The words to the Thomas Tallis music at the beginning of our service came from John’s Gospel –
If ye love me,
keep my commandments,
and I will pray the Father,
and he shall give you another comforter,
that he may ‘bide with you forever,
e’en the spirit of truth. John 14:15–17
In today’s gospel story, Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples are fishing in the Sea of Galilee (John 21:2). They had followed the instructions of a stranger on the shore and had returned with nets at breaking point. There was more than enough for them and their families. The stranger had cooked a breakfast of BBQ fish and bread. It is only then that they recognise Jesus; the one who had provided more than enough wine at Cana, and fed thousands by the Sea of Galilee.
However, it’s not only the fish that get a grilling from Jesus. The smell of the charcoal wafting into Peter’s nostrils would have brought back painful memories, when he had denied Jesus three times, while warming himself by the charcoal fire that the police had made outside the city gate (John 18.18). Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me?” Each time Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you”. These questions were tough for Peter. Tough love one might say, but at their heart, Jesus is offering Peter a new beginning; a vocation to become a good shepherd.
I find it interesting that Greek has three words for love (eros, philos, and agapē); whereas we have just one. Eros refers to something more self-centred, a selfish kind of love, a surface love for the one who is being loved. Philos is more about the love between friends, which of course can be deep and meaningful, but it cannot compare with agapē. Agapē stands for the highest form of love, a pure, selfless love, one that comes from a divine source.
Because we lack this Greek subtlety in our language, love has become debased in our contemporary world. It’s more about eros, sexual love or desire, and what Freud refers to as the life instinct, the drive to live. It has become sentimentalised, especially around Valentine’s Day; all about emotions and feelings. The passage from Paul is very popular and often read at weddings, and sometimes at funerals. Perhaps because its popular, it’s lost some of its power, so I want to focus on two central points in Paul’s letter.
First, he says, “Love bears all things.” The word ‘bear’ is not about enduring something that is burdensome, and it is certainly not about asking us to play the victim. To bear also means to give birth, to be fruitful. This is the fruitful, life-giving love that we get when we abide in Jesus (John 15.5,16).
Second, “Love believes all things.” This is not about being gullible, refusing to face up to the truth. Rather, it means having faith that something may be true, without demanding proof. It is a constructive way of looking at things, with the aim of a fruitful outcome. Those of us who believe in God do so without proof, but not without evidence. For Simone Weil, the philosopher, who was originally an agnostic, it was George Herbert’s poem that turned her into a Christian mystic (‘Waiting for God’, Simone Weil, 1951). Weil says that love is “intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention” (“Human Personality’, in ‘Simone Weil: An Anthology’, 1986,92).
The Jesuit priest, philosopher and fossil hunter, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin goes deep into our distant past when reflecting on the word love. He says,
Love is the most universal, the most tremendous and the most mystical of cosmic forces. Love is the primal and universal psychic energy. Love is a sacred reserve of energy; it is like the blood of spiritual evolution. (The Spirit of the Earth, 1931, VI, 32, 33, 34, from American Teilhard Association).
The spiritual teacher Richard Rohr says that love is the most powerful force or energy in the universe, a power that is multiplied in relationships. He explains,
The energy in the universe is not in the planets, or in the protons or neutrons, but in the relationship between them. Not in the particles but in the space between them. Not in the cells of organisms but in the way that the cells feed and give feedback to one another. Not in any precise definition of the three persons of the Trinity, as much as in the relationship between the Three. (The Divine Dance, p56)
He calls this ‘the divine dance’. Over time, this dance of love in our lives can change and deepen, and express itself in many ways. It can change our own life, not just in the home, or with friends, but in how we reach out to touch the world. This is the dynamic of the dance. Love is as love does.
When we think about the many good, holy people throughout history, people who have by life and example made a difference, they have been witnesses to the agapē of God at work in the world. They knew when faith had to take action to confront suffering, and often suffered themselves as a result.
But love is more than just our relationships with individuals; it’s also about spiritual activism, such as protecting human rights, the environment, public health. We need more of this just now in the wake of the Windrush scandal, the way we treat disabled people claiming benefits, the damage we are doing to the planet. The list just goes on. We need the spiritual to play a greater role in the public realm, with spiritual perspectives playing a key role in shaping and expressing our politics, our economics and our ethics.
This form of activism requires courageous love, risky love, unwavering love, as disciples of Jesus. Jesus knew about human weakness, he certainly knew what Peter’s limitations might be. The key to being a follower of Christ is love. The love that calls us out of our comfort zones, even to places where we might not want to go. Jesus’s commandments are to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbour as ourself. This is the category of love called agapē. A call from God that will bring to life the love within us, for the sake of others. Amen.