Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Lost Meanings of Love — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on February 12th, 2012


My Great-grandparents, my mother’s grandparents,

were married for a little over seventy-five years

before my great-grandfather, my “Da-da”, passed away.

Seventy-five years.  When they got married,

he was seventeen years old, and my “Ma-maw” was only fifteen.

Getting married so young was pretty common

in the Tennessee hills back in those days.


They had both been born in the late 1800’s,

and were married in 1911.

During those seventy-five years,

they had built a house together, by hand.


They had raised four children.

They had built a Baptist church, also by hand,

and had worked a small farm

and later Da-da found work in a local factory.


My Ma-maw ruled the neighborhood with an iron fist…

actually a wooden broomhandle,

and she would see that any children

who needed “correctin” would get it…

especially that young Pyle boy who lived a mile down the road…

the young Pyle boy who later went in the Army

and then married her grand-daughter… my father.

My father feared God, Communists, and my Ma-Maw,

not necessarily in that order.


Now, by the time I knew my Da-da and my Ma-maw,

she was mostly blind and he had dementia,

so I knew them as a sweet elderly couple

who worked in the yard, took long walks,

watched television, and went to bed by 8pm.

I did not know them as others did…

as a God fearing and rather controlling man

and a woman who never backed up to anyone,

who ruled her neighborhood,

and who was a challenge to her controlling husband.

It was a relationship designed to be difficult at times, and it was.

I do not know the whole story,

but perhaps it can be captured in another story.


On their seventy-fifth wedding anniversary,

our family held a party for them

at the Baptist church they had helped to build.

The local television news sent a reporter out

to ask them questions, live on the 6pm news.


After a lot of questions about what it had been like

to be married for seventy-five years,

the reporter asked my Ma-maw a final question.

“Mrs. Faulkner, in seventy-five years of marriage,

did you ever consider getting a divorce?”


The room was silent.

The family would never have dared to ask such a question

of this Matron and Saint of the Rocky Hill Baptist Church.

My Ma-Maw focused on the reporter,

looked directly at the camera and replied,

“Divorce no……… Murder, yes!”


My Da-Da just smiled…


Love is a complicated thing.

Throughout history love has been understood

to be not just a complicated emotion,

but a complicated series, a whole family of emotions.

There are more forms of love than there are types of hate.

There are more forms of love than there are shades of fear,

or jealousy, or sadness, or joy.


Love is an emotion that can whipsaw the emotional self,

or it can be the bedrock of a stable emotional self.

Love can lead humanity to some of its best decisions,

and some of its worst.

Love can not only create more love,

but it can inspire some of the worst emotions

we humans experience.


In the modern world, and especially in the English speaking world,

our concept of love is even more complicated,

because the English language gives us only one word

to describe this most complex, complicated,

and confusing of human emotions… Love.

It is a word so broad in scope as to almost

be devoid of any specific meaning at all…

something I believe that we all realize

at some point in our history of relationships,

when someone we “love”,

and who has told us that they “love” us,

do not actually mean the same thing we do

when they use the word “love”.

Has everyone had that experience?


Now, partly this confusion is due

to how little we humans actually understand

this most complicated of emotions.

It is an emotion that lends itself to being experienced,

not to being understood.


We can rationalize that the emotion of love

had something to do with the continuance of the species,

with the building of human community

and with the hope for human intimacy.

Yet, none of that rational understanding

captures the way it inspires us to attempt some of the best,

and in my case some of the worst poetry every written…

the poetry of a tortured twelve year old soul…


Love inspires most of our fiction, much of our music,

and can be found in a majority of our art.

It inspires us to build communities, and to tear them asunder.

It inspires us to hold on to some, and to let others go.


And yet love is so much more than romantic love.

There is a section to the writings of Paul

to the new Christian church in Corinth,

where he talks about love.

We read it for our reading this morning

And sang another version of it in our hymn.

It is a segment of the Bible that is read

at almost every Christian wedding.


