in the world does that mean? If you’re human, you will always be in a position of needing to say you’re sorry. If anything, love means you always say you’re sorry, and you keep coming back and saying you’re sorry no matter what!
These myths about love keep many people spending their lives looking for their own personal holy grail of love. It seems to me that once again we’re missing the whole point. St. Paul, reflecting on the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, says that the whole essence of life is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). I think a big part of what Paul was trying to say is that the true path to fulfillment in this life is through giving yourself away to others.
I’m afraid we have some problems with this as well. In our culture, we are told that you have to beware giving too much of yourself away. While I would say that kind of thinking is mostly motivated by the self-interest that permeates our world, there is a genuine challenge here. How do you lose your life for the sake of the kingdom of God and for the sake of others without losing your whole sense of self? I think at least part of the answer is that we can only give ourselves away in love when we are connected with a community that becomes a tangible embodiment of God’s unconditional love for us.[2] In a very real sense, we have to be free in this way in order to love others by giving ourselves away.
I would have to say that we’re going from the frying pan into the fire here. We as a culture are also confused about freedom.[3] We think freedom means “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to.” We confuse freedom with “license.” License means you don’t care about anybody else, so you have no qualms about doing whatever you want, regardless of how it affects others.[4] It’s a matter of indulging yourself however and wherever you please. But what that misses is that there are always consequences to our actions and choices. Pure self-indulgence never results in real freedom.[5]
This was a problem for the churches in Paul’s day. They had determined that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ meant that God had done all that was necessary for their salvation. That meant that no one had to try to earn their salvation by any kind of works—whether Eastern astrology or Greek virtue or Jewish obedience to Torah. But as in most cases where people get a taste of freedom for the first time, they had a hard time figuring out what it meant to be truly free.
You might think that we’re just going round in circles here. The true meaning of love is found in the freedom to give yourself away. True freedom is what you get when you live your life in loving service to others. But I would say that it’s not so much a vicious circle as it is a paradox. The only way to truly find freedom is to give yourself away in love, and the only way to truly give yourself away in love is when you are free.[6] St. Augustine said it this way: “love, and do what you will.”[7] I think he was saying that if you truly love God and truly love others, then you are free to do whatever you want, because what you want will be—in so far as it is humanly possible—an expression of love toward God and others. And as St. Paul said it, there is no law against that (Gal. 5:23)![8]
Now, I will be the first to admit that it’s incredibly difficult to live at this level of love and freedom all the time. We all have a variety of influences within us that keep us from the freedom to give ourselves away to others in love. It seems to me that part of the challenge faced by Jesus’ would-be disciples in our Gospel lesson today (Lk. 9:57-62) is that they really weren’t free enough to give themselves away in love. I think that most of us spend a lifetime learning what it means to live like this, and then only a very few ever really attain it. What St. Paul wanted the people of his day and ours to know is that what God has done for us all in Christ Jesus enables us to explore what it means to have the freedom to love others in a community of people who are also free to live and to love.[9]

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/20/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Jacques Ellul, “Christian Responsibility for Nature and Freedom,” Cross Currents 35 (Spring 1985): 50 , where he says that Christians are free, but that “this freedom is inconceivable without a conversion to God and a life within the love of God and neighbor. People become individuals, yes, but this change is viable only if together with others they form a new community.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 83-85; and Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:310: “freedom in Christ manifests itself through the formation of concrete communities where the old barriers of nation, race, class, and gender are overcome in communion at the one table (cf. 3:26-29; 5:13-15).”
[3] See Karen Engle Layman, “Galatians 5:1-15,” Interpretation 54 ( Jl 2000): 297-299; she quotes Hans Küng, “The illusion of freedom is to do what I want. The reality of freedom is to want what Almighty God does” (from Freedom Today, 41).
[4] John Paul II, in “The Gospel of Life,” 19.3, said that we have “a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them.” See J. Michael Miller, C. S. B., The Encyclicals of John Paul II, 808.
[5] Cf. Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, 107-110, where he discusses various alternative versions of “freedom.”
[6] See especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit; this is a theme that runs throughout his discussion of the church’s identity and calling; he begins the idea that Jesus establishes the freedom of God’s kingdom by sacrificing himself for others (117), by breaking the powers of oppression through the resurrection (98-99), and by assuring us that we are accepted by God, and therefore enabling us to accept others (188-89); therefore Moltmann understands the freedom of God’s kingdom as that which enables us to serve one another in the effort to bring freedom to others (84, 195, 278, 283-84, 292); he construes this life under the concept of “friendship” which Jesus models and we are called to emulate those who are “open for others” and who “love in freedom” (121, 316). I would suggest that this idea of freedom to love is a central theme in Moltmann’s understanding of the Christian life.
[7] Augustine, Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John;; See John Caputo, On Religion, 3-7, 24-28, 109-116, 134-36, 139; cf. similarly, John Calvin and W. Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, 160 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc): “He who loves will render to every man his right, will do injury or harm to no man, will do good, as far as lies in his power, to all.” See further, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:732-33.
[8] See R. N. Longenecker, Galatians, 247, who puts it more positively: “where the new life in Christ by the Spirit is present, no law is required to command it.”
[9] Cf. Frances Taylor Gench, “Galatians 5.1, 13-25,” Interpretation 46 ( Jl 1992):290-295; see also Cousar, Galatians, 110: “The person who trusts the faithfulness of God is then in a position to take risks about everything else in life.”

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