Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

For Love of Lazarus


Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
            Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
            Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
            Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
 (John 11:1-6;21-22; 35-36; 43-44 ESV)

When John says, “He whom you love is ill,” and again when he says “Jesus loved Martha and her sister,” he is using the word agape.  But when the Jews comment on the scene, “See how he loved him!” they are using the word philios.  Both are translated in English as “love”.  The same juxtaposition is also present in John 21 (the restoration of Peter after the Resurrection), when Jesus twice asks Peter, “do you love (agape) me?”  And Peter twice responds, “Lord, you know that I love (philios) you.” 

I have always had trouble grasping the nuance between these two words.  I was always taught that agape was the love of God, and philios was the love between friends.  But that doesn’t come near to capturing what is going on here.

Archbishop of Dublin Richard C. Trench (1805-1886), draws a much clearer distinction when he writes, “The first [agape] expresses a more reasoning attachment, of choice and selection, from a seeing in the object upon whom it is bestowed that which is worthy of regard; or else from a sense that such is due toward the person so regarded, as being a benefactor, or the like; while the second [philios], without being necessarily an unreasoning attachment, does yet give less account of itself to itself; is more instinctive, is more of the feelings or natural affections, implies more passion.”  He also reminds us that agape is strictly a religious word – probably why we all learned it as “the love of God” – and does not appear anywhere in the secular literature of Jesus’ day. 

In writing his gospel, John exclusively uses agape to talk about his own relationship to Jesus.  When he uses the phrase, “the disciple whom Jesus loved (agape),” John talking about himself. 

Something wonderful jumps out at us from the text if we make the verbal distinction.  Unfortunately, English doesn’t have any precise way of capturing this.  That’s why almost all translations simply don’t try, and translate both words universally as interchangeable.  But they aren’t.  Look what happens when we paraphrase it just a little to make room for the nuance of meaning:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you have regard for is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
            Now Jesus had regard for Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
            Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
            Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how much affection he had for him!”

While agape is not in any sense cold and unfeeling, it is not a love motivated by passion.  It is a love motivated by value. Our sin has drained us, every one of us, of any regard of affection.  There is nothing lovely left about us.  Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  His regard for Lazarus was so great, his care for the object of his largest creative impulse so full, that, as John 13:1 says, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  Or, “having regarded his own who were in the world, he regarded them to the fullest extent.”  Raising someone from the dead or raising my soul from spiritual death is certainly the greatest extent to which the regard of agape could go!

But, when Jesus got to the grave of his friend Lazarus – not merely the object of a godly regard, but a true friend – Jesus wept openly.  He was overcome with affection for a man and his two sisters with whom he had shared so many intimate good times.  Jesus knew how the story was going to end!  He was not mourning.  He was weeping both in joy over the human connection that is deeply embedded in relationship and in sadness because, as both Martha and Mary had observed, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  His sadness is because he was so connected emotionally to them that it causes him painful grief to think that he was not there to go through this with them.

God could have loved you and me merely with the religious regard of Creator to Creature.  We could even understand the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross this way.  “God so regarded [agape] the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”  (John 3:16)  If that were the full extent of it, the righteous demand of the Law and of God’s nature would have still been satisfied.  But see how he loved us!  On his way to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday Jesus paused and wept over the city with a deep, passionate, human affection of the grief of love [philios].  You know the feeling when a beloved friend refuses to let his passions be moved by you?  It was that kind of grief.  

God’s love for you and me is an expression of the Trinity itself.  He not only loves us as Creator to Creature (agape); not only as a beloved friend who has walked through life together with us and has a deep affection for us (philios); but his love is deeper still.  There is a union of desire he has for us in the Holy Spirit, a union not of possession but of conjunction, that is expressible only in a word our sin has so corrupted that it now bears only a merely sexual connotation to us.  He desires us more deeply and more beautifully than any human lover could (eros).

Oh, how he loves you and me
Oh, how he loves you and me
He gave his life.  What more could he give?
Oh, how he loves you
Oh, how he loves me
Oh, how he loves you and me.
-- Kurt Kaiser (1975)

Jon

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