One of my favourite films ever is ‘Moulin Rouge’, directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor and set in turn-of-the-century, belle epoque Paris. It’s a spectacular, gaudy, movie. It has Kylie Minogue as an absinthe fairy. One scene takes place inside an elephant-shaped room, in which a young provincial poet tries to win the affections of a Parisian courtesan, and as he woos her, the dialogue runs thus; ‘Love is a many splendored thing, Love lifts us up where we belong, All you need is love!’ and goes on to consist almost entirely of slogans from popular songs from the last thirty or so years. (You can listen to the scene here.)
Of course, the problem is that in our English language we only have the one word ‘love’ which covers a multitude of emotions; depending on who we are, we might say that we love sticky toffee pudding, our car, our friends, our home, a movie like Moulin Rouge, our children, our pets, our spouse, God, an idea perfectly expressed, a song beautifully sung. ‘Love’ is used to convey any strong, positive emotion and any sense of attachment. Greek, though, as you might know, is more precise – possibly more analytical of the concept of love itself, in an Aristotelean way – and offers a range of words for love that all mean love, but distinct experiences and expressions of love. Philos, for example, is the love between siblings, that deep recognition, pool of shared memories and solidarity that is family life at its best. Eros, as you can probably work out, is the romantic love that Ewan McGregor sings about in Moulin Rouge.
In our reading this morning we have heard that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves; this is the very touchstone of the Christian faith. The love about which Jesus is talking here is not romantic love, not infatuation or fluttering hearts; it’s not even philos, the sibling solidarity. It is ‘agape’, the divine, perfect love from which all other love comes and which gives shape and meaning to all human life. It’s a love that transcends, and transfigures, our lives. ‘Love so amazing, so divine / demands my soul, my love, my all.’
It’s a love that makes hypocrites of us all, because none of us can live up to it. Yet it is the profoundest expression of the very nature of the God in whose image we are created.
As you will know if you’ve been following the Sunday sermons over recent week, tension has been mounting between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and other Jewish idealists. Last week we heard Jesus’ genius answer to the trick question ‘should we pay taxes to Rome?’, (you can read the sermon here if you like). which his detractors hoped would get him arrested and out of their way. As we know, that plan didn’t work out for them, so now they are back with the ultimate question: what is the greatest commandment in the law?
Another trick question: whatever Jesus claims as the greatest, or most important, means that other laws lie neglected; whatever is greater means that something else has to be lesser. Maybe the Pharisees were ready with their counter-answer; if Jesus had chosen the honouring of one’s parents as the most important, for example, that would lay him open to claims of neglecting the wider community. If he had said keeping the Sabbath, that would lay him open to claims of neglecting the other six days. And so on.
But, once again, Jesus’ answer silences his opposers, because what he offers as the greatest law is not one that competes against the others, but one that is the lens through which all of the others make sense. Honouring parents makes sense because God creates us for relationship, because the very nature of God is relational love. Keeping the Sabbath make sense because God creates us to love him – to enjoy him forever, as the Westminster Catechism puts it – and it’s hard to do that what you’re working all the time. A Sabbath, a day of rest, gives space for love to be enjoyed.
St Augustine of Hippo famously said ‘love, and do what you will.’ Not because Augustine was a libertine – if you know anything about him, you’ll know how far from the truth that is, after his conversion at least – but because when we start to understand this perfect love and ourselves as creatures of love, that love itself will define how we live, how we relate to others, what we say, how we spend our time.
As I’ve said, this love makes hypocrites of us all. We do not, and cannot, perfectly live up to this perfect love, this side of heaven. That is why confession is so important, because as we hear God’s words of forgiveness and absolution to us, we are hearing words of love, words that draw us back to the source of love and enable us to re-orientate our lives towards this love.
Hearing is so important to our understanding of God’s love. The verse from Deuteronomy from which this saying of Jesus originates is known as the Shema, after the Hebrew for the first word, ‘hear’; ‘hear, O Israel.’ In Hebrew, this word also means ‘draw near to listen, pay careful attention.’ Love is partly about listening, drawing near and paying careful attention to others. Maybe we might think of someone we know who is particularly good at listening; we sense something of the love of God in these people. We know that we are loved when we are heard. God, who is love, hears our prayers, even our thoughts. Before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you have known its meaning through and through as the Psalmist says. God is infinitely attentive, infinitely listening, in love, to us.
We know, too, where love leads Jesus. Love leads Jesus to a brutal death, to humiliation and scorn and pain. Love leads Jesus to derision and desertion and deep, empty darkness. A thousand nails could not have held Jesus to the cross, had love not held him there, as one person put it. It is in the cross of Christ, the self-giving sacrifice, that we see what really is the greatest fulfilment of all the law.
And we know that love reaches down into the deep, empty darkness and leads Jesus back to life; we know that when hell has been harrowed and the ultimate triumph of love over hate written into the deepest laws of the universe, love bursts forth from the resurrected, cross-wounded Jesus. This love reaches out to the ends of the earth and re-welcomes, re-calls, even those who betrayed and disowned Jesus, and sends them out to reach further still.
If we want to know what love is, we don’t need cutesy little cartoons of pudgy people in a heart shaped background gazing coyly at each other’s nakedness. We don’t need Ewan McGregor singing in an elephant shaped room. We need to look to the cross. To come close, ourselves, to draw near and listen; to listen to Jesus, to hear his words of invitation and welcome, his infinite attentiveness and utter acceptance of us, his self-giving for us. Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we say in the Eucharist, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We proclaim the love that changes the world and challenges the powers of oppression every time we share this holy meal. We hear, one again, words of love, and we see, once again, the body broken and the blood spilled, out of love. Let us come now; let us draw near, and listen. Amen.