Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

February 14, 1999

Song of Songs 2:1-17; Luke 7:36-50

It's Valentine's Day today! I thought about doing a sermon based entirely on those cryptic little messages that come on those tiny little valentine heart candies. I even made a list of them to see how such a sermon might go. In some you can hear God talking: "Be mine." "Be true." "Love me." "Get real." "Be good." "My way." Then there are a few that sound like God speaking to someone in particular, like: "You rock," "Miss you," "As if," and "My man." From the other side, one can imagine the human response in these terms: "I will." "I do." "You bet." "Only you."

The divine-human relationship, as understood by Christianity, is a kind of love affair. Just what kind of a love affair, however, is not widely agreed upon. Love is a big word, with many nuances of meaning. I can say that I love chocolate cake, I love my mother, I love my wife, I love the Bible, and I love warm, sunny days, but it hardly seems that I mean the same kind of love in every case. Most Christian theologians would probably say that I should not love God the way I love a piece of chocolate cake, and I would agree. But I would also point out that one of the Old Testament psalmists says, "O taste and see that the LORD is good" [Ps. 34:8]. The imagery of delight of the senses is sometimes used, even in the Bible, to speak of love of God.

Our Old Testament text is particularly provocative in this connection. By most contemporary accounts, the Song of Songs is love poetry. Some interpreters regard the poetry as secular in origin. According to one theory, the poetry actually functioned as a wedding song. It is, in any event, a celebration of the erotic love of a young man and a young woman for each other. In our text from chapter 2, it is the woman who speaks to the man. "I am a rose of Sharon," she says, "a lily of the valleys. . . My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag." "O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!" She imagines her beloved responding, "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock . . . let me see your face, let me hear your voice."

Perhaps the first thing to note is that this love poetry is in the Bible. We call it scripture! The second thing to note, however, is that scholars do not think it would have become scripture if it had been regarded as a celebration of human sexual love. The traditional Jewish understanding of the Song of Songs sees it as a religious allegory recounting God's love for Israel and the history of their relationship. For Christians, it has been an allegory of Christ's love for the church [Michael V. Fox, intro. in HarperCollins Study Bible]. Strange, that erotic sexual imagery should seem appropriate to describe the relationship between God and God's people! Elsewhere, of course, the Bible does speak of God as the husband of Israel [Isa. 54:5; cf. Rev. 21:2]. And in the New Testament we find imagery of Christ as the bridegroom for the Church, his bride [cf. Mark 2:19 & parallels; Rev. 19:7]. At least in these instances, human sexual love becomes a kind of model for expressing, and perhaps understanding, the kind of love that is to exist in the divine-human relationship as well.

It seems pretty clear, however, that early Christians did not want this divine-human love relationship to be understood in terms of prevailing categories of the day. Eros and philia were the common Greek words for love. Eros, the love that is desire, encompassed sexual love as well as other forms of the erotic, or that which drives toward union between lover and loved. A "love" for chocolate cake is also a form of erotic love. Philia, on the other hand, is the love of friendship and family or kin. It, too, suggests a uniting of lover and loved, but rather the uniting of a common bond. Despite the widespread prevalence of these two notions of love, the writers of the New Testament mention philia only on occasion and never speak of eros at all. Instead, they seize upon another word, not commonly found before this time, to speak of Christian love. That word is agape, and it is common throughout the whole New Testament. Agape is the distinctively Christian kind of love!

What kind of love is agape? The answer to that question is a fateful one for how we are to live. According to many interpreters and theologians, agape love is a wholly unselfish, disinterested kind of love. It is a love that wills the good of the other without any regard for self. It is, in other words, not a love that requires reciprocity or that entails mutuality. It is a heedlessly self-giving and self-sacrificing love. According to other interpreters and theologians, agape love entails a positive love of self as well as others. It must not be a doormat kind of love. It includes self-respect and mutuality, and seeks to love the neighbor in such a way that the neighbor also learns to have regard for others. Between these two interpretations of agape love lie other variations, which may perhaps be understood in terms of the degree to which eros and philia are present as part of agape love. Corresponding to these differing interpretations are differing views of how we are to express our love for God and for others in the world.

Imagine agape love without philia or eros, without mutuality or desire. Such love is a pure act of will. It seeks only the good of the other. It has no regard for self. It seeks no delight in what is loved. It wants no pleasure or enjoyment. It does not seek to be loved in return. Such a love would be a very ascetic kind of love. It would virtually shun the pleasures of the body and the mind. It would be all self-sacrifice, all self-denial. A love without eros tends not to care for the things of this world. It is a love without "worldly" affections or attachments. There are strains in Christianity that are like this. There are biblical passages that suggest we are to be at odds with the world and the things of the flesh. Puritanism is often cast this way, doing something of an injustice to the Puritans. Protestants, especially those of us in the Reformed tradition, have a strong ascetic strain. It is impossible to imagine that a festival like "Mardi Gras" would ever arise among the Presbyterians!

One of the reasons we find matters of human sexuality to be so difficult is that we do not know how eros fits into a Christian view of love. Indeed, we are uneasy about the delights of the mind and the body. We tend to feel guilty if we are having too much fun or enjoying too much the pleasures of the world. We seem ambivalent, also, in our attitudes toward the rest of the natural world. Is this world an enticement and distraction? Does it exist primarily for our use, to dominate and exploit? Or could it be ours to steward, perhaps also to enjoy?

