“Koinonia and the Four Loves”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
23 February, 2020
Matthew 17:1-9
John 21:15-17
1 John 4:7-8, 18-19
Transfiguration Sunday and
Holy Habit of Fellowship/Koinonia, Week 8


       If they had lived here in Hollis, Jesus would have taken Peter, James, and John on a day-hike up Mount Monadnock.  According to Matthew, it was six days after Jesus had asked the disciples who people were saying he was, and then he asked, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon son of John answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus had blessed him, re-naming him Peter/Petros (which means “the rock”—we might call him “Rocky” in English), following it with a prediction that in time he would become a critical actor in building up his church.  But not long after that conversation, Jesus had to rebuke Peter.  Apparently trying to get a jump-start on building that church, “Rocky” mistakenly assumed that when Jesus said, “…on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”[1], it meant he had to protect Jesus from all harm and danger.  Peter didn’t yet understand that there was no threat that could thwart his teacher’s power, because his teacher was the incarnation of Love itself.

Six days later, they were on the top of a mountain like Monadnock—Jesus and Peter, James and John.  Suddenly, Jesus’ face was as bright as the sun, and his clothes were so white they dazzled, making them all squint.  And in that same moment, Moses and Elijah appeared.  Growing up in Jewish households, they’d heard stories about these two all their lives, so they immediately recognized the prophets talking with Jesus.  The three disciples were gob-smacked, speechless, until Peter blurted something ridiculous, revealing how overwhelmed he was.

Imagine yourself in that scene for a moment: What are you feeling?  Seeing these prophets who represent the deepest sort of faithfulness to God, talking with the one whom you’re pretty sure is the Messiah, hearing the voice you know must be God’s.  Are you calm?  Ecstatic?  Petrified?  Any chance thoughts about love are occurring to you?

“While he was still speaking,” Matthew continues, “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” [2]  “There is no fear in love,” wrote John, “but perfect love casts out fear.”[3]

Matthew finishes the story by noting that as they walked back down the mountain, Jesus instructed them not to tell anyone about what they’d experienced until after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead—which, if their minds weren’t already spinning, would surely have got them going.

What kind of relationship opens itself to that sort of experience, and sticks with Jesus after all that?  I’m not sure that any truly are…unless they naturally have a great deal of faith and hope.  And if faith and hope are present, then so is love.  First Corinthians Chapter 13 concludes with the words, “Now faith, hope, and love abide: these three.  And the greatest of these is love.”  In fact, faith and hope do not exist without love; Faith and Hope are born of Love.

Love is an interesting, versatile word in the English language.  We love our children, parents, spouses, and God.  We also say we love ice-cream, or we love the merry-go-round at the theme park, or a certain time of year.  The word “love” covers a lot of emotions and feelings, doesn’t it?

The ancient Greeks may have had a slightly better idea in using at least six different words for the variety of sentiments and moods evoked by our word, love.  In addition to The Chronicles of Narnia and a lot of other books, C.S. Lewis wrote a slim volume called The Four Loves, in which he discusses the four most commonly-used ancient Greek words for love.

Although I can’t say whether the New York Life Insurance company used this book as a reference, I was surprised when a Super Bowl commercial was teaching about these words at about the same time I discovered Lewis’ book.[4]  (I’d understand if you are equally surprised to hear that I was watching the Super Bowl in a non-Patriots year; all of my in-laws live in Kansas, so they needed my support.  Kansas City won, so.  It’s rewarding when you feel like you made a difference, even if it’s just by showing up.)

Because it was a pretty good synopsis of the words, I’ll spare you the book report and recite the commercial: “The ancient Greeks had four words for love.  The first, is philia. Philia is affection that grows from friendship.  Next, there’s storgē, the kind you have for a grandparent or a sibling.  Third, there’s eros, the uncontrollable urge to say ‘I love you.’ The fourth kind of love is different. It’s the most admirable.  It’s called agape.  Love as an action.  It takes courage.  Sacrifice.  Strength.”  The commercial goes on to make its pitch for how the company has been helping its customers practice love for over 100 years—suggesting, I suppose, that by purchasing their life insurance product, you’d be expressing all four kinds of love in one simple gesture.  Because they titled it, “Love Takes Action,” I think they wanted us at least to believe that buying their product helps us to practice agape.  (I’m tempted to talk about all the ways this is a troubling commodification of love, but that would take me about as long as the book report was going to do.  So, perhaps that’s a sermon for another day.)

Broadly speaking, though, the advertisement’s very truncated characterizations of the four loves—storgē (familial love), philia (friendship), eros (romantic love), and agape (admirable, active, courageous, divine love) work as good descriptions.

