United in Love

John 21:1-19
Today’s lesson comes from the final chapter of the gospel of John, chapter 21. It describes a fourth encounter with the risen and transformed Jesus: the Christ. The first was Mary at the tomb at dawn, then the disciples huddled away later that night, Thomas a week later, still locked up in that room, and finally here out on the beach at dawn--a magical time and place, full of possibility in a story brimming with mysterious details. Peter, fishing naked; 153 fish caught, no more no less; and a barbeque on the beach already prepared, just waiting to be received. The story culminates with this curious exchange.


Let us listen now to what the Spirit may be saying to church today.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep… and follow me.” (John 21: 15-17) 

There’s lots more to the story than that, but that’s enough for now.

If you look for it(this is an opening line from my very favorite movie) if you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love, actually, is all around. And lately, there have been some pretty encouraging developments in our collective recognition of love that is, actually, all around in our world. Signs and polls point to a rapid and ongoing evolution toward full acceptance of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, in this country and all around the world. The Supreme Court has just finished hearing two cases for marriage equality, and just since then, public figure after public figure has suddenly, and openly “evolved,” joining the call for full equality in our marriage laws.  It is, as the LGBT community has been telling us for years, all about love, and we finally seem to be getting it.

One of the most interesting developments is how many of these figures end up citing their Christian faith as the grounding for their evolution. Florida Senator Bill Nelson declared, "if the Lord made homosexuals as well as heterosexuals, why should I discriminate against their civil marriage? I shouldn't, and I won't." So, what we are witnessing is not just a shift in social policy, but also a leap in how certain people are interpreting scripture and talking about matters of faith and love. Rather than pulling obscure references out of bits of the Bible otherwise ignored to bolster preexisting attitudes, we now see people looking way more deeply at the whole message and making expansive conclusions about what this all says about human being and the wild and wonderful diversity of human loving.

And all this rethinking reimagining and evolving is in no small measure the direct result of the witness, persistence and love of countless courageous gay and lesbian individuals. We owe them an enormous debt, as well as our continued support; the struggle for full equality is advancing, but it is far from over. The plaintiff in one of those court cases, Edith Windsor, is 83 years old, and was with her beloved partner for more than 40 years. Marriage, she informs us, is a magic word. What if we all took that bit of wisdom to heart?  Its true, we are all evolving, and as the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote some six and half centuries ago: nothingevolves us like love.

But what do we even mean by that word? Peter, in our story today, seems pretty sure that he knows, and Jesus seems just as sure that Peter—who is usually a stand-in for us all – is missing something essential. Indeed if we can love a puppy and ice cream and our partners and truth, beauty, and God, if we can love the beach, and a barbeque and Jesus all in the same breath, what are we really talking about?

In the ancient world, from which our biblical stories emerge, love was taken very seriously and far more systematically. It was understood to have this whole variety of manifestations that were given distinct names; eros, passion and desire; philia, the warm affection of friends and family; and agape the infinite, indiscriminate and indestructible love of the Holy. One encountered even more forms of love among the ancient Greeks, according to cultural historian Roman Krznaric as detailed in his marvelous book The Wonder Box: Curious Histories of How to Live. These additional forms of love include: ludus or playful affection and frivolity; pragma, mature love that develops only over a lifetime; and philautia, or self love. This last one is tricky because in its healthy form-- self acceptance—it is foundational for all the others, but in unhealthy self absorption (or narcissism) it has the power to weaken or destroy all other possibilities.

Krznaric explains that for the Greeks, fullness of life meant the intentional cultivation of all these different varieties of love: passion, affection, self compassion, play, mature companionship and self forgetting devotion. It is a pretty great list, and Krznaric suggests that our way to greater fulfillment in life may be found just by attending to these different varieties of love, and how they are present (or not) in each of our lives. This calls us to a kind of attention that can help us cultivate love with a fuller intention in all its various manifestations within the wondrous web of interconnection that each one of us inhabits with family, friends, spouses, strangers, self and God. The care and feeding of each part strengthens the whole.

Kznaric emphasizes that this also requires that we address our cultural obsession with romance—the unfortunate notion that all forms of love can and should be present in, and satisfied by one person and one relationship. Which is, literally, impossible, because the human desire for love is infinite. It is how we were made—finite beings created with infinite desire.

When we idealize romance we burden our relationships with unreasonable expectations, and we reduce Eros, the passion and power that fuels all creation, all beauty, truth, goodness--we reduce that power to human feelings and their physical expressions. And we elevate romantic love above all the other forms -- friendship, play, spiritual companionship, and even our relationship with God. Just think for a minute about our cultural symbol for this supposedly ultimate form of love – a naked little angel-baby in a diaper with a pink bow and arrow.

Wisdom invites us to a very different vision, where agape, the boundless, indestructible love of God, is ultimate. This love, according to scripture, is the greatest power on earth, that even death cannot defeat. This love always wins. And it is always already present, just waiting to be received and shared. Agape—not eros-- is the source of all other loves. Spiritual teacher Gerald May, in his masterwork Will and Spirit wrote, “all forms of loving have their origin in and thus are manifestations of divine agapic love...”

May, who was also a psychiatrist, and quite familiar with human dis-ease and dysfunction, still believed that even the most disordered or destructive forms of love—narcissism and worse—even those, originate in the divine heart but become twisted in human expression. “All human loving,” he wrote, “is a gift from God, and as such has roots in agape. But… any love… coming from another person simply has to be conditional… Only divine, agapic love is ultimate and unconditional… a love that transcends human beings both individually and collectively… It is a universal “given” that pre-exists all effort; it neither needs to be earned nor can it be removed.”

And rather than a hierarchy with divine love up there, and all the others underneath, we might imagine the divine Heart, source of all love, as like the sun, and all these ways of loving are like rays of light flowing from it. The closer we, the conduits of that light, are to the center, the more life giving and creative will be our loving in any context or relationship. The farther we move from our center in God, the more conditional, self-centered, and ultimately unhealthy will be the love we are capable of giving, and receiving. Love is a practice and a process.

One of the truest symbols of this kind of love is the table, where everyone who is hungry is invited to gather, to bless, break open and share the gifts of life that are always already there, just waiting to be discovered, received, shared, and multiplied in the process.

Think loaves and fishes; Jesus is always sharing meals. Because bread like love is the very stuff of life, and love, it turns out, is way more about doing than feeling. In the curious exchange between Peter and Jesus in our story today, Jesus follows each, do you love me? with a verb, a command. Feed, tend, care for my people. Follow me. Which is to say: Love others as I have loved you. Loving God means loving what God loves, and that includes the entire wild and wonderful creation, in all its manifestations, and astonishing diversity, including each precious human person. Gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, democrat, republican, immigrant, prisoner, lobbyist, king.

We are far from fully evolved, and Love has lots more for us to receive and share. We are all in this together. And each one—evolved or not—is a unique manifestation of God’s love with particular gifts to claim and to share. In Christ, we are united in love.

Gerald May sums it all up like this: “we are created out of love and for the purpose of love, so that we might in our lives play the beautiful, infinite melodies of love: union, creation, diversity, separation, longing, belonging, communion, union, creation—all for the greater fulfillment of the two great commandments” Love God, love others, wholeheartedly. May it be so.