I came across the best love story on Facebook this week, and I just had to pass it along to you. A reporter was interviewing a man who had managed to get himself and his family out of Mariupol during the Russian bombing. Here’s what he said:
“I left the bomb shelter and saw a car with keys in the ignition near the store. I watched it for two hours, waited for the owner. When the owner didn’t show up, I didn’t wait. I took my family, got in the car and drove to Vinnitsa to stay with relatives. I found a phone number in the glove compartment and called the owner:
“‘Sorry,’ I said, “I stole your car. Saved my family.’
‘Thank God!’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, I have four cars. I took my family out in my Jeep. The rest of the cars I filled with fuel and left in different places with the keys in the ignition and the number in the glove compartment. I received calls back now from all the cars. There will be peace. See you. Take care of yourself.’”
As I said, it’s a love story. Leaving those cars behind, gassed up and ready to go with the keys in the ignition so that other people, strangers, could escape the hellish bombing of their city—that was an act of love. That was God made manifest.
“I give you a new commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
It isn’t doctrine that marks us as disciples of Jesus. It isn’t our intellectual assent or understanding of the faith. It isn’t embracing particular ideas about atonement or grace or the nature of Christ. It isn’t our righteousness or our moral stance on hot-button issues. It isn’t even “accepting Jesus into our hearts,” whatever that might mean. “By this everyone will know you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “—if you have love for one another.”
When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the most important, he went straight to love. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. There are no greater commandments. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Do this and you will live.”
When some of the people in Corinth got all wrapped up in their charismatic gifts and started to take a kind of overweening pride in their spirituality, St. Paul wrote to them with a word of caution:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge—if I have so much faith that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions—even if I give up my body as a martyr—but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
A few years later, Paul said in his letter to the Christians in Rome:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Paul’s descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians and Romans are excellent and instructive. But they’re also rather passive. When Jesus talked about love, he seems to have had something more active in mind. Often when he talked about love, he would combine it with action. “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” When a lawyer tried to find a loophole in the commandment to love your neighbor by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with a story about a Samaritan who rescues a traveler who had been left for dead after being beaten up by bandits. Clearly, loving your neighbor involves action. Love also involves generosity. The Gospel of John tells us that God so loved the world that God gave God’s unique son to us. Giving is an act of love.
All people are called to love, not just Christians, but followers of Jesus have been commanded to love so that we can be known as his disciples. Love is supposed to be the thing that identifies us. Love is what we’re supposed to be all about…but how do you that? Especially, how do you do that part about loving your enemies—or even just people you don’t particularly like?
You may already know that the ancient Greek language in which the New Testament was written had four different words for love: agape, eros, philia, and storge. Storge was a word used to describe duty to family and country—think of it as patriotism. Philia is friendship. It meant a lot to call someone your friend in the ancient world. True friendship, then and now, is a kind of love. Eroswas the most commonly used word for love in the ancient world. Our word erotic comes from eros, but properly understood there’s a lot more to it than that.
Agape is the word for love that’s used most often in the New Testament. Agape is a love that is unconditional. It has no motive other than to seek the well-being of the beloved. It can be spontaneous, but usually it is decisional—you simply decide that you are going to love that other person or those other people. Period. Agape is indifferent to any kind of reward and it doesn’t seek reciprocity— agape doesn’t ask to be loved in return. Agape is the simple yet profound recognition that giving of yourself is a worthy and good thing to do. It is an unconditional willing of good. Agape loves the beloved for their own sake, whether they are worthy and deserving or not.
Eros, on the other hand, speaks of desire and longing. Eros seeks to possess what we find valuable but not to covet or desire a person at the expense of overall well-being. Edward Vacek defined erosas “loving the beloved for our own sake.” Plato thought that eros was the pathway to God. His reasoning went like this: I see a beautiful person or thing and I desire them or it, but if I look beyond the person or thing I find that what I am really desiring is beauty. But beauty is truth, so if I look beyond beauty, I find that what I really desire is truth. But truth comes from God, so what I am really desiring is God.
Ilia Delio reaffirms that the heart of eros is passion or desire. “Eros,” she writes, “is that ineffable longing that stretches beyond oneself for the sake of oneself.” She goes on to suggest that eros and agape aren’t so much in contrast with each other as related to each other and that philia—friendship—is the thread between them. In philia a person gives themselves over to the relationship. Philia is expressed in camaraderie and companionship, in life together in community. Edward Vacek says that philia “may be the most cosmic form of love because it is based on mutuality, reciprocity, and cooperation—with the purpose of promoting overall well-being.” That’s how the Quakers understood it, which is why they officially called themselves The Society of Friends.
Agape is the word for love that’s used most frequently in the New Testament, but there are moments when philia comes into the text to give love a meaning that is broader and deeper. Jesus brings agape and philia together in John 15:13 when he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” No one has greater agape than to lay down one’s life for one’s philon—those who are loved with the deep bond of philia. He goes on to say, “You are my friends (philia/philon) if you do what I command you.” And what did Jesus command?—that we should love one another with agape love as he has loved us.
So how do you love—how do you obey the command to love? Well to start with, it helps to realize that the kind of love Jesus commands doesn’t have to involve any warm, fuzzy emotions. You can decide that you will unconditionally will and work for goodness for others without expecting anything to come back to you. You can decide to love with agape. That’s the starting point.
But agape can be a poor kind of love if it doesn’t bloom into something more than just a decision. If it remains simply a decisional kind of love, it can become rote, individualistic, non-mutual, and even task-oriented. Yes, agape is patient and kind, it’s not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it rejoices in truth, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and doesn’t quit—agape has all those qualities that St. Paul pointed out to the Corinthians. But agape can be all that and a bag of chips and still not be warm enough to bloom into a real relationship. Love, complete and healthy love at work in a community of faith, starts with a good base of agape, but mixes in a good dose of philia, friendship, and even a dash of eros, to keep us longing for God, for each other, and for the beauty of our relationships.
From the beginning of creation, God has been pouring love into the universe and calling us into relationship. Love is the force that brings quantum waves together to form hydrogen atoms and hydrogen atoms together to form stars. Love is the force that drives evolution, overcoming entropy to continually transform biological life into higher, more complex, more aware forms of life—forms capable of loving. We are commanded to love because it is intentional love that identifies us as followers of Jesus, but even more importantly, because love is what God has been using throughout all time to transform the all of creation. When we reflect that love back to God and to each other, we participate in God’s formative and transformative work.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered fire.”
Love is patient and kind. Love does bear all things and believe all things and hope all things, and endure all things. But love goes beyond that. Love puts gas in the car and leaves the keys in the ignition so that beloved strangers can escape to new life. Love promises there will be peace.
May the Spirit ignite in all of us the bright flame of God’s transforming love.
 Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:25-28
 Matthew 5:43
 Luke 6:27
 Edward Collins Vacek, Love, Human and Divine: The Heat of Christian Ethics, 1994, pp. 157-158; as quoted by Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, Orbis Books, 2013, p.42