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What Is Love?  Biblical vs. Pagan...

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version

Quinquagessima Sunday - 2/14/10    Deut. 10:12-11:1;    Ps. 23;    1 Cor. 13:1-13;    Lk. 18:31-43

The connection between love and justice begins early in the Bible. The requirement for justice appears early in the book of Genesis. And then the love of God is made mandatory, indeed, it the highest commandment over all others, as given in our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy this morning. And then in Matthew 22, Jesus weds love and justice by making love the meaning of the law. Love and justice are eternally wedded.

Love is perhaps the most consistently misunderstood thing in the world, and often, deliberately so. There are persons who want to appropriate the good name which love has for their own evil ends. Nearly our whole culture has accepted the notion that love means sexual relationship, and that we all have a natural human right to pursue sexual engagement with anyone and in any way we like.

That is called "pan-sexualism" (where 'pan' means 'all'), the belief that any sexual activity is morally equivalent to any other sexual activity. Morally it is all the same, all good and right. That was the view promoted by Alfred Kinsey in the 1940's and -50's with his corrupt pseudo-science, in which he said that "everyone is doing it, so how can it be wrong?" He was wrong on both counts. It is not true that "everyone was doing it", and even if everyone was doing it, that could not make it right.

It was and is a terribly destructive way to live. It has destroyed countless lives and families, and has corroded all the societies of the world.

It is a little known fact that the Hebrews were the first civilization on earth, as the Jewish writer, Dennis Prager says, to put sexual activity into the marital bottle. That channeling of energy, he rightly says, was necessary to the making of Western Civilization. We had to learn how to focus our energies on healthy, stable personal relationships, not on making ourselves feel good.

Making ourselves feel good, often with sexual activity, has been the standard pagan way of surviving a world which was inherently chaotic and unreliable. Our contemporary neo-paganism shows exactly the same proclivity. It teaches that feeling good is the highest good of life. That is because our "enlightened" culture tells us that truth is relative. And since that means that there really is no truth to pursue, certainly no moral truth, then feeling good is all there is left to pursue.

Our modern development of science and the industrial revolution have made a Godless society somewhat less chaotic, at times, but on the other hand, has also given us power to unleash such chaos as early pagans never dreamed of. And the internal moral and spiritual chaos abounds more than ever. And so our science and industry are turning increasingly to finding more and better ways of making us feel good.

But the Bible had, right from the start, a different way of seeing things. Biblical religion is sometimes called by anthropologists "ethical monotheism", because it was the first religion in the world to clearly link morality with the law of God. You might say that the Hebrews invented morality. It was really God, of course, but the Hebrews were the ones to hear about it from God and to pass it on to the rest of the world, largely now through Christians.

That is not to say that there were no noble and moral pagans. There indeed were. But it is to say that the pagan world could never explain from where those intuitions of morality came. What was the source of moral obligation? Since paganism has no notion of a God who creates things ex nihilo, out of nothing, it could have no notion of why we exist. A reason for existence requires an intelligent designer for existence, the Biblical God.

And our reason for existence is the sole basis for morality. If there is no creator God, then there is no morality. Life is all a power struggle, and morality comes out of the other end of a gun barrel, or at sword point. Might makes right. Might does not really make right, of course, but it has a way of being very persuasive.

For most pagan religions, the gods and goddesses were seldom paragons of virtue, and so their laws, such as they randomly imposed, could hardly count as the moral standards of the people who worshipped them. Morality was developed pretty much just by observing how things worked, and deciding what things seemed to promote personal and community life. Those that helped promote personal and community life were the good, and those that hindered them were the bad.

As it happens, that is not a totally bad approximation to the law of God as the Bible teaches. The law of God commands love, which means doing good for each other, promoting life and welfare among each other.

The problem with the pagan way is that making the decision on what helps life depended largely on the local ruler who made the decision. What was helpful to him as potentate might not be so helpful for his slaves and serfs working in the fields to make him rich. In the Biblical way, the matter is decided not by the local king, but by the King of kings, and is thus universal, over all life, everywhere.

But often, even a bad ruler's rules were better than the chaos into which society descended when there was no strong man, no ruler who could impose his will. Even a tyranny provides some stability, some protection against the many thieves and marauders lurking along the highways and in the dark alleys. The Roman Empire, established at sword point by the Roman legions, did create a time of relative peace all around the Mediterranian basin for 200 years. A phenomenal record for the pagan, or any other world.

But there was often a heavy price to pay because the ruler himself might be the worst plunderer of the people. He was in a good position to do so.

Love, in the Bible, means doing good for someone. How does one do good for God? Is not that like trying to find a Christmas present for someone who has everything? What can one give that God does not have? He already owns everything in the world.

That is true. God owns everything by being the Creator of all things. But there is one thing He does not have by the created nature of things. Our obedience. He gives us a freedom which He puts in our charge, so that we can make choices independently of His will. God gives us freewill because He wants real people, not robots. But that requires that God "let go" of us, risking our freedom to make wrong choices. We can disobey Him.

That is the meaning of the two trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We can eat from the Tree of Life and live forever. Or we can eat from the forbidden tree, and die. That is our choice. God knows that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil will be tempting because we might think, as the serpent said, that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil will make us as smart as God, and that we will therefore not need Him. We will be able to make it on our own -- we think.