So, now let’s go back to our Scripture readings and to my question about where and how love was expressed in the Transfiguration story: which versions of love do you think the disciples might have said they’d experienced from and toward God, toward Jesus, even toward each other, as they hiked up the mountain?  And then, as they hiked back down that mountain, do you think the unforgettable experience they’d just shared might have changed the way they’d characterize the love they shared with one another?  How do you suppose that intense moment might have changed the way they understood their mutual relationships, their fellowship, their koinonia – their communion with Christ, and with one another?

I chose to have us hear a second gospel story about Peter this morning, on the Sunday before we enter into the season of Lent, even though it’s usually one that we read after Easter.  In it, the crucified and resurrected Jesus appears to Peter (“the Rock” remember, Jesus had called him; the one upon whom his church would be built).  This same Peter had only a few evenings earlier, as Jesus was arrested and being hauled before the authorities for interrogation and imminent execution, this same “rock” denied so much as knowing Jesus … three separate times.

Now, with all these memories vividly at play, Peter’s love for Jesus was being called into question by the one whose love and life could not ultimately be vanquished.  “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’”  Presumably, he was referring to the other disciples who were standing around on the shoreline with them.  “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” Peter replied.  “Feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.  Again, Jesus asked, “Do you love me?”  And again, Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  And Jesus repeated, “Tend my sheep.”  And a third time, Jesus asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  This time, the gospel writer says, “Peter felt hurt” because he’d asked him three times—almost as though he was rubbing it in.  Or maybe, he was rubbing out Peter’s denials or helping Peter to re-write them, only Peter didn’t realize it yet.  So, he said to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”  And Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Given what I’ve said about the four Greek words for love, I want to congratulate you if you’ve wondered which words the gospel author suggests that Jesus and Peter were using during this exchange.  In the original manuscripts, it turns out that Jesus was asking Peter, “Do you agape me?”  And Peter was responding, “Yes, Lord, you know I philiayou.”  But in the final asking, Jesus says, “[Peter], do you philia me?”  And, the author tells us, Peter was hurt, but still answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I philia you.”

The message Peter was meant to take away was that if he did indeed love Jesus as he professed to, then he should remember what Jesus had said to him previously.  Specifically, remember the commandment he gave to all his disciples to love one another – to tend to each other, and especially to the vulnerable, as Jesus himself had done, with a divine, unconditional, all-embracing love.  In John 13 it says Jesus instructed them, “Just as I have agaped you, you also should agape one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have agape for one another.”[5]  In John 15, Jesus says that he loves his disciples and calls them “friends”—but even there, he uses the word agape (divine love) and not philia (friendship love).

Some of you may be wondering about these distinctions, because Jesus spoke Aramaic Hebrew, not Greek.  And in the Aramaic, as in the English, there is no such distinction between words for love.  John was writing to a Greek-speaking community, and as such, he used the words they would have understood.  And, just as we’re able to infer the difference in meaning between the love we have for ice-cream and for our best friend, or of God’s love for us, John understood that the sort of love Jesus was teaching his disciples to share was agape-inflected.  All the Christian communities understood that.  Because agape – divine, unconditional, sacrificial, selfless love – encompasses and eclipses every other sort of love.

Christians from the earliest days understood that, imitating Jesus meant loving with a divine love that – as Paul described it – is patient and kind, not envious or arrogant or boastful or rude.  God wants us to love with a passion that does not insist on its own way, isn’t irritable or resentful, and that doesn’t delight in wrongdoing, but rejoices when the truth is told and acted upon.  This strong, vulnerable, resilient, divine love – this agape isn’t what’s natural or even easy for most of us.  We learn very early in life to guard our hearts, and to be sparing with our affection because it hurts when love isn’t reciprocated, or when it’s misconstrued, or manipulated.  God knows how that feels; better than any of us.  And yet, God loves … better than any of us.  And part of that love includes forgiveness and the invitation to try again.

And so, we practice – because nothing becomes habitual for us without practice.

Like Peter, we will have our rock-solid moments – those times when we get it right, and we participate in strengthening Christ’s church and mission in this world.  We may not have mountain-top moments exactly like Peter’s, but if we’re praying and paying attention to God’s presence and activity in our world, then we will have breath-taking experiences that confirm our faith and our hope.  And like Peter, despite having acknowledged Christ Jesus as our Savior, we are bound to have occasions when we deny our relationship with him, moments when we allow our fears or selfish desires to dominate.  But the wonderful thing about Christ’s agape is that it patiently asks us, as many times as we might forsake or renounce him, “[Name], do you love me?”  Inviting us to understand: “This patience, this kindness, this goodness toward me must be love”, hoping for us to accept it, along with the forgiveness that comes with it, inviting us to leave the past behind and start again.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] Matthew 16:18

[2] Matthew 17:5-8

[3] 1 John 4:18

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3LTR32dMgI

[5] John 13:34-35

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