What Is Love?
(Ash Wednesday)

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
  How do we define love?

     For something that is so central to human existence, you would think we would have a clear concept of what love is. If I asked 100 people for a definition, though, likely I would get 100 different answers. Perhaps that is because it is so central to human existence, and it is both universal and unique to every human.

     Often love is expected to take place in certain types of relationships: marriage, parenthood, family.  Love in such roles is still unpredictable, however. Some of us know the power of unconditional love in our lives, and some of us know love that came with strings attached. All of us have been children, but that does not mean we have all experienced the same expression of love from parents.  Some of us are close with our siblings, and some are deeply estranged. Some have found and created new spaces of love among friends, and some find love for all people, no matter how hard.

    Over the course of this Lenten journey, we are going to look at love – appropriate for a season that starts on an Ash Wednesday Valentine’s Day. And we will look at love in terms of relationships: primarily the relationship between us and God. We will see our own typical conceptions of love get turned over and challenged from time to time. In fact, the kind of love God calls us to is going to seem foolish at times. The kind of love God expresses and then invites us to offer to God and to others breaks so many of the rules that we set up for ourselves. It demands forgiveness in unforgivable situations, creating imbalance in our equations and seeming offensively unfair. It is wasteful in its abundance, and stupidly generous in its expression. And it comes with tremendous risk, risk that has us asking where the boundaries of love should be. But ultimately it is a love that gives us hope and life and freedom in all its foolishness, because ultimately it draws us to God.

     As we delve into this journey, however, it is probably a good idea to put a few frames up to help us better understand love, both the love God calls us to and the conceptions of love that are part of our understanding. Let’s look at our general definitions of love, as well as how love was understood in Hebrew and Greek, before we turn to a key definition of love in the Bible.

    When you look at the definition of love in a typical English dictionary, the first thing of note is that “love” is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, definitions talk about strong affection or kinship with someone, a warm attachment, or someone who is an object of that attachment. There is also a distinction in the expression of love, some definitions noting sexual expression, and some talking about unselfish or benevolent acts for the good of humanity, implying that personally knowing the recipient of the action is not necessary.

    As a verb, love is equated to sex or sexual activity. It also means to hold dear, or to like or desire actively. One definition also included “to thrive in,” such as “Michelle loves school” (which is true – I do).

    It is also true that we use the word love in moments of profound emotion and connection, as well as to express casual appreciation, like “I love those chocolate chip cookies!” Yes, cookies are a favorite of mine, but if they disappeared altogether, I am not going to grieve their loss like I would a beloved family member. Love has many expressions, and those are definitely shaped by colloquial expressions in our culture. So understanding love, and especially trying to translate love from one time and place to another, can be tricky. Let’s look at how love was understood in biblical Hebrew and in Koine Greek (the Greek of the New Testament) to help us understand how love is used in the Bible.

     Just as it is difficult to define love in English, it is difficult to narrow the words used for love in Hebrew. For our purposes here, we will look at two Hebrew words: lev and khesed.
    Lev is the Hebrew word for heart. In English, we conceive of the heart as both the organ that pumps our blood and keeps us alive and the metaphorical location for love. In Hebrew, heart is so much more! Yes, it is the location of love and all kinds of emotions, but it is also the location of character, identity, belief, ethics and thought. The heart represents the center of a human – the source of all that is distinctive about that person. When God says that God wants our heart, it is truly that God wants our whole selves, not just our love.

    Khesed is a characteristic often associated with God. It is the word that can be translated as “steadfast love.”  It can also be translated as loyalty, kindness, devotion, and faithfulness. What khesed captures is the tenacity of love. It is not about infatuation, but faithfulness. Khesed is a willingness to stick together through all things. It is an unending covenant that holds across time and space and situation.

     You have probably heard that there are three kinds of love in Greek. There are actually four: agape, philia, eros, and storge. Storge is familial love, and includes love among family members and friends that are considered part of the family. For an English equivalent, kinship is probably the best example. You may recognize eros since it is the root of the word “erotic.” Eros is most closely associated with sexual or physical expressions of love. Neither of these words or forms of these words appear in the New Testament, though certainly the sentiments they express do (storge love especially).