It is taken as Paul’s recipe for a healthy loving marriage…

and yet Paul did not write it

for the new couple starting a relationship,

but for a church that had been in conflict,

that had quarrels among them,

that had begun to fracture and split.

Some were following this leader,

and some were following another leader,

and there was fighting among them.

Paul had written them to convince them to let the quarrels go,

and be united together in love.


Changes the meaning of what we read, doesn’t it?

“Love is patient; love is kind;

love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

It does not insist on its own way;

it is not irritable or resentful.

It does not rejoice in wrong doing; but rejoices in the truth.”


In English, it is easy to make the mistake,

because the word that is used is love…

and yet in the original translation,

the word that is used is the Greek word agape.

In the Old King James version of the bible,

Agape is translated not as love, but as charity…

yet in almost every other English translation of the bible,

the word Agape is translated  as love.


Unlike English, or even Latin, Classical Greek

had very specific words for love,

because they recognized the complexity

of this most complicated of human emotions,

and tried to name them as not only different kinds of feeling,

but as different feelings entirely.


Through our English language and western culture,

we modern day Americans have lost the distinction

between these different emotional aspects of love,

to our own detriment.

By calling all of these different emotions “love”,

we have blurred the lines of our emotional selves

in ways that are both unhealthy for individuals

and for the communities and societies we build.


Agape, in Greek, is translated as “soul love”

or perhaps a kind of divine or religious love.

Agape is a love that transcends the physical,

that reaches out to create bonds between people

beyond the “mortal coil”.

In ancient Greek, it is often used to describe the love

that we humans can feel for a place, for a community,

or for the deeper love that can develop between a couple

over years and decades spent together.

It is this kind of love that religious community calls us

to seek to develop with one another…

and it is a kind of love that only can develop over time.


The kind of love that we Americans are most familiar with,

that our media bombards us with each day

in television and advertisements,

is what the Greeks would have called “Eros”

or romantic, desirous love.

This includes, but is not limited to physical or passionate love.

It is the love that encompasses a person,

the feeling that can take over a person’s being.

It is fire and passion, and in its brightness

it can often burn out quickly.

Ancient Greek writers and philosophers

knew it was a fleeting kind of love,

not something to build a community or a family upon.

It is celebrated not as a permanent thing,

but as the flower that blossoms and then withers and fades.


Plato developed a concept of Eros

that moved beyond the physical, beyond desire,

and that sought to combine the passion of Eros

with the depth of Agape.

Philosophers have since referred to this as “Platonic” love,

or the passionate love of the soul.

It is passionate love without physical desire.

He sought to develop this kind of love into a spiritual practice,

that could lead a person to ultimate truth.


Do you see the problem,

the conflict that blending these two understandings of love

has created in western society and culture?


We celebrate Eros, this passionate, romantic love in our movies.

We celebrate the sexual component of Eros

in our media and in our culture,

while believing that we can have the physical component

and still seek Plato’s ultimate truth through Eros.

There are whole magazines on the grocery store shelf,

whole self-help book series,

whole television industries that seek to convince us

that Eros is the meaning of love…

and that to keep a relationship going,

you must regularly re-kindle Eros…

the fleeting, burning, passionate love.

When it is not found within a relationship,

it is almost socially acceptable to seek that passion beyond it.


Valentines’ day has become a holiday

dedicated to re-kindling Eros…

and millions are trapped in seeking the meaning in life

through romantic, passionate love…

taught that Eros is the only kind of love there is…

Somehow, I doubt it’s what Plato intended.


It is Agape upon which communities, families,

and even congregations are built.

It is the form of love the Greeks called Agape

that forms the basis of love, compassion, and connection

that is firm, stable, and that supports a society.


I’m certain that my Great-Grandparents,

my Ma-Maw and Da-da had had their days of Eros…

and yet the family, the church, the community,

and the life they had built for one another

was based not in Eros, but in Agape.

