Saturday, February 6, 2010

Love and spiritual growth, Dec 27, 2009

Texst: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 (Samuel in the Temple at age 12), Luke 2:41-52 (Jesus in the Temple at age 12)

"I want to know what love is. I want you to show me." Do you remember those lines? They are from the chorus of a 1984 monster hit by the rock band Foreigner. In the fall of 2007, when I decided to go back to school to get a Masters of Divinity Degree, I wrote an email to my friends telling them of my decision. In that email, I said that since the New Testament letter 1 John reminds us that "God is Love," I imagined that my theme song in seminary might be, "I want to know what love is." In the event, however, I don't seem to have learned all that much about love in two years of school. But as I said to the children a minute ago, love is not necessarily an easy subject!

Our Gospel reading this morning is unusual because it shows Jesus as a student. It is Passover, and Jesus at age 12 is in the Temple listening to the rabbis and asking them questions. Most other stories from the Gospels show Jesus in the role of teacher, not in the role of student. Indeed, "teacher" is one of the main titles by which Jesus' disciples address him. But since Jesus was a human being like us -- born a helpless baby on the First Christmas and growing slowly into adulthood -- he needed to learn things too. He needed to listen to his teachers and to ask questions of his elders. And I like that image.

But when Jesus listened to his teachers, what did they tell him? And when he asked questions of the rabbis in the Temple, what were those questions? Unfortunately, Luke doesn't tell us . . .

Over the years, I have puzzled a lot about love, as many of us do during the ups and downs of life. Mostly we learn through experience -- by loving our parents and siblings; our friends; and later our spouses and children.

But in terms of what exactly we mean by that all-important but somewhat fuzzy word "love," the best attempt at a definition I have come across so far is from the best-selling 1978 self-help book "The Road Less Travelled" by M. Scott Peck.

Peck writes that "Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth" . . . the will to extend one's self to nurture spiritual growth. I would like to unpack this definition a little. First, love is an act of will. It is not just a feeling. Instead, love involves action. To use two other popular slogans: "Love is a verb and not a noun." And, "Love is as love does!" It is about what we do, and having the will to undertake loving actions.

Second, love, for Peck is about spiritual growth -- one's own spiritual growth or that of another. But this part of his definition leads to the question of what we mean by spiritual growth. So Peck gives us an outline of some of the stages of spiritual growth: from egotism, to blind faith, to skepticism, and finally to a mystical awareness of God that is beyond ego. However, I won't go much further into that. For one, my copy of his book is in storage in Toronto!

But I appreciate Peck's definition. I agree with him that love, if it is to mean anything, is about what we do rather than what we feel. And I am sure that spiritual growth is at the centre of loving action. But surely there is more to love than this.  Our loving actions can also involve taking care of the physical and emotional needs of our loved ones as well as their spiritual needs.

Peck is on to a important point, though. Not all our physical, emotional or social problems can be solved on their own terms. Nevertheless, we trust that there is always  a spiritual response to such problems. For instance, we can't always prevent our loved ones from feeling pain, but we can be present with them through tough times and offer them assurances of our love now and God's love always. We can't always succeed in righting a social injustice. But we can worship together to provide the spiritual sustenance we need to continue to fight the good fight even in dark times.

This morning, I offer Peck's definition as a starting point in trying to know more about what love is; though perhaps there are better definitions out there.

And it could be that the second line of the chorus from Foreigner's Power Ballad "I want to know what love is" offers us a good next step. The second line is, "I want you to show me." If love is as love does, then we can learn a lot by spending time with loving people and letting them show us. So to learn more about love, perhaps I had to put school on hold for a year and come as an intern to Knox United where I can see love in action. In a faith community like this, people come together to worship, study, raise money for good causes, and be present to each other in life's key moments of pain and joy. Communities like Didsbury and churches like Knox United bring love to life and model for new generations what the Lord requires of us: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

Jesus in his adult ministry talks a lot about love: he tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves; to love each other as he has loved us; even to love our enemies. But more powerful than his words are his actions. Jesus shows us what love is by his willingness to take up his cross in a fallen world and to die for what he values. He models for us this gracious but difficult path, not just by words, but by actions.

I will end by mentioning something that I did learn in one of my courses about Jesus and love. Our teacher talked about the famous hymn-like passage from Paul's letter to Philippians, a passage which I preached about on Reign of Christ Sunday on Nov 22nd, and which is also captured in the hymn we learned that morning, "At the Name of Jesus." One line from that famous hymn is usually translated into English like this: "Christ Jesus, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness." Our teacher told us that at a wedding ceremony he had attended, Paul's hymn was read, but with a different translation. The line "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" was translated as "emptied himself, taking the form of a listener." The Greek word often translated as servant was instead translated as listener.

This alternate translation shows us that one way to serve or love another person is by listening to them. Jesus listened to his teachers when he was a boy. He listened to the heartbroken, the sick, the outcasts and the sinners in his adult ministry. And he listened to His Father in the call to the cross. In these acts of listening, Jesus models for us this key aspect of love.

Many of us want to know what love is. Jesus as the Christ shows us the way.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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