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  • Writer's pictureFr Robert Randall McDonald Bagwell

The Greatest of Love

Love: a word often used in trivial ways. “I love sweets!” “I love that movie!” “I love football!” But is that love? Isn’t that really “like” with a bit of emotional energy thrown in for good measure?

What is love? We have heard that “Love Makes the World go Round” and “All You Need is Love” but is that all? Aren’t those rather extreme statements?

St John wrote these words: “God is Love” (I John 4:8) . God is love! We live in an age when even the concept of an all knowing God is under attack. The same nations are full of turmoil, anxiety, depression, suicides and a myriad of social ills that seek for answers everywhere it would seem but in the proven, time-tested, evidential love of God.

I have conducted dozens of weddings over the years and often the couple chooses First Corinthians Thirteen as a scripture to be read at the ceremony. I realize that people exercise “selective hearing” when using this text, it sets out an ideal that God and God alone has ever been able to fulfill. I have never discouraged the use of the text, but I try to emphasize the lofty character of God’s love that He shares in our hearts by the Holy Spirit of God.

Hollywood’s version of love and that of many a politician and is basically a question of: “what’s in it for me?” The “for me” however is a by-product not a catalyst for action because as a catalyst once engaged, if results are not immediate, it is usually abandoned. What are the results of such? People fearing the “commitment” of marriage, there is an epidemic of unmarried parent pregnancies, broken relationships and marriages, latch key children, unhappy men drifting from relationship to relationship “liberated” from the shackles of commitment and women using and living off “the system” all for a promised “great society”.

So what is the “glory of love” as a song long ago told us? It is fundamentally sacrificial. Think of the word “passion” from the Latin “passio”. This word means to suffer. We have expressions like: “love-sick”. People die of “broken hearts”. People are called “love addicts” in our day. Love is an emotion. It can fill us with exhilaration and despair. It can fill us to “over flowing” and leave us “empty” and “broken”. We know that love given and received is life giving and life changing. Love withheld leaves people wounded, sullen, downcast and suicidal.

An odd reality of this love is that it is not a definable quality. Hence, we say love is as “deep as the ocean”, as “high as the heavens” and as “broad as the sky.” In other words, the positives of what this emotion gives to us are so overwhelming that they are indescribable. But the love of which books are written, poems and songs are written and legends are made, is fundamentally sacrificial. It is as strong as “death” Solomon wrote. It ties two tangibles with an intangible. It is life-giving at its best. It spurs people on to do the things that inspire over the ages. But all of this is a reflection to a greater or lesser extent, of the love of God.

Again to profoundly display this greater reality, the Apostle John writes in First John chapter four: 7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Love “completes” us as Tom Cruise said to his beloved in the movie “Jerry McGuire”. Unschooled by Biblical teaching and “skilled” by television and romantic novels, sadly this generation believes that “love is God.” Even more tragic are the poor substitutes that they have chosen to call “love” which is at best infatuation more focused on self than the other.

Saint Valentine himself, and there are three recorded in tradition, spent time in prison for going against what the emperor wanted him to do. He reputedly issued a decree regarding performing marriages for young soldiers. The emperor believed single men made better soldiers than married men. Valentine, according to tradition, continued performing marriages for couples in secret. The emperor was furious and ordered Valentine thrown in prison, where the saintly priest continued to minister in the vocation to which he was ordained. At length, he was ordered to be beheaded. The day? The 14th of February is the day Valentine triumphed over death being raised with Christ Jesus in glory in the 4th century. Thus, once more, on behalf of the love of God and God’s love for humanity, another follower of Jesus gave his life.