That Agape extended beyond their single family

to the whole of the Rocky Hill community,

including that young, mischievous, wayward Pyle boy

who later married their Grand-daughter.

There was such love and respect between my father

and my Ma-Maw most would have thought

she was his grandmother,

and in the emotional way of Agape she was.


Ministers face this confusion in our society,

between Eros and Agape all the time.

We see it in the all the counseling issues

around love that come into our offices and our studies.

We see it in couples struggling with infidelity.

We see it in teens struggling through their first loves

and their first losses.

We see it in the breakup of relationships

and in the forming of new relationships.

And, this confusion between Eros and Agape

is one of the greatest dangers of the life of ministry.


I said in an article last year that a minister was called

to “love the congregations they serve, but not befriend them.”

A minister should have a love of the soul and a love of the spirit of the congregation.


If the love of the soul is Agape,

then the love of the spirit in Ancient Greek is Philia.

Aristotle expounded regularly on the concept of Philia,

or a virtuous, dispassionate love.

Like Plato, Aristotle was seeking an exploration

of the human emotional dimension of love

that could lead to spiritual truth and wholeness,

and yet instead of seeking it through the passion of Eros,

Aristotle sought a dispassionate love.

Different from Agape, Philia is a love of virtue,

of ideals, of the pure self.

It is a love of knowledge and of the mind.

Philia is a love of the Academy, of Wisdom, and of Truth

with a capitol, academic T.

I’ve always thought of it as having love

for the divine spark within each and every one of us.


It is not friendship that a minster has with congregations…

and unless the minister has some rather unhealthy boundaries,

it should not be Eros, or passionate love

that a minister has with a congregation…

be that passionate love platonic or non-platonic.


A minister should hold a love for the congregation

that combines both Agape…

the deeper love of the soul of the community,

the shared passion from which compassion is born,

and Philia, the dispassionate love

for the congregation as an idea, an ideal,

a model for their shared values and beliefs.

A minister should feel Agape for the community,

for the families and the congregation…

for the trials and the tribulations of the congregation,

for the gifts and the failings of the congregation.

A minister should also hold Philia

for the ideals and the values of the congregation,

for the minds and the spirits of the members

and the communal values and ideals they hold.


So, to put it simply, a minister…

especially in our Liberal Religious Tradition…

should hold the congregation

in the Agape love that Paul preached

and hold our shared religious tradition

in the Philia love that Aristotle extolled…

and should be wary, extremely wary of the Eros love,

whether it be the passionate, physical love

that is celebrated throughout our western society

or the non-physical Platonic love

that Plato sought to turn into a spiritual practice.


This is one of the reasons why I believe

that the ministerial relationship

with a congregation and with congregants

is different than any other relationship of our lives.


Perhaps that passionate, platonic Eros love

can find an outlet in a practice of Social Justice,

or in a personal life separate from the congregation,

but within the congregation

it is the most common danger the ministerial relationship faces.


In part, this danger is because much of our society

has lost the ability to see the differences

between these different forms of love.

While someone may be feeling Philia toward us,

it is very easy for those raised in our society

to mistake that Philia for Eros,

and respond according to the passion and sensuality

that is at the core of Erotic love.

The same is true for those who may be feeling Agape toward us,

in that our society has taught us to respond to any form of love

with Eros… with passionate, sensual, and even sexual love.

I find it is one of my regular tasks to help people separate

These different forms of love within themselves

For without that separation, so many of our

Opportunities for intimacy are lost.

And people are yearning for the intimacy of agape and philia.


For love, in all its forms, is the most complicated

and least understood of all human emotions…

and the one that can inspire the greatest joy

and the deepest sadness.

Love can inspire the most profound healing

and the most profound hurt.

Love can create the strongest community

and can rip even the strongest community asunder.

It can build a close family

and can divide even the closest family.

It is the most dangerous of human emotions…

and without it, we would not be human at all.


So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.


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