Love Language

a sermon for Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

If you stop and think about it, we humans end up learning and sometimes even mastering a great deal of rather complex subjects and tasks over the course of our lives. We learn how to speak, read, and write. We learn how to tell time and do math. We learn how to drive and we learn how to budget money and other resources. We learn how to load the dishwasher like our spouse expects us to. Talk about complex things!

Artemis II crew

Just this past week the identities of the next four astronauts that will orbit the moon with NASA were announced. That mission isn’t scheduled to occur until 2024, so we know the next year for those four individuals is going to be filled with learning and putting to use some of the most advanced physics equations and techniques for anxiety management that humankind has ever dreamt up. We learn so many things that are really quite complex and really our growth and character and our success depend on that learning.

Love might be the most complex of all. And while so many other subjects come with explicit instructional time and sitting down to commit things to memory, love seems to be learned differently. How to experience and interpret love properly and then how to love others well is something we’re always discovering and unpacking from the moment we’re born—even before we realize that’s what we’re doing. There is no book or instruction manual on how to love. There are no flash cards or a test to pass or license to strive for.

And yet Jesus wants us to learn it. In fact, he wants us to know it so much and to get so proficient at giving and receiving it that he makes a commandment about it on the night before his crucifixion. He gathers his disciples around what we can assume was his Last Supper and tells them to “love one another as I have loved you.” And the best way he can think of to teach them about love in the moment is by showing them what it looks like. Love looks like this act of servitude. It looks like putting a brief pause in the conversation, getting up from the table, tying a towel around his waist, kneeling down to the floor and washing his disciples’ feet. This is never a task that a master or a teacher would do for his servants. It would be the other way around. Love, however, goes against the grain. It involves sacrifice and vulnerability. With this act that is carried out in silence and shock Jesus gives a lesson: each expression of love should have some humility in it. Otherwise, it is just a form of power.

How would you teach this concept of love? Is there something you would show or point to? Is there an act or gesture you would choose? For many years I’ve been drawn to Dr. Gary Chapman’s theory of the five love languages, based on his book that came out about 30 years ago. In fact, I often bring up the love languages in pre-marital counseling if the couple is not already familiar with them, but the love languages aren’t just for marriages. They apply within family relationships, friendships, workplace associations, and just about everywhere. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books and retreats and Bible studies built on Chapman’s five love languages and the term “love language” has kind of taken on a life of its own.

According to Chapman, who is an ordained pastor and counselor, the basic theory is that however you tend to receive love is also the way you tend to give it.  Everybody uses all of the love languages, but there tends to be one or two that rises to the top for each person. And there are five general languages: quality time, physical touch, acts of service, gift-giving, and words of encouragement. Those who prefer quality time tend to feel most loved when people give them undivided attention. For those whose love language is physical touch nothing speaks more deeply than a hug or hand-holding or maybe a backrub. Acts of service is love expressed through actions that mean something, like filling up your loved one’s tank with gas or taking a turn with watching the kids. Words of encouragement or affirmation is love through giving compliments and praise. And for those whose love language is gift-giving, nothing says “I love you” more than a heartfelt present that has been specially picked out.  You can run across the five love languages everywhere and I think this caught on so much because it has helped lots of people understand this complex but important idea of love and then put it into action.

It occurs to me that Jesus’ actions on the night before his crucifixion are all five of the love languages rolled into one. It’s like he is showing all the love in all the ways he possibly can. He is giving them undivided attention, even as there are other things he could probably be doing—praying, spending time alone. Instead he listens to their concerns and sacrifices his time to be there for them. There’s physical touch. He reaches out and holds their feet in his hands, scrubbing them. It’s kind of like Jesus gives a pedicure to his disciples. The act of service is that he humbles himself to clean their feet. He couples all of this with words of encouragement and affirmation, verbally pointing out that they are blessed if they do these things and that they are right for calling him their Teacher. And the gift giving is the entire donation of his life, of which these meal is the preamble.

Maybe that interpretation seems forced to you and that I’m reading something into it that isn’t there. Fair enough. But the point is that Jesus’ life culminates with this grand gesture of love. It is a love for us that fully embraces us and places us at the center of God’s heart. With one huge and selfless act, Jesus shows us how much God desires to show us love that will cleanse us and heal us and empower us to love others. With one costly expression of humility Jesus envelops us all in forgiveness.

Now, Jesus says, it’s our turn to listen to and speak the love language of Christ to ourselves and in the world. And so we share words of affirmation with others. We remind people they are beloved children of God and forgiven of sins on a regular basis. We perform acts of service, especially for those who are often overlooked by the world. Maybe that looks like building homes for people through Habitat or adding a handicap ramp to someone’s house. Appropriate physical touch could look like medical care, curing diseases, addressing someone’s bodily wounds in the way Jesus often does. Gift-giving is what the church does regularly through its offerings. People and congregations give sacrificially in order that God might use those gifts in our communities and around the world. And then there’s quality time. Those who follow Christ often just need to show love by sitting with others, especially those who are suffering or struggling, and giving them our undivided attention. I think of our Micah tutors who will sit with kids at Southampton Elementary. There was a wonderful photo of Cindy McClintock in our recent newsletter where she was reading to some children.

The five languages of love that Jesus demonstrates at the pinnacle of this life may be a helpful way to understand his command to love one another and to envision how the church should live. As he goes forth to his death he leaves us with the responsibility of demonstrating his humility and vulnerability in ways that free and cleanse each other. And we do this in world that is often hostile to God.

The recent Oscar-nominated documentary called A House Made of Splinters, shows the life inside a temporary shelter for neglected and abused children living on the front lines of the war in Ukraine. Young children are brought to this type of orphanage when they need to be removed from their families and relocated to a better environment. Many of their parents struggle with alcoholism or addiction, and many of their fathers have gone missing in the combat zone.

Unflinching in its approach, the film holds nothing back. You see the poverty and the run-down, dilapidated homes and buildings they live in and the dingy building that the shelter uses. The children are often dropped off in the middle of the night by police not knowing if and when they’ll be picked up by their parents. Many get sent to live in permanent orphanages if the women running the temporary shelter are unable locate a living relative who is capable of caring for the them.

It is hard to watch because many of the cases are so sad and severe. And yet even against these bleak surroundings of hardship and sorrow a community of love and hope emerges. Children form real friendships, many for what may be their first time. They take care of each other and watch out for one another. They learn how to be vulnerable with one another and are surprised at the life and joy that comes from that move. And the women who run the shelter consistently offer their compassion and their tenderness so that the children can experience love in some form. They are the ones who make a difference in the children’s lives. Around them the beginning of a deeper war rages, along with the by-products of that violence that wreak their havoc, but the sacrifice and humility in the shelter foster joy and growth.

Originally made to show the harm that war causes to society’s most vulnerable, A House Made of Splinters ends up being a film that shows the vital importance of love in all of its languages. But no matter how it’s spoken, given, or experienced, Jesus knows how complex it is, and so he leads the way. His charge to his followers, to you and me, is to become a shelter and school of love, a house made of splinters—splinters, perhaps, of a cross—a community that gives life to the world…a community that says, “Hey. This is really hard. But we’re gonna learn. And we have the best teacher. And, by God, he thinks we can do it.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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