Agape Refuses the Process

In our epistle reading today, St. Paul echoes Jesus’ discussion about love and the law. He says that the love fulfills the law and that all the commandments are summed up in “love your neighbor as yourself.” Like Jesus, Paul says, “love one another.”  What does it mean to love one another?

St. Paul isn’t talking about marriage, but the marriage is a good place to start when talking about love.  I’ve done 3 weddings in the past 4 weeks, so I’ve got marriage on the brain. People have definite ideas about what love is when it comes to being married, or even looking to be married. Dave Zahl has written a great article in the new Love and Death issue of The Mockingbird – an excellent quarterly publication called When You Marry the Wrong Person”.  We’ve got some copies available on our new Newcomer Table in the foyer outside of Meade Hall.

In my last wedding sermon, I referenced this article, which I realize is sort of downer title for someone’s so called “big day”! (Oh great…I’m about to make a HUGE mistake…) But, Dave makes a great and helpful point. When you are looking for just the right person to marry, the one to complete you, you are already starting out on the wrong foot. Because no matter how “right” the other person is for you, eventually that person will become the “wrong” person. When you are looking for the other person to totally fulfill you, that other person will have no choice but to be the wrong person.

That is because people, are, well…people, (aka “sinners’) and people will let you down, most especially in the worse, poorer, and sickness side of life. To expect you spouse to totally complete you is to place an expectation on him or her that no person can fulfill. And as we know from life, expectation is nothing more than a planned resentment.

To go a little further, an in relation to what it means to actually love someone, looking for just the right person to complete you assumes that marriage is about adding to one’s self. In fact, the love needed in marriage is all about giving of oneself – self-divestment, rather than self-fulfillment. The right frame of mind is not “you are the one for me”, but rather “I am the one for you.” What can I do for you, rather than what can you do for me? That is true of all relationships, not just romantic ones.

Moving to the realm of parent-child love, many of the same dynamics are at work. I’m reading a spectacular biography of Vincent Van Gogh. We were in Provence this summer, where Van Gogh spent a year at St. Paul’s Asylum. St. Paul’s was a combination of a monastery and mental institution. Van Gogh’s emotional problems, like most problems, were a mixture of nature as well as nurture. He likely suffered from a bi-polar disorder, but his troubled relationship with his parents did its damage as well.

Dorus Van Gogh, Vincent’s father, was a small town protestant pastor in an overwhelmingly catholic area of Holland. He was rigid and exacting, while Vincent’s mother, Anna, was image and class conscious. Young Vincent was sensitive, strange and introverted, always struggling to live up to his parents’ expectations.

As a father, Dorus saw himself as a “delegate of God who exercised power akin to God”. He flew into self-righteous fits of anger when his authority was challenged. Vincent learned early on that to disappoint his father was to disappoint God. Yet, Dorus also had a softer side. Like most of us, he was at war within himself. He wanted to love and accept his children and would apologize when he hurt their feelings and rush to their bedsides when they were ill. Which father would win- the one who loved his son, or the one who judged his son?

As we often say, judgment kills love. And sadly that is what happened to the Van Gogh men. As the biographers put it, “at the end of all Vincent’s bids to win his father’s blessing lay the inflexibly judgmental Dorus….In the end, no matter how sincerely he wanted to help his son, Dorus could never bring himself to accept Vincent on his own terms. Despite his repeated promises to do so, he could never refrain from judging – and condemning – his willful, obdurate, eccentric son. These broken promises only drove father and son deeper into a spiral of provocation, rejection and self reproach from which Vincent could never escape.”  The painter of Starry Night, perhaps the world’s most beloved painting, killed himself at age 37.

St. Paul says, “love one another.”  What does it mean to love one another? Accepting others on their own terms is a good place to start. I heard it said that to be understood is the most powerful expression of love. We hosted a diocesan lunch in honor of the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s visit to Charlottesville on Thursday. He came on a pastoral visit in response to August 12 and it’s aftermath.

When asked about how to respond to the deep divisions in our nations, he called for a “revolution of relationship”. He hoped that Christians would walk in the way of love taught by Jesus. That we would reach out to people who think/feel/act/believe in different ways from us. Bp. Curry said that everyone has a story that has led them to whatever conviction they hold. When we take the time to hear and understand that person then it is much harder to judge and condemn them. I like what he is saying. Statements are not relationships. Demands are not relationships. Relationships are relationships. To understand and empathize is the nature of love.

As Bishop Curry said, this kind of love is cruciform. The bible calls it “agape” love.  In an article in the Atlantic, author and scholar Glenn Tinder writes, “the nature of agape stands out sharply against the background of ordinary social existence. The life of every society is a harsh process of mutual appraisal. People are ceaselessly judged and ranked, and they in turn ceaselessly judge and rank others. It is partly also a struggle for self-esteem; we judge ourselves for the most part as others judge us. Hence outer and inner pressures alike impel us to enter the struggle. The process is harsh because all of us are vulnerable.

Tinder says, “agape means refusing to take part in this process. It lifts the one who is loved above the level of reality on which a human being can be equated with a set of observable characteristics. The agape of God…’crucifies’ the observable, and always deficient, individual, and “raises up” that individual to new life. The power of agape extends in two directions. Not only is the one who is loved exalted but so is the one who loves. To lift someone else above the process of mutual scrutiny is to stand above that process oneself. Agape raises all those touched by it into the community brought by Christ, the Kingdom of God. Everyone is glorified. No one is judged and no one judges.”

Love one another. That is – an expressed refusal to judge. This kind of understanding, non-judging love does not rise out of the human heart naturally. Instead, Agape love rises in response to our being loved by God. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. We hear this each week in our offeratory sentence – “walk in love as Christ loved us, who gave himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.”

Love one another. Jesus Christ took upon himself the judgment and condemnation we all deserve in our sin. He has forgiven and accepted you and me. Why, then, would we not do the same for one another?