While Hallmark and her antecedents seem to profit the most from this holiday, it does enshrine one of the most powerful forces in the human experience. I believe this is because we are made in the image of God, the Imago Dei as the theologians would say. If indeed as the Apostle John said we are made in the: character, spiritual essence and being of love, then love is as foundational as life itself. It is why the seemingly trivial slogan: “God loves you” is anything but. It is how Solomon, under the inspiration of Holy Spirit could write: “Love is as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8) Solomon further elaborates: 7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned. I suspect many of us have seen a scenario when a parent tried to “buy off” a suitor not to date their daughter only to find it backfiring. Men go to war for love. Men die protecting a loved one. I suspect many a woman has done the same. Love is not to be toyed with. Thus it is enshrined, dreamed about, prepared for, idealized ad naseum and sought like the hound of heaven chasing it to its ultimate realization.

The point here, St Valentine notwithstanding, is that love is the gift of God. When shunned often bitterness, sullenness and resentment will characterize the life even the soul of a person. It is also true, testified to by millions of millions, that God can plant His own love into the human heart. “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16) we read as the most quoted and well known verse of the Bible in history. We also read: This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (I John 4) Do we understand this? Not completely but it illustrates to us something we do well to remember. Our love is not to teach us about God’s love. God’s love is to teach and imbed in our hearts what love is by its very essence. What is our pallid, fickle, dependent on smooth circumstances to do with God’s love. It is our model, our guide and our ideal to be striven for. It is the kind of love that Hallmark would never put into a card, because it is illustrated in the “for betters” and the “for worse”. So God is not like an earthly father or mother. They cannot help but fail us in some way. They are like us in our abject humanness. God is the archetype parent, who although doesn’t do always what our fallen natures demand of Him, is always is there, always loves, gets disappointed and even feels hurt, but always forgives and reaffirms. This is the love that “makes the world go ‘round” as the lyrics go.

Returning to I Corinthians 13 we can perhaps see how complex and how simple love is. It is never benign, but at its core always has virulence unmatched by anything. Love conquers hate, the stony heart, vengeance, bitterness and brokenness. “Love never fails” Paul writes (I Cor. 13). God never fails. If there is anything the scriptures of the Older and Newer Testaments reveal is this fundamental Truth. God offers His Son Christ Jesus as the archetype illustration of that love that never fails. This love, is not a love bound to rhyme or reason. It simply is—God is love, God chooses to love, God loves me and God loves you. As we meditate on love, both Divine and human, let us remember that love in the most profound of ways, is a choice. Feelings are by-products but fundamentally they will fail. That is the nature of feelings. In every culture at all times and in all places, the Christian God alone is the God of love. This God loves even those who hate Him. So powerful is God’s love that it gives the unthinkable to those who receive Holy Spirit into their hearts—the ability to love our enemies. That simply makes no sense to the human experience, yet when Jesus reigns in the heart of a human being, it is possible. Jesus set this example. While He railed on the religious leaders for their superficial and fleshly use of the revelation of God given first to Abraham, and more fully to Moses, He showed by example, teaching and ultimately: death, burial and resurrection just what God’s kind of love is really like. While His detractors, essentially equated the character of the God of Israel with the character of the idols that the other nations worshipped, Jesus showed them, to quote Paul in I Corinthians 12 as intro to chapter 13, “a more excellent way.”

These heirs of this revelation where not primarily concerned about the souls of their adherents. While a mixed bag, witness Nicodemus, worship had become more about them than about the God they claimed to represent ceremonially. The priests and undoubtedly many scribes did not believe in an afterlife. Hence it was “enjoy it while you can”. This was the “impersonal” god they worshipped rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses who was intensely personal. Rather than understanding the purposeful establishment of a temple, as its antecedent the tabernacle, they rather “used” said ceremonies for personal enrichment; emphasize (“RICH”) while ripping off the poor in the name of the God of Israel. This was spouse abuse following the analogies God used of his people, the sheep of his pasture, etc.

The love of this God was compelling love. It was compassionate love. It was the ideal of whatever ideal of love faithful Israelite or pagan could fathom or imagine. Hence Paul could conclude with what I began with: “the greatest of these is love.”

Copyright Robert RM Bagwell

Savannah 2019

This may be part of a future book I am considering writing

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