Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:7-21
Over the course of the seven years I served on the national Anglican Church’s theological commission, one of the people I came to know and really appreciate was an Inuit man named Benjamin Arreak. A gentle and thoughtful man, Ben is one of the bishops of the Arctic, and one of his passions has been translation of the scriptures into the Inuktitut language. At the end of a long day of our commission’s meetings, while the rest of our group unwound with a bit of social time, it was not uncommon for Ben to slip off to his room to do just a bit more translation work. From time to time, he’d give us a bit of a picture of how challenging that work could be, given that the Inuktitut language had no words for things so basic to the biblical landscape as sheep and shepherds. The word chosen for shepherd ended up being the one for a person who tends a dog team; not exactly the same thing as a shepherd of course, but following a translation principle called “functional equivalence” it made the most sense. Still, what about all of those different kinds of trees that appear in the bible—cedars and palms and fig trees, for instance? What do you do with those when translating into a language shaped in a treeless landscape?
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Part of what makes this new bible translation work is that it was all done by people for whom Inuktitut was their mother tongue. As Jonah Allooloo, an Inuk priest and one of the other translators said, “[Others] have learned the language well, but you’ll never learn to think the way these people do.”
This insight that language is connected to a way of thinking is an incredibly important thing for us to keep in view every time we open a bible to read. Many of us have a preferred translation, but we can almost forget that it is actually a translation from languages very different from our own. I tend to work with the New Revised Standard Version, but often take a look at Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, to see what he does with any particular verse or passage. As I do that, I’m very much aware that Peterson is actually making interpretive decisions as he translates; but truth be told, that is the case with any translator.
In the fifteen verses from the 1st Epistle of John that we heard read aloud this evening, a word translated as “love” appeared no less than twenty-seven times, which would suggest that John is pretty concerned to deliver a message about love to his young church. “Beloved, let us love one another”; “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”; “perfect love casts out fear”; “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” And the thing is, as he writes in koine Greek John has at least four different words at hand that speak of love, yet he chooses the same one all twenty-seven times.
A quick Greek review. There are basically four different words that we translate as “love”: philia, which points to friendship; eros, which is romantic and sexual; storge, which is used in the context of affection, typically parental or familial; and agape which is the word John is using, and which can be the hardest one for us to get our heads around. Our one English word “love” has to carry this range of meanings?
Of course at some level we all know that we always use that one English word in multiple ways. I love my wife and I love my kids, and I know those are of a different order. I also love my ministry, and I’ve been known to say that I love jazz, New York City, seafood, and travelling. And I am called to love God and to love my neighbour as myself—or as John would have it, “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
I said that as he wrote his epistle John had four different words at hand from which to choose, but that is actually to see things from our side of the thought world reflected in language. The only word he could have used was agape, because he is pretty clear he’s not talking about friendship, romance, or even simple affection. He’s talking about agape, which the biblical scholar Thomas Johnson describes as “the free decision of one person to give himself or herself up for the highest good and well-being of another person without regard to reward.” Do you hear what is really at stake here? A decision. A free decision to give of the self for the sake of the other, with no thought of reward. That means it has nothing to do with how I happen to feel about that other person; nothing to do with affection or attraction, nor with mutuality. Agape is not a two-way street, in which my expression of care or giving will predictably be met by a corresponding expression back to me; it is simply and freely given, as an act of the will. And according to Johnson, “It is best seen in God’s love for humankind in the sending of the Son to be the Savior of the world.”
On the one hand, we should receive that as very good news indeed. I mean seriously, if you read this passage from 1st John with its insistence that we “love one another,” that we “ought to love one another,” that “We love because he first loved us,” and then imagine it has anything much to do with feeling, we’d all be sunk. Right? The people you end up sharing a church with aren’t necessarily the ones you’d choose as your friends. For the students who’ve spent the last year living in residence, you know that you don’t feel particularly affectionate toward some of the people with whom you’ve shared that space. There’s a group here about to set out for a four-month stint working at Pioneer Camp, and I guarantee that you’ll be feeling things other than affection for each other at some pretty key points over the summer.
But in this epistle, John is not calling us to feel good about each other… he’s not got feelings in view at all. He’s talking about the choice to extend the self, to give of the self, to give the self, with absolutely no guarantee of return.
Incidentally, keeping that in view also helps make some sense of one of the more difficult verses in this passage. “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars,” John writes. “For those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Pretty stark, isn’t it? No room for anything even close to hatred… even if you feel a pretty strong dislike for someone; even if you feel loathing toward that person for something they’ve done, John wants to rule it out. But that doesn’t mean you have to then turn around and feel loving toward someone you really have a problem with. You don’t even have to like them. You just have to choose a posture of agape. In the case of that co-worker at Pioneer Camp who you really can’t stand, this might mean putting your own need or desire to feel disdain or even hatred on the backburner, and to find ways to treat that person as a person—as a brother or sister in Christ, in fact—whether you feel like it or not. Doesn’t mean it is easy, of course. But at least you’re not being expected to feel all warm and cozy about everyone… as if you could!
Of course, John is writing this into a community, and not simply to individuals. He wouldn’t have even imagined the idea that I might have a copy of a bible in which I could read his words some morning and then try to act on them all on my own. He’s writing to a people together, and challenging them to do that and be that for each other. John is not trying to create self-sacrificing individuals who will just keep giving themselves over for the sake of others—you know, pious people busily cultivating a bit of a martyr complex—but rather an agape people together.
Now, having so carefully distinguished between these four different “loves,” I want to backtrack just a bit and say that ultimately they do need to overlap and to inform each other. One of the more obvious contexts for this is marriage. If we tried to sustain our marriages on eros alone, they’d only last about two years. Not that marriages are somehow fated to loose the romance and delight of eros, but rather that if some point a marriage doesn’t also begin to be characterized by the affection of storge or the loyalty and mutuality of philia/friendship, things will wear very thin very fast. But even more, it is the choice that is agape—the giving of the self, or from the self, for the well-being of the other, without regard to reward—that gives our marriages their only fighting chance. In marriage we will not always be particularly likeable, and there will be times when we will fail to rise to the challenge of being even a friend. The “other” in the marriage may actually realize that today they don’t much like us, and they sure as heck aren’t feeling a whole lot of eros going on… It is on those days, when the other chooses agape in spite of it all, that the relationship is truly shaped.
Not just the relationship, either, but our very selves and souls. For John says that while “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” We are indwelt by the Spirit of God, and refashioned as, “we abide in him and he in us.” To choose to love—to live as agape people—is to be shaped and fashioned ever more deeply in the image of the God who indwells us.
And incidentally, the Inuktitut version of the bible on which my friend Ben Arreak worked so lovingly will be released later this spring; an act of agape on the part of Ben and the other translators, offered into the life of those communities for generations to come.