No Greater Love
by Deborah Flagg –
“Love is not all,” wrote the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. “It is not meat nor drink nor slumber nor a roof against the rain.” Love is not many things necessary to life, according to Millay, and yet she goes on to say that she would not trade her memories of love for anything, even those things that sustain life. Her message seems to be that, while “love is not all,” it really is all. Love doesn’t help us breathe, but without it breathing is meaningless. In essence, love is our life and at the very core of what it means to be human. Thousands of songwriters, poets, parents and lovers would agree with her. And though we might not express it as poetically, we would all, I think, agree with her.
Yet, for all its importance and centrality, love continues to be a fuzzy concept, a word devoid of meaning except for the meanings that we give to it. Falling under the philosopher Wittgenstein’s “meaning as use” category, the word love is an abstraction that goes to work as we need it, absorbing a whole range of physical and emotional yearnings. We employ this little word in a variety of ways: we love hot dogs and marigolds, foreign movies and downhill skiing, our pet beagle and our Aunt Martha, our children and our new sports car, poetry and God. Love makes us act both crazy and responsible. We long for it from the significant people in our lives, but we often don’t know how to ask for it. And as often as we use the word, as much as we need it, most of us would be hard pressed to define it.
This “fuzziness” also spills over into our thinking about God’s love. We want to believe that God loves us—we praise God for his love, sing about it, preach sermons on it, even though we often don’t feel worthy of it. Often, we don’t grasp the reality of God’s love, treating the idea as another abstraction—agape—the incomprehensible response of a distant Being. We have the Greek philosophers to thank for this, and how they have influenced us with their ideas of an impassible, immoveable God. The Hebrews, on the other hand, did not wrestle with such abstractions. For them, God was not a distant, immoveable being, but was God because he acted decisively on their behalf, and did this over and over again. This gave concreteness to their idea of God’s love—that God was for them and showed it in unmistakable ways. God wasn’t just sitting in the heavens thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts toward them. God rolled up his sleeves and went to work to deliver them.
At this Easter season, the idea of delivering love is particularly helpful in our reflections on the life and death of Jesus—that love is not just a single abstract principle, but a complex drama with different manifestations that move us in profound ways. Glen Stassen observes that the primary norm of love in Scripture is not sacrificial love or equal regard, but delivering love. “The drama behind the word love is the drama of deliverance,” he writes. “This connects with our understanding of the kingdom as God’s delivering action.”
Jesus Christ, the paradigm of love, exemplified delivering love in everything that he did. He acted with mercy toward the outcasts, fed the hungry, healed the blind, taught the way, forgave the guilty and set his face toward Jerusalem, knowing that he would die at the hands of the Roman authorities. Glen Stassen and David Gushee, in their book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context remind us that Jesus not only lived delivering love, he also taught on the shape of this love, and nowhere more explicitly than in the parable of the compassionate Samaritan, a story in which Jesus offers definitive instruction on both whom and how we should love. They identify four acts in this drama of deliverance: The first act is that “love sees with compassion and enters into the situation of persons in bondage.” Secondly, “love does deeds of deliverance.” Act three takes place when “love invites into community with freedom, justice and responsibility for the future.” The final act is when “love confronts those who exclude.” In his teaching, Jesus makes clear that love is not just an attitude or a feeling of generalized benevolence, but a concrete action involving the
whole person. There is nothing “fuzzy” about this kind of love.
The ultimate expression of delivering love is found in the drama of the cross. In Jesus’ death, we see a connection to the mighty acts of deliverance that God performed for his people throughout their history. We also see a connection to the deeds of deliverance and healing that were the hallmarks of Jesus’ life and ministry before his death on the cross. Jesus’ death at the hands of those who did not understand was a predictable outcome of his life, a life in which he confronted those who were abusive and exclusive, and included those who were outcast and rejected. Stassen and Gushee write that “Jesus’ death on the cross is the unique, supreme, climactic delivering deed because it discloses God’s love to us and it discloses the depth of our sin…It is God suffering, bringing us into community with God and each other, community that we ourselves could not create.”
This concrete expression of God’s delivering love for us not only reshapes and redeems us, but also gives us a guide for our lives as Christians in the world. It shows us how to love in particularity—to feed the hungry, visit the lonely, include the outcast, confront sinful institutions, and work for justice and peace. When we truly grasp the power of God’s delivering love in Christ, it is no longer enough for us to love in abstraction, to “love people for Jesus’ sake.” Our love must have a shape, must see with compassion and do deeds of deliverance.
Brings us to safety
Garrison Keillor tells the story of a father who takes his children on an outing to the circus, leaving mom at home to enjoy a little time to herself. After the circus, they pile into their small Volkswagen bug and begin the trip home, the children flushed and excited from all the wonders they had seen. As they are leaving the parking area, they notice that one of the elephants, “Jumbo,” is tied up in back of the tent. Honoring his children’s request, the father drives their small car closer to the elephant so that the children can get a better look.
Inadvertently, he gets a little too close to Jumbo, and the elephant sticks his rather formidable trunk into the back window of the car, his massive body shaking the small bug, his trunk probing for peanuts or other goodies. The children, of course, are having a great time with this while the father fears for their safety, seeing potential disaster. Through some creative evasive action, he is able to maneuver the Volkswagen away from the large creature and get his little family safely home. Before they go into the house, dad persuades the children that mom doesn’t need to know about the “Jumbo incident.” However, one of the first things the children do is to recount this exciting event to their somewhat concerned mom. “It was okay,” dad reassures her. “I was there.” In his inimitable way, Keillor uses this whimsical story to illustrate the power of love to bring people to safety. The father’s love delivered his children from danger, even when they did not recognize the situation as dangerous.
The love of God, made concrete and explicit in Jesus Christ’s life and death delivers us from a host of dangers that we ourselves often do not recognize. It redeems us, redirects us, gives shape to our existence. It includes us in a community in which love is not a fuzzy abstract concept, but a concrete reality of compassion and deliverance. It helps us define the love that we all so desperately need, and also helps us offer that love to others. There is no greater love than this—a love that, no matter what suffering we face or what dangers threaten, will ultimately lead us all to safety.