Romans 8:31-39 New International Version (NIV)
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A happy Valentine’s Day to you all! A quick survey of the Bible shows that love is not all that easy to pin down. We look at the first humans in the book of Genesis and we are told very little about their relationship. The King James Version tells us that Adam “knew” Eve. That doesn’t mean that he knew her birthday or her favorite color. What we aren’t told is if they really loved each other. Theirs was a marriage of necessity because, well, there were no other people on the earth. How romantic is that?!
If you want to read about love, you may turn the Song of Songs, which we often call the Song of Solomon as King Solomon is often given credit for writing this book of love. Solomon writes such romantic things about his lover like what we find in 6:4-6, “You are as beautiful as Tirzah, my darling, as lovely as Jerusalem, as majestic as troops with banners. Turn your eyes from me; they overwhelm me. Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of sheep coming up from the washing. Each has its twin, not one of them is missing.”
Yep. You’ve got them all, baby.
I actually learned early on that if I wanted to be successful in the world of dating and romance that it is best to not compare women to livestock.
Okay, maybe Solomon doesn’t quite fit our modern standard for writing romance novels. But think of the love that he must have had for this woman, to pick her goat-like hair and sheep-like teeth out of his 700 wives and 300 concubines.
I joke around this morning a little bit just as a way to point out the failings of human beings in the Bible, the failings of human beings to love in the way we believe we should love one another. The Bible is full of stories of failure and mistakes in human relationships. From David and Bathsheba, to Samson and Delilah, and even Hosea and Gomer (the prostitute, not Pyle), time and time again we find stories of bad relationships. But there are also stories of people who get it right, or at least who do it better. But ultimately, the stories of love in the Bible show us the contrast between our ability to love and the love of God. But before you go and label me as some unromantic downer, let me tell you all the story of the man after whom today is named, St. Valentine.
There are many stories that surround the person that we know as Valentine, and it is nearly impossible to know which stories are true and which ones are not. Some have even hypothesized that the stories that we have today are actually a conglomeration of several people named Valentine that have lived throughout history. But there is one story that the hopeless romantic within me is drawn to.
Long before Valentine’s Day turned into a Hallmark holiday dedicated to buying cards, flowers, and candy, there was a man named Valentine who was martyred on February 14th. It was the late part of the 3rd century, some sources claim the year 270 AD, when a bishop in the church named Valentine was put to death by the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Claudius is said to have outlawed marriage throughout the Roman Empire because he believed that marriage made Roman citizens into inferior soldiers. The married soldiers were always worried about not coming home to their wives and children, so they were less daring and less brave. So Claudius simply outlawed marriage.
Well bishop Valentine decided that this was an injustice, so he held secret wedding services throughout the territory. Eventually, he was captured and imprisoned for performing this holy sacrament. But while imprisoned, Valentine met and fell in love with the jailor’s daughter. Of course, Valentine pleaded for his life, as did the jailor’s daughter. But he would never apologize for uniting young men and women in holy matrimony. So his execution was set for a February 14, the day upon which he would eventually meet his demise. But before being put to death, Valentine penned a final letter to the jailor’s daughter, and he signed it, “from your Valentine.”
Isn’t that romantic? It might all be made up, but it is romantic!
So what does the Bible actually tell us about love? As many of you are probably aware, the Bible uses several Greek words that we translate as love. There are a couple of big ones, and actually several more that we don’t find very often. The four we will look at today are stergo, philia, eros, and agape.
Let’s start with stergo. Why have you never heard of this one before? The other three should at least sound a little bit familiar to you, but probably not stergo. You’ve not heard this one before because it is only used twice in the New Testament, in Romans 1 and 1 Timothy 3. And both times it is used in the negative form. Stergo is a kind of respect, like what a child is to have for their parent or even the kind of respect that a person is to have for a ruler. And even though it is never used in such a way in the New Testament, I would say that we are called to have stergo for God and one another.
A synonym for stergo might be reverence; we are called to revere God. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, but I think that stergo seems to carry the same meaning as the commandment to not use the name of the Lord in vain. We are called to revere God, to set God off as something special, unique, and different.
But we are also to have stergo for other human beings. As image-bearers of our creator, we are called to revere all human life. Regardless of race, gender, class, or sexuality, we are called to love people simply for being people.
This kind of love does not actually require that you know the other person, which we will find is vital in some of the other kinds of love! We must have stergo for God, we must have stergo for our neighbor, and we must have stergo for the billions of people living all around the earth. You’ve got 7.4 billion people out there, and you better love them all!
Philia is much better known by many of us. Philia is a kind of bond that one might have with a sibling. And when we combine philia with the Greek word for brother, adelphos, we get phila-adelphos, the “City of Brotherly Love,” Philadelphia.