The basic question I am trying to get at here is how does everything else in our world fit into our love for God? Must we choose between loving the world and loving God, or must we love the world in order to love God, or is there some other way to understand how it is that we are to love God? Some of our language about God makes this all the more puzzling. If God is infinite, that is, non-finite, then how can our limited minds begin to fathom the nature or being of God? If God is inscrutable, that is, non-scrutable, then how can we possibly comprehend God's purpose or intention? If God is "Wholly Other," as some theologians have stressed, that is, radically different from the creation, then how can we find anything within our own experience that would enable us to feel or make sense of the presence of God?

Practical Christian teaching, on the other hand, has insisted that we cannot love God in the abstract, as a theological conception or idea. Indeed, we cannot love God without loving our neighbors. In the first place, God loves our neighbors so, loving God, we love what God loves. But, in the second place, there is a sense in which God is present in the neighbor. In loving our neighbor we are also loving God.

The story is told of the little boy who decided he wanted to go find God. He knew it would probably be a long trip, so he decided to pack a lunch, four packages of Twinkies and two cans of root beer. He set out on his journey and went a few blocks until he came to a park. In this park on a bench sat an old woman looking at the pigeons.

The little boy sat down beside her and he watched the pigeons too. After a while he grew hungry and so he pulled out some Twinkies. As he ate, he noticed the woman watching him, so he offered her a Twinkie. She gratefully accepted and smiled at him. There was something about her smile that fascinated the boy. He thought it was the most beautiful smile he had ever seen, and he wanted to see it again. So he brought out the cans of root beer, opened one and offered her the other. Once again, she smiled that beautiful smile.

For a long time the two sat on that park bench, eating Twinkies, drinking root beer, smiling at each other, and watching the pigeons. But neither said a word. Finally, the little boy realized that it was getting late and that it was time to go home. He started to leave, took a few steps, then turned back and gave the woman a big hug. Her smile was brighter than ever before.

When he arrived back home, his mother noticed that he was happy, yet somehow strangely quiet. "What did you do today?" she asked, trying to figure out what was going on. "Oh, I had lunch in the park with God," he said. Before his mother could reply he added, "You know, she has the most beautiful smile I have ever seen."

Meanwhile the woman had left the park and returned to her home. Her son noticed something different about her. "What did you do today, Mom?" he asked. "Oh, I ate Twinkies and drank root beer in the park with God," she said. And before her son could say anything, she added, "You know, he is a lot younger than I had imagined." [Howard Chapman, "Bottom Drawer", 2-19-98]

When we love the neighbor, we are loving God, who is present to us in the neighbor. But what about the rest of the world? Is God present to us there as well? Many contemporary theologians have been searching for ways to express a more positive appreciation for all that is God's creation. In her book, SUPER, NATURAL CHRISTIANS: HOW WE SHOULD LOVE NATURE, Sallie McFague develops the idea of the earth as the body of God. She writes:

At sixty, I am once again six. I am filled with wonder at ordinary things--a child's smile, a dog's loping run, sticky new buds on a tree. But there is a difference between being sixty and six. The six-year-old does not flinch at the sight of a forest clear-cut or the eyes of a starving child. A Christian nature spirituality is not nature romanticism. Nor is it very optimistic about the future (the planet may well deteriorate). It is . . . determinedly realistic. . . A Christian nature spirituality praises God for the wonder of the ordinary and promises to work on behalf of the sick and outcast wonderful, ordinary creatures. A Christian nature spirituality is also determinedly hopeful because it believes that the creator of these wonderful, ordinary creatures is working in, through, and on behalf of us all. [Fortress Press]

The thought here is not just that in nature one can see the handiwork of God, as though it were a completed work of art. The thought is that God continues to be present and working in the world of nature and ordinary creatures, an as-yet imperfect yet wonderful world, and that this world is both for our delight and for our service. Loving the world of nature in this way is also a way of loving God.

What do we love when we love God? Sixteen centuries ago, Augustine wrote in his CONFESSIONS:

There is no doubt in my mind, Lord, that I love you. I feel it with certainty. You struck my heart with your word, and I loved you. . . .

But what do I love when I love you? Not the beauty of the body, nor the glory of time, not the brightness of light shining so friendly to the eye, not the sweet and various melodies of singing, not the fragrance of flowers and unguents and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs welcome to the embraces of the flesh: it is not these I love when I love my God. And yet I do love a kind of light, melody, fragrance, food, embracement when I love my God; for He is the light, the melody, the fragrance, the food, the embracement of my inner self--there where is a brilliance that space cannot contain, a sound that time cannot carry away, a perfume that no breeze disperses, a taste undiminished by eating, a clinging together that no satiety will sunder. This is what I love when I love my God. [CONFESSIONS, Book 10, chapter 6].

Thus Augustine sought to express his love of God, a love that was not the same as the love of the delights of the mind and the body, but a love that surely delighted in God. Sadly, however, Augustine felt it necessary to draw a sharp divide between worldly and spiritual desires. Christianity thus inherited from him a very negative view of human sexuality, a very pervasive sense of human sinfulness, and very depreciated account of the natural world. But we need not follow in his steps. We may say, I believe, that it is also the beauty of the body, the glory of time, the melodies of singing, the fragrance of the flowers, and the embraces of the flesh that we love when we love God. For these do not exist only in and for themselves. They do not stand opposed to or apart from God. They exist only in God, and God can hardly be known to us apart from them.

To love God truly, we know, is to love God with all our being--heart and mind and soul and strength. And what do we love when we love God? We love the God who is beyond all things. But how can we love One who is beyond all things? Only by loving God in all things and by loving all things in God. Only by loving God in actual people, in the physicality of the earth, in the taste and smell of real food, and by loving all such things in God. We can love only in relationships, not in abstraction and separation. For us, God is none other than the One in whom we and all creation live and move and have our being. When we love God in relationship to all things, and all things in relationship to God, we know that we are also loved. AMEN.