This week we are beginning a series of sermons leading up to a discussion of the issue of homosexuality on March 23. Weíre doing this across several weeks so that there is time for thought, but also because the issue is way too broad to deal with in one sermon. The question at the root of the homosexuality issue is whether the sexual expression of love between two people of the same gender is really love, and therefore sanctioned by the very nature of God, or whether it is something else masquerading as a form of love, and therefore against all that God is.
For my part, I donít see how itís possible to come at that question without first having some kind of handle on what real love looks like. We canít claim that a watch isnít working until we have first learned to tell time, and we canít label a personís love disordered until we have some sense of what real love is and does.
All of that means that the very first piece to put in place as we sort out this puzzle is humility...because there is no way we can completely define love. Why? Because God is love. To define love is to define God, and God is far bigger than any human definition. Anything anyone says about God is incomplete, and most of the things that most of us say about God is at least partially wrong as well. So when we try to define love, which is the nature of God, we can do so only with clumsy, apologizing steps. We will not get it all, and we will...all of us...be at least partly wrong. Howís that for a disclaimer?
Despite the difficulties, however, we canít simply ignore the nature of love, because we canít ignore God. In both the Old Testament and the New, God commands us to love. If God is to be at the center of our lives, love must be at the center, and it certainly is a help to know something about what that love entails. That is where the concept of revelation comes in. We believe that in the pages of Scripture, in the person of Jesus, and in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, Godís nature is revealed to us. It is because of that revelation that we can at least say that God is love rather than fear or wrath or an oak tree. It is also because of that revelation that we can at least have some idea of what love looks like, even if we can never fully define it.
In Scripture, Godís love is expressed in three main metaphors. The most common one is God as a parent or guardian...father, mother, shepherd. We learn from that, that Godís love is like the filial bonds of family. It is a nurturing love...a love that seeks to protect us from harm, especially while we are infants and have no means of protecting or providing for ourselves.
The next most common metaphor for Godís love is that of the lover. Both Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New are described as being married to God, and when Godís people turn to other gods, it is described as adultery. This kind of love we will talk about more in detail next week.
The least common metaphor, and yet the one that seems to be lifted up well above the others is the metaphor of the Friend. Both Abraham and Moses are described as friends of God, and in this passage from John, Jesus tells his disciples that there is no greater love than that of a friend willing to give up life for another friend. No greater love. Jesus then goes on to name the twelve disciples closest to him as his friends, moving them right up there with Abraham and Moses.
If Jesus describes the greatest love of human beings as a love between friends, I think that is the place to start in examining the nature of love. In this day and age we are often hesitant to describe a relationship between friends as a love relationship. ďNo, weíre just friends,Ē we say. According to Scripture, if we donít think of our friends as loves, we have missed something. Something big.
Many of you know I have been a huge Lord of the Rings fan since Jr. High. There is no other book outside of the Bible that has done more to shape who I am and what I believe. There are many great themes woven throughout this epic, but one of the strongest is the theme of the power of friendship.
Friends are the ones you can count on when all others fail. Friends are the ones who remind you of what you believe when you forget. Friends are the ones who carry the burden for you when you are falling under the weight. Friends are the one who see the world the same way you do and who show you parts of yourself you never knew were there.
One of the things that makes the love of friends so great is that our friends are freely chosen. There is no biological duty, no hormonal push to spur us to something we otherwise would not have done. The love of friends is free. Jesus says to the Disciples, ďI chose you.Ē Thatís how friendship works. We choose our friends.
CS Lewis has a long discourse on Friendship in his book, The Four Loves. He points out that friendship is more than just companionship. Companions are people who do things together. You play bridge every Friday, belong to the same group, are in the same class, share a hobby or craft. Friends are more than just companions. Friends are companions who also see things the way you do. Lewis says they see the same truth.
I have many companions who enjoy Lord of the Rings. I have been friends with a woman named Celeste for more than 30 years now because we both believe that the themes of Lord of the Rings represent some of the most essential truths about life. We look at life in fundamentally the same way, even though I have chosen to express that through life in the church and she wants nothing to do with organized religion.
The fact that friendship is born when people see things the same way helps to explain what Jesus means when he says, ďYou are my friends if you do what I command.Ē On the surface, this doesnít sound like friendship. Jesus says he is not calling them servants anymore, but then says they can only be his friends if they do what he says. That doesnít sound right.
I think what he means is the same thing I would mean if I said, ďYou are my friends if you see Lord of the Rings more than twice in the theaters.Ē I donít mean that you can earn my friendship by paying for and sitting through a movie multiple times. I do mean that I am friends with the sort of people who see the film again and again. If that story resonates with you, then that vibration will match my own and we will be friends. Celeste has seen the current movie six times. Iím way behind at only four.
What Jesus means here, I think, is something similar. Jesusí friends are the ones who look at the world the same way he does. And those who look at the world the same way he does are going to do the things he commands...not because he has commanded them, but because those are exactly the things that come naturally when you look at the world that way.
At this point in John, we are at the end of Jesusí ministry. This chapter is part of what is known as the ďFarewell Discourse,Ē the part of John where Jesus prepares his disciples for a life without him being bodily present. Family and lovers need the body to be present in order to thrive, but the love of friends is untouched by distance.
I have several friends who I have gone literally years without seeing. And yet, when we get back together, itís like we were never apart. We simply pick up where we left off. There are no lectures about why havenít you come sooner, there is no need to find out how the job is going or what the kids are up to, because our relationship is not about that. We are simply connected...soul to soul...because we view life in the same way.
This is why learning to be friends with God is a necessary part of our Christian growth. When our faith is in its infancy, we need God the parent. We need to be told what to do, we need someone to provide for us, to clean up our messes, and to keep us out of trouble. As we mature, we need God the lover...the one who will make us feel special, shower us with gifts, and teach us that our bodies are precious.
Then, at last, we are ready to explore the Divine Friend. The one we love, not because we have to or need to, but because we want to...because we find that weíre on the same wavelength, and all those things that God the Parent told us to do, and that God the Lover cajoled us to do are now the things we would choose to do on our own. We stop demanding that God show up and direct our every turn because we know we are always connected, soul to soul. We communicate with every breath; our entire lives are prayer.
We learn what it is like to be a friend to God by practicing being friends to others. I honestly believe that every single one of our human relationships is meant to teach us about some aspect of the love of God. Our families are supposed to teach us about the nurturing love of God. If a family is truly loving, the family members are all learning how both to give and receive care. Our intimate relationships teach us how to be faithful to one human being, so that we can live out fidelity to one God. We learn how to be vulnerable to another who loves us and how that vulnerability cements our faithfulness.
The relationships we have with our friends teach us that we can share our love of one God with millions of others, and the more it is shared, the more it grows. Unlike erotic love and competition for care in families, true friendship is never jealous. If there are more that share the vision, the vision becomes greater, not less. Real friendships on earth prepare us to expand the joy of heaven with each new soul that finds its way. Friendship, more than anything else, prepares us to be able to give up even our very lives should it benefit another. Greater love has no one than this.
So carry this with you into the weeks ahead. When we look at whether a relationship really represents a godly love, we should first look at how closely the relationship resembles the love of friends.
© 2003, Anne Robertson
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