I think that this is a little misleading because I hope that we have a stronger bond with our brothers and sisters, both our flesh and blood relatives and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Philia is a reference to friendship and well-wishes. But Philia does move us one step closer than stergo because philia does at least require that you know someone. It isn’t just some willy-nilly “I love everyone, man!” kind of love. This is the kind of love where you want to spend time together, it’s a “let’s grab a burger and go to a ball game together” kind of love.
This word tends to find its way into our English language in more places than just Philadelphia. One of the Greek words for human beings is anthropos. Combine phila and anthropos and you get a love for human beings, which we call philanthropy. And as I mentioned earlier, combining sophia, the Greek word for wisdom, with phila results in the love of wisdom, or philosophy.
So philia is important, and it is more personal than the respect and reverence of stergo. But again, most of us are looking for more than just someone to grab a burger with.
Eros is what we would commonly call lust and is often characterized by sexual desire. It is where we get the word “erotic” from. However, eros is not exclusively used to describe sexual desire, but anything for which you yearn deeply. A person on a diet may have eros for an ice cream cone. A person may have eros for power. It is lust, it is desire. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What is bad is to have your every thought and action driven by eros.
Consider Matthew 5:27-28, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Jesus isn’t saying that it is wrong to appreciate the beauty of human beings. Just as God created the beautiful mountains and the beautiful seas, God also created beautiful human beings. It is okay to appreciate that beauty and even say, “God, you do good work!” The problem comes when we move form appreciation to a sexual desire, when we begin to experience eros for someone who is not our spouse or even to be dominated by thoughts of eros for power or money.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Valentine’s Day if we didn’t quote the most romantic verse in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 7:9. Are you ready for this? It is even more romantic than the goat hair and sheep teeth from Song of Solomon. “But if [widows] cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Come on now, friends. How romantic is Paul? You don’t get any more romantic than telling people that if you are burning with eros, you might as well get married. And before you call me a heretic for questioning the Bible, know that in this section Paul has already said that he did not receive this teaching from God but it is his own opinion.
I don’t lift up these words of Paul just to critique him, but as an example of why building a marriage or any relationship entirely on erotic love is wrong. Paul, like many of the NT authors and many people today, believed that Jesus was coming back soon. Paul wasn’t thinking about long-term relationships, and he didn’t have our modern concept of marriage in mind.
The problem with marrying someone entirely out of eros is that beauty is temporary. In December I turned 36. That’s the equivalent of two 18-year-olds. I’ve got hair growing out of places that I didn’t have hair before. Does anyone else get hair on their ear lobes? What hair I have left on top of my head is turning gray. And just standing up out of a chair requires more of an effort and more grunting than it used to. So I grunt, struggle to my feet, and look over at my wife, suck in my gut, and say, “How you doin’?”
I know, I need to be careful here. I wouldn’t want to cause any of the ladies to stumble.
As we read in Proverbs 31, beauty is fleeting. If the only thing that brings you together and keeps you together for a period of time with another person is an erotic attraction, that relationship isn’t going to last. And yes, there are those people who never seem to age, like that darn Brad Pitt, but for most of us, time will win and gravity will set in.
I would say that even eros isn’t what we are really looking for. Yes, in a relationship, we need to be attracted to a person in some way. But there needs to be more. Eros isn’t a bad thing to have in a relationship, at least not when it is directed toward your partner, but it cannot be the only thing.
If you have been around the church for a while, you know that we like to talk about a specific kind of love. We talk about agape. Agape is a love that gives of itself; it is self-sacrificial. This is the kind of love that we find in John 3:16, where we are told that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son. This is the kind of love that Paul says in today’s passage that neither height nor depth, not life or death, nothing in the present or future can separate us from the agape love of God. This is the kind of love that looks like a basin and a towel. This is the kind of love that looks like a cross.
I don’t do a lot of weddings, though I did do three in one summer a few years back. When you talk to pastors about doing weddings, some of them will get a little bit snarky about a popular wedding text that people like to choose: 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud…”
Pastors get a little bit snarky because they say that this is not about getting married, this passage is about the church caring for one another. (Sorry if this was your wedding text.) I admit that I’ve gotten a little snarky because I didn’t think that this is a wedding text! But today I think differently.
I believe that 1 Corinthians 13 is a wedding text because it is a reference to the bride of Christ, the church. And when we strip away the eros that will fade as our bodies lose some of their youthful vigor and vitality, what we are left with is an agape for our spouse that looks a lot like the agape that Christ has for the church and we are to have for one another. It is well worth our time this morning to read all 13 verses:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
When we are looking for somebody to love, I don’t think are looking simply for stergo, philia, or even eros. Yes, those things are important, and even helpful in a relationship. But only faith, hope, and love, agape love, will remain. And the greatest is love.
No, all of humanity is looking for agape. It is the kind of love that wakes up after 50 years of marriage and says, “What can I do for you today?” It is the kind of love that asks how you can serve one another. It is the kind of love that looks a lot like a basin and a towel. It is the kind of love that looks like the cross of Christ.