The grandfather of one of my former students still speaks the native language of the Inuit, the indigenous peoples of Alaska. He says that there are 64 distinct words for “ice”, each signifying particular characteristics of a given type of ice. But, when grandfather tries to translate Inuit into English, it is virtually impossible. All 64 Inuit words have only one possibility in English. Something is always lost in the translation.
Many of the great French composers use the phrase, “a pleine voix”, as a directive to the performer. It means “in a full voice”….the word, “pleine”, meaning full. This indicates that a rich, sonorous sound is to be used. It would seem to reason that, if “pleine” means “full” in this phrase, the same word could be used in any other French sentence. But, if you finish a meal in Paris, push back your chair, rub your stomach, and say ” Je suis pleine”……meaning to say, “I am full”, be prepared to receive some startled looks from your dining companions if you are a woman of a certain age, or, certainly, if you are a man. Because, “je suis pleine”, means, “I am pregnant”! Something is definitely lost in the translation.
These are really very inconsequential examples of the limitations of translation. But, unless you read the common Greek language of the Apostle Paul’s time and place, you are at the mercy of translators to tell you just what today’s reading from his Epistle to the Galatians actually says. Despite the fact that there are many excellent translations for us to use, and no matter the skill and best intentions of the translators, something is invariably lost in the translation.
In this morning’s reading, Paul uses the word “love” 3 times. He teaches that we are to become slaves to each other through love. He reminds us of the great commandment of Jesus himself : “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. The very first fruit of the Spirit which Paul mentions is love.
At first reading, we may feel fairly secure in believing that we at least come close to living up to Paul’s expectations. But let’s consider the fact that, in Greek, there are 4 words he could have used in his letter. He could have used the word “eros”, which refers to a physical love. He did not. He could have used the word “philia”, which refers to the type of brotherly love we have for each other. But, noble as this kind of love is, it is not the word he used. Paul could have used the word “sorge”, meaning the type of love we feel towards parents, our children, and our siblings. I can’t imagine that the Apostle wouldn’t have wanted us to have such love, but even this wasn’t the word he chose.
Paul used the word “agape”…..meaning “self-sacrificial” love. Agape: love given without any thought whatsoever of getting anything in return. Agape: love which has no need to discern whether someone deserves or even wants such love. Agape: the love given without questioning the personal cost of showing it to those who are different from ourselves, or on the fringes of society. Agape: love which is concerned always with the recipient, and never with the giver.
We can find many examples of Agape in the Hebrew Scriptures. Abraham gave up all that he had ever known to move to a place which God didn’t even identify before his journey. Noah preached the word of God in spite of the derision of those to whom he preached. Samson willingly killed himself as he pulled the temple down in expiation for his own sins, and for the saving of his people.
The Gospels tell us of Joseph, who took Mary as his wife, in spite of the shame his society could bring upon him…. and of Mary, who said, “let it be unto me according to His will”. Salvation itself was based on the self-sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth, who gave himself to the cruelest of the Roman forms of execution, in order to restore a broken world to the perfection of God.
There is a myriad of examples from our own day which I could also present to you as illustrations of self-sacrificing love. But I want to share with you the example I know best. Despite the protests she would make at being labeled as an example of Agape, I know of no one who better exemplifies it than my own wife. During my years of being bedfast, unable to make any contribution whatsoever to my family, other than being a tremendous burden, she worked two full-time and one part-time job to keep her family solvent and provided for. I never once heard her complain. And when I said that I served no purpose, and prayed that God would allow me to die, she answered that my purpose was for my family to love. Our sons got up 1/2 an hour early every day before leaving for school, in order to carry in and stack firewood by the fireplace. My mother came over every day to put additional logs on the fire to help me combat the extreme cold my useless muscles felt. And she fed me, cleaned the house, and did the laundry, knowing that there was no time for Candy to do it. My father worked all day, then bought our groceries, carried them in, and put them away for us, then remained “on call” throughout the night to take me time after time to the Emergency Room to have transfusions.
And this wonderful parish provided and paid the insurance on a van with a wheelchair lift on it, so that I might come to worship. They also quite literally fed us several meals per week for over a year, knowing the hardships we were facing. And the amazing All Saints’ choir sang their hearts out for me, even when I was too weak to stand to conduct and sometimes even too weak to lift my arms to conduct. Sandy McGregor came early every Sunday, to be certain that he was there to meet the van, push me into the choir room for rehearsal, then into the nave, and to take me to the altar to receive the Holy Communion, then to see me securely hooked up in the van once more to go home. And I mustn’t forget my dear friend, Aldona Standridge, who came to the hospital every time I was there, who feeling somewhat like a bag lady bootlegging contraband food to me in the bottom of an oversized handbag!
I know what it is to be the recipient of Agape….the self-sacrificing love of today’s epistle….the love of Jesus Christ shown by my family and my beloved parish as they consistently proved that they loved me more than they loved themselves……sacrificial love which never considered the cost, nor asked for anything in return. I know what it is like to be one who receives the self-sacrificing love of true disciples of Christ. It is humbling; it is precious; it is costly to others; it is transformational.
My dear friends, let us not lose today’s Epistle in the translation. We are not commanded to love with eros, physical love, philia, brotherly love, or sorge, familial love. We are commanded to love with Agape….self-sacrificing love…..as we are guided by the Spirit to walk in the first fruit of Love.
May this be our constant desire and or constant prayer. AMEN.
A Sermon for The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
June 30, 2013
Br. Louis Welcher OP