It is an illusion, and a lie from hell, but Adam and Eve fell for it, and we continue to fall for it in our secularized and paganized culture. One of the consequences of the Fall is that we lose our ability to be loving, toward both God and our fellow man. We lose the ability to risk ourselves in close personal relationships, the ability to live in the light with one another, because we become inherently vulnerable and defensive.

In the Fallen world, the world into which we catapult ourselves when we eat the forbidden fruit, we have pushed ourselves away from God who is our source of life and direction. Our ontological stability of personhood, and our moral stability of direction in life deteriorate. We become less and less real persons, more and more a self-construction, an attempt to persuade others that we are important.

Oscar Wilde said that life is all a pose. We make up ourselves to have a self-image by which we relate successfully to others. We become, as we say, self-made men and women, but only a shoddy copy of what God creates. We make ourselves up as we go along -- to correspond to the circumstances. And our goal ceases to be loving either God or one another, but to feel good, to sugarcoat the inner brokenness and loneliness of a fallen life. Soon we can no longer love even ourselves.

But God is willing to take that risk because that risk is a requirement for real community, real openness, real trust, and real love. It means that some people will choose to leave God forever, and never return. But it means also that some will chose to be with God, forever and ever -- those who choose to be lovers of God and lovers of neighbors -- just like they love themselves.

Psalm 23, that beautiful psalm of the faithfulness and love of God, tells us that God has already committed Himself to that very love of His neighbors -- which He requires of us, His neighbors.

The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing.... Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

It does not any get better than that. Because God loves us, we are headed for the best of all possible worlds.

That best of all possible worlds is the world defined by the law of love. That is the world where you can wake up knowing that everyone in the world is commanded to love you, and you to love them -- and that God, who loves us all, will give us the spiritual power and direction to do that. Love is about building open, honest, committed relationships with God and neighbor. We are either building heaven with God and each other, or we are building hell all by ourselves.

We would never get to first base in our loving without the God of the Bible. Only the creative power of the Hand of God, upon which we stand, and the moral direction of His Word can give us the stability to risk whatever we must. Paul describes that wonder in his chapter 13 of 1st Corinthians.

"If I have all faith so I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing --" because without charity, that is, love, my faith then would have nothing to do with building honest, open relationships with God or neighbor. And heaven is that open, honest relationship of love.

Paul ends his hymn to love with the words, "And now abideth faith, hope, & charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity." These three things abide, they endure into eternity. Prophecies, tongues, knowledge will pass away, but these three will be eternal.

Perhaps Paul will excuse me for changing the order of these three to make a point about past, present, and future: Faith is that which comes out of the past where we learn what to believe and whom to trust. Love is that by which we order our present, that by which we govern our relationships with one another. And hope is that which guides our march into the future. Life in heaven is always ongoing, never stagnant. Heaven is not an eternal freeze-frame. Past, present, and future are our continuing life with God and one another. Heaven is the place, then, where everyone is always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful. It does not get any better than that.

In our Gospel from Luke, we see Jesus setting His face toward Jerusalem, with his disciples, to force the relationship with the Jewish leaders to its conclusion. Either they would join Him, or they would kill Him. He knew what they would do. But He was forcing clarity of their relationship to Himself. He was forcing them to live in the light, whether or not they wanted to. He is the Light, and will not stop shining for any of us. There is nothing we fallen beings can do to quench the loving Light of God. Thanks be to God!

Even on His way to His own death, He stops for a spell to help a blind beggar. The Light of Love will not go out. The people rebuke the beggar, but Jesus says, no, bring him to Me, and heals him. And then moves on to Jerusalem and Holy Week.

The meaning of love is doing good things for other persons, doing that which will enhance their lives, doing things which will help guide and supply them on the way to the Kingdom. There is no great mystery to the matter.

The Hebrew/Christian meaning of love has transformed the world, even as little as the world wishes to listen to the Word of God, that Word has changed the whole discussion of what life is about. The world keeps trying to hijack that love, trying to make the love of God conform to love in the fallen world. And it is costly for the people of God to bring that meaning back to what God intends. But it is being done, and must be done.

The world wants to look like it is doing good, but without the law and grace of God, it cannot. It will always pervert and twist love to make it look like the real thing, to make it look like compassion, to make it look like helping other persons, but loving other persons cannot be successfully done without that first great commandment, to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength -- from Whom we get our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

So we Christians are bound by God to go out into all the world and tell the world about the love of Jesus, for He, and He alone, can be the adequate image and example of love.

This is the last Sunday before Lent, during which we make preparation for Holy Week, to which the Gospel just pointed us.

I challenge you to let the law -- the Love of God and of neighbor -- be the plumbline for your Lenten discipline, and, as guided by the Lord, that you consider not so much a denial of this or that, but perhaps an extra participation in the life of the Christian community, of Wednesday night evensong, and other opportunities for being together with your brothers and sisters in Christ. The love of God begins within the Christian community. We show the love of God first of all in our own families and among ourselves as the Body of Christ. Consider, for example, witnessing together second Saturday mornings at the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, where we stand just a few yards away from where human beings are sacrificed to the gods of pleasure-seeking and feeling-good.

We prayed in the collect for Quinquagessima Sunday, "Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before Thee...

Lord God, this Lent, make us the kind of persons who are first willing to dedicated our wills, wholly and without remainder, to Your purposes, and secondly, in thus loving You, to build with one another those relationships of mutual love and devotion which will manifest among ourselves the love which You will show us again, some 40 days away in Holy Week.

Audio Version

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Date Posted -  2/14/2010   -   Date Last Edited - 09/15/2012