The Beatles song "All You Need is Love" is one of the most enduring anthems of the '60s generation. Even if you are not a Beatles fan, you probably have heard it on the radio, in commercials, or even at the movies. Last time I heard it, I noticed for the first time the song really just has that one line -- "All you need is love" -- sung over and over and over again.
Now I'll admit it's a catchy tune, but the lyrics don't ever tell us why you need love, what purpose it serves, or anything else that is particularly insightful.
Here's what I mean: "There's nothing you can know that isn't known. There's nothing you can make that can't be made." And my least favorite - which I still don't understand - "Nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be."
There is also an insipid quality to the song that after awhile almost forces the listener to join in with the group. You can't help grabbing a tambourine, putting some flowers in your hair, and singing along.
At this point most of you have figured out that I was always more of a Bob Dylan fan. But I still own a copy of my favorite Beatles' record, "Rubber Soul," and when the song "Revolution" comes on the radio and the kids are not in the car, I turn up the volume all the way.
But when it comes to offering reflections on love, it's probably better to look to ancient Athens and not Liverpool, England.
In the Greek world of Jesus' time they had four different words they used to describe the varieties of love they saw in the world around them.
First, there was what the Greeks called storge, or affection, that is best described as the love between parents and their offspring.
Next, there was philia, the love between two friends that was much celebrated in the ancient world but is less popular today.
The third love is our cultures' own favorite, which is eros, or erotic love, that is used to describe the feelings of two people who are in romantic love and desire each other sexually.
And, finally, there is what the Greeks called agape, or what was translated in the old King James Version of the Bible as charity, which is the type of love that is freely given but does not necessarily expect anything in return. This is the kind of love that Paul describes in his First Letter to the Corinthians in the 13th chapter when he says love is patient and love is kind.
Most folks have heard this read at weddings but as you can see Paul is not really talking about eros but agape. And it is this type of love, agape, that has shaped the Christian tradition for almost 2,000 years.
As a side note, it is interesting to know that the ancient Greeks actually didn't think much of this type of love. They thought love was not worth having unless you got something out of it. And because agape is freely given to others, it does not by its nature involve the obligations of parenthood, marriage, or friendship.
This is, though, the great love that the fourth gospel tells us was given to humanity through the gift of God's Son: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.
And stories from the Gospels like the one this morning describe the encounters that Jesus has with people that are grappling with the implications of this type of love in their lives.
When I read stories like this, I am struck by the all-too-human desire that many of us have to try and understand God's love in the first three ways and not give God credit for that kind of agape love that was given without condition.
People that encounter Jesus time and time again in the Gospels want to insist that God's love is something that must be earned. Take, for example, today's lesson from Mark's Gospel, which tells the well known story of a man who seeks out Jesus and asks him the question, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" This story of Jesus' encounter with the man is found in three out of the four gospels, and each gospel writer reports the story in much the same way.
An unnamed person approaches Jesus and asks him what he needs to do to live forever. How does he go about earning God's love or in this case salvation for his soul?
After giving the person a brief review lesson on the Ten Commandments-do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother-the man tells Jesus that he has observed all these since his youth. He has, as I mentioned before, done all that he can to earn God's love.
Jesus tells him that he lacks only one thing. Go, sell what you have, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.
The narrator tells us that when the man heard this he grew sad, and he went away because he had lots of possessions.
Now although the story appears to be the same in all three gospels, there is a critical difference between Mark's version and the accounts in Matthew and Luke. And it hinges on this concept of our Lord's love for this individual.
And Jesus looking at him, loved him-loved him-and said to him, you lack one thing, go sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven and come and follow me.
Matthew and Luke, for some unknown reason, lost these two important words "loved him" when they wrote down their versions of this familiar story. So we are left to ponder the question, why, why, Luke and Matthew decided to drop the part of the story that described Jesus' love for the man? Maybe they thought that someone who had the type of wealth this person had did not need any sympathy from Jesus.
In this way they remind me of that fellow, James Frey, who wrote "A Million Little Pieces." Do you remember him? In his case Frey chose to exaggerate his own awful behavior to make his story seem more compelling. Perhaps this is what Matthew and Luke had in mind. They did not want their readers to have any sympathy for the man who had come to Jesus looking for spiritual guidance. They wanted him to appear as a true bad guy who was outside the circle of God's redemptive love.
Then, again, maybe the Gospel writers just thought that Jesus' love didn't matter. It was self-evident in all of our Lord's actions in his earthly life and it was redundant in the story for them to say it. Yet, the more I think about it, their exclusion of these two words, loved him, continues to bother me.
Christians believe that God's love was freely given through the life, the death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This new life given through our baptisms continues in the lives that we live as Christ's disciples in the world today.
We are called as Christians to share God's love with all other people. For God's love to be true to its own selfless nature, it cannot be a love that has any conditions.
As it says in Scripture, we did not choose God but God chose each of us. And it is the very essence of God's nature that he loves his creation and he loves all of us. In fact, when Matthew and Luke made the decision to exclude these two words, loved him, from the story to my mind they, in a sense, de-humanized Jesus. They take away the power of God's choice and the depths of the great love that Jesus always felt for all the people that he encountered in his earthly life.
Yes, my friends, Jesus loved this unnamed and unknown man, even if our Lord told him things about himself that he did not want to hear.
And in our world today, Christians expend countless amounts of energy fighting about whom God chooses to love. That, to my mind, is a tremendous waste of time, and I think God would find most of these efforts to be insulting and slightly amusing.
In fact, I don't believe in the sort of God that would limit or place conditions on his love. And in our search for a closer relationship with our Creator, we must recognize that at the heart of the Gospel is the clear and resounding message that God's love is made available to all of us no matter who we are.
The key to our story is that each individual has to decide whether to accept God's invitation, and this helps get me to my final point, and it is an aspect of the story that Matthew and Luke missed.
Our Gospel tells us the man who came to Jesus decided to reject the love that he had been offered. He was not ready to make the kind of changes that were necessary to follow our Lord and he turned away from God's love, sad and depressed.
However, if this wealthy man had been receptive to God's love, this divine love would have left no part of his life untouched or unchanged. And I suspect that is what ultimately frightened him away.
One of my favorite writers, George MacDonald, a 19th-century preacher, put it this way when he wrote: "All that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love's kind, must be destroyed. And our God, our God is a consuming fire."
His point is that once we make the decision to leave behind what we think we love and follow Christ, that is when God begins to go to work on our lives. For MacDonald, it is the essence of God's nature that it will destroy all that is not beautiful and refashion our lives to be ones of true holiness. It is, as I said before, a gift freely given, but the man in our story wasn't ready to have this kind of love and ultimately resurrect his life. He was still, like so many of us today, trapped in a world of love that involved obligation and commercial transactions.
Yet, Holy Scripture tells us so many stories about people whose lives were transformed when they made the decision to return God's love.
Jesus' mother, Mary, said yes to God's love and gave birth to the savior of our world.
Zaccheaus, the tax collector that nobody liked, went up a tree to see Jesus and climbed down a new man.
St. Paul set out to destroy the Christian church and after being knocked off a horse by God's love had the opportunity to find a new purpose to his life.
And each day of our lives in this fallen world you and I are faced with the same decision. We can live out lives of love searching for what is in it for us, seeking fulfillment solely in our roles of obligation. Or, my friends, we can say yes -- yes, to Christ's love and let the various earthly loves of parenthood, spouse, friendship be transformed by the power of God's selfless love for all of us. This gracious invitation awaits each of us whether spoken or unspoken by our God.
And Jesus looking at him, loved him -- and thank God, thank God, He did. Amen