     Philia does appear, however, twenty-four times in the New Testament, in all four Gospels, 1 Corinthians, Titus, and Revelation. Perhaps its most interesting appearance takes place in John 21, when Jesus and Peter are at the lakeshore after the Resurrection. You may recall that Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. We lose something in the English, though, because both agape (God-like love) and philia (love of friends) are at play.  Here is the conversation with the Greek word in parentheses:

     When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?”
    Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love (philo) you.”
    Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love (agapas) me?”
    Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love (philo)  you.”
    Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love (phileis) me?”
    Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love (phileis) me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love (philo) you.”
    Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

    You see that the first two times Jesus uses a form of agape when addressing Peter, but Peter always responds with a form of philia. In the end, Jesus then meets Peter where he is and frames the love in terms of philia. Some scholars think that the words are simply interchangeable and find little use in splitting hairs over the two kinds of love.

     I disagree. The two kinds of love ARE different, and a native Greek speaker would know that. Philia is sometimes called brotherly love (think of Philadelphia – the City of Brotherly Love), but perhaps love among friends is the best way to put it. Agape is usually described as God-Like love. It is a love that transcends situations. It is a love that holds across time and space. It is an insistent love that does not die, does not abandon, and does not require the other person to love in return.

    So in that passage, Jesus is trying to push Peter to aim for agape love, but Peter will only respond with philia. Perhaps it is due to his shame for denying Jesus the night Jesus was arrested. That is what is so beautiful about this moment. First, Jesus is giving Peter a chance to heal the three times denial with a three times confession of love.  And then, as Jesus invites Peter to a transcendent love that isn’t subject to denial or betrayal, but Peter just cannot bring himself to make that claim. So, Jesus goes to him where he is, and accepts his promise of friendship instead.

    That is the foolishness of God’s love. God invites us to love the way God loves – steadfastly, transcendently - and has every confidence that we can! And then God always accepts us when we don’t quite hit that mark. But God will keep believing in our capacity to love, and will keep calling us in that direction. Over the next few weeks, we will see some of the ways we are invited into love, and especially invited into agape love.

     For this Lenten season, I will suggest a discipline of love for us all to work on. It comes from an exercise someone once gave me using the passage suggested here for Ash Wednesday, 1 Corinthians 13. Michelle Amos also references it in the video. There are many potential definitions of love in the Bible (the Greatest Commandment, perfect love casting out all fear, write these words on your heart, etc.), but perhaps the most concrete is this passage that is used so often in weddings. The exercise invites you to read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a. Everywhere the word “love” appears (or “it” if referring to love), you substitute in your name. Then, as you read it with your name in place of love, take note of where it feels like you are lying.  For instance, for me I can read, “Michelle Morris[1] is patient, Michelle M. is kind, Michelle M. isn’t jealous, Michelle M. doesn’t brag, Michelle M. isn’t arrogant – oh, there it is.” I am not arrogant all the time, but when someone questions my knowledge or particularly my academic pedigree, it is ON! So I need to spend some time this Lent working on my arrogance. Anywhere you bristle is a sign that you need to work on that aspect of love within yourself. And if you bristle for the entire passage, maybe the first thing you need to do is learn to love and respect yourself so that you can see something beautiful in you!
      And let me also affirm the exercise that Michelle Amos suggests in the video – while you are working on how you need to love, also use this passage as an affirmation. Lift up that you do love well in many ways!  Those places where you struggle are just part of your journey for now. You are invited into loving the way Christ loves, and Christ is confident that you can. And if you are still struggling, imagine someone around you filling this in for you. My guess is that Michelle would have confidently affirmed all of those aspects of love for her Papa. You are probably far better at love than you may give yourself credit for.

       These definitions of love that we have explored will always be incomplete. That is because love is in all things and is all things, because God is love. Our words fail us when we try to fully express love, just as our words fail us when we try to fully understand God. Still, we can take in moments, and we can love the way God loves from time to time. Hopefully this Lenten journey will open us up to even more ways to live that love.
  • How do you define love?
  • Who in your life has loved most like Jesus? What was it about them that would inspire you to choose them?
  • If you were in Peter’s place at the end of John, how would you answer Jesus’ questions? And how would you respond to Jesus’ challenge?
  • See the end of this book for the 1 Corinthians 13 passage with blanks for you to insert your name. What discipline of love will you commit to strengthen during Lent?

