The Way of Love

Last week, on the First Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of Hope. The Second Advent candle is the candle of Love.

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, is always talking about “The Way of Love”. The Christian way, the Christian path, is to love: to love God, to love our neighbor, and to love ourselves. 

A friend of mine once started a sermon by saying, “I have some bad news. A terrible case of burnout has forced a sabbatical, if not full retirement of the word love. It’s in grave danger of becoming meaningless, and it needs a rest.”

The word is used so frequently in our culture and in our daily speech that it’s watered down to include almost anything we like or enjoy. We say “I love my car, McDonald’s hamburgers, and anything from Dairy Queen.” Some of us love sports and fireworks displays. As the song says, “Love is a many-splendored thing.” 

Because the word is used so much and refers to so many things, let’s take a moment to think about what wemean when we talk about it. Let’s put some legs on this thing we call love.

We Episcopalians don’t leave much to chance. We teach through our prayers, our liturgies, our worship. If you want to know what we believe, read our prayer book. Birth, death, adoption, service to others, marriage . . . we’ve got services and prayers to cover them all.

When we lived in Massachusetts, I was invited to offer the opening prayer for the Commonwealth’s House of Representatives. As we were driving to Boston, my wife asked me what I had written for the prayer. I told her that I hadn’t written anything. I was just going to use the “prayer for the opening of a state legislature” printed in our supplemental prayer book, The Book of Occasional Offices. Like I said, we’ve got it covered.

The Marriage Service is good place to go if you want to learn something about love. Both parties are asked by the celebrant, “Will you love him/her/they, comfort, honor and keep, in sickness and in health, and, forsaking all others, be faithful as long as you both shall live?” 

And the answer is not “I do” like in the movies or TV. Because the question isn’t “Do you love?” Of course they love each other! What couple doesn’t feel all warm and loving on their wedding day? 

The question to the couple is “will you love?” And the answer they give is “I will.” Because Love is understood here not as a feeling, but as a verb—future tense. What the couple are promising is future behavior. To act in loving ways towards each other, not just today, but down the road, throughout their lives together, even when things aren’t so bright and full of promise, when they’re no longer young and beautiful and handsome, and even when they don’t feel like it. 

There are different Greek words for love that are used in the Bible. One of those refers to erotic or romantic love. The word is eros . . . like in Taylor Swift’s Eros Tour, or her romance with Travis Kelsey. The focus is on feelings.

But the kind of love we’re affirming here today is a verb, and it embraces not only this present moment but the future as well: How we behave, our actions toward others. 

The Greek word is agape: Godly love. It has to do with concern for the other’s welfare, the willingness to put aside one’s own desires or comfort or needs in order to address the well-being of another. Think about getting up in the middle of the night to change and feed a crying baby; or the willingness to forego all that is entailed in caring thoughtfully and gently for a spouse or a parent with advancing dementia. It’s the kind of love that St. Paul described when he wrote:

1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,

2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,

8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.[1]

Agape love requires empathy: the ability to take on another’s perspective, to understand, and possibly share and respond to their experience. So when Jesus tells us to Love our enemies, he’s encouraging us not necessarily to feel good and warm toward them, but to try to understand them and to behave well toward them—at the very least, we do not torture, we do not hate, we do not deny their humanity. It’s hard work. Agape love involves faithfulness, commitment, and acts of will.

Almost without saying, this kind of love also involves being vulnerable.

In one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories “Good Country People”, she describes an angry, bitter young woman. Originally she’d been named Joy, but as her hatred for the world increased, she changed it to the most ugly name she could come up with. The young woman called herself, Hulga.

Hulga had a wooden leg. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to see how much the wooden leg had shaped her life. She was ashamed and embarrassed, hurt by what life had done to her. She did not find herself to be loveable, and therefore she was unable to love anything or anyone else.

In the story, a man comes to town, charms Hulga, and eventually talks her into having a date. As the story unfolds, cynical, tough Hulga finds herself trusting this man enough to do the unthinkable. She performs an act of love. She takes off her wooden leg and shows him where it is attached.

The story points to something which is true for all of us. We all have wooden legs. The things which we carry around, our inner wounds, those parts of ourselves for which we’re embarrassed, ashamed, memories, secrets we can never share; failures which we keep to ourselves.

Second, every now and again, in a loving relationship, we can come clean. Like Hulga, we can show another person our wooden leg, and share where it has become attached.

When we do that, we have the key to love. Love is that relationship of vulnerability and acceptance where we can be reacquainted with joy. (And guess what? The third Advent Candle is Joy – but that’s next week.)

For this week, remember that love is about living in a manner of care which is honorable, kind and lasting.

Don’t worry about being perfect. The Jesus-job has already been taken.

AMEN


[1] Philippians 2:1-8

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