   [1] I use my last name and initial here to clarify I am not quoting Michelle Amos from the video.


Wednesday, February 14 (Ash Wednesday)
Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
     My first personal experience with these verses was in sorority meetings in college.  We read and listened to 1 Corinthians 13 every week, and those words can still take me back to the love and support I felt from that group of young women, my sisters.
     Today, as a wife, a mother of grown sons, and a teacher of children, I look more deeply into the meaning of Paul’s words.  Christian love, the selfless love the Greeks call agape, is the basis for all spiritual gifts.  It removes the obstacle of self from the purpose of serving others well and is how I work to make choices in my daily life now.
     All the ways Paul describes love, not only what it can be but also what it shouldn’t be, can show us how to serve others.  Our United Methodist Church continues to model Christian love both inside and outside the congregation.  Here, I have been invited to join groups studying the Bible or knitting prayer shawls and baby blankets.  I have been allowed to serve in worship and work with children.   I have seen individuals bring ideas to the church for phone cards for soldiers, support for classroom teachers, scholarships for local high school seniors, holiday gifts for children in need, and food for hungry families.  We have repeatedly joined together in Christian love to offer our support through prayer, fundraising, and volunteer hours.  These various opportunities were available to all, and one can only wonder how much more we can do together.  The joy and challenge of a Christian community reaching out in Christian love is that there is always more to do, more to investigate, more to offer.  And the spiritual rewards are boundless.
-Marjie Lewis

Thursday, February 15
Scripture Reading: Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Friday, February 16
Scripture Reading: Mark 12:28-34
    Upon reading this passage I am somewhat perplexed. It seems a given that the greatest of the commandments is to love the “Lord your God with all” that is within you.  It is after all the first commandment, expanded beautifully by Jesus in this account, but still undeniably an iteration of the first of the ten.
     Perhaps this needed to be interpreted and restated in Jesus’ day as we note the 33rd verse: “To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
    That verse reminds us that the processes of practiced religion are secondary to the crux of faith, that being the love of God.  Then as today, are we sometimes caught up in legalism and ceremony in contrast to the pure love of God?  And of one another for that matter.  It is interesting to recognize that none of the commandments specifically tell us to love our neighbor. Six through ten instruct us as to how to treat our neighbor (not the least of which is to avoid killing him or her).  But none specifically commands that we love.  But in this encounter in the temple courts with the inquisitive teacher, Jesus defines what love is.  To me loving God is the easy part.  In today’s strife-filled, divisive politics and even war, loving your neighbor, all your neighbors, can be extremely difficult.
    This Lenten season I propose the need for prayer to bring me to a better understanding, to love my neighbors and even further those who would be my enemies----to do my best to follow The Greatest Commandment and love them all.
- Ted Talley

Saturday, February 17
Scripture Reading: John 15:9-17
    These nine verses, consisting of one hundred and seventy-four words, are powerful. Four words caught my attention: love; remain; friend; and name. The theme for the passage is love—not superficial love, but deep, abiding love. Jesus uses love as a verb, not a noun—it’s active, not something in a Hallmark card, but demonstrated on the cross.
    Remain is another important word in the passage. To remain in Jesus’ love implies a beginning, but no ending. To remain is timeless. It’s continuous. It’s always. How do we remain in His love? Jesus gives a necessary condition—obey his commandments. What are His commandments? “Love each other as I have loved you.”
    Jesus gives new meaning to the word friend. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In this context, how many friends do you have? Are they friends or are they acquaintances? For how many people are you a friend? Jesus gives a necessary condition to be His friend—do what He commands. What does He command? “Love each other.” (In singing the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” consider the words and remember His commandment.) 
    Regarding the word name, Jesus said, “… so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” While serving as UA’s chancellor, I’d hear of things being asked for in my name, e.g., “The chancellor wants us to do such and so,” when I’d never even thought about “such and so.” To ask for something in someone else’s name, we need to know what the person would ask for under the same set of circumstances. This calls for intimate knowledge, not just casual acquaintance. It requires us to truly know the person in whose name we are asking.
    Notice Jesus used the words “so that” before “whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” “so that” ties to bearing fruit, which relates to the necessary conditions and the rest of the passage, especially love, remain, friend and name.
- John A. White, Jr.