How do I love thee? Trinity Sunday, 5/27/18 How do we know we’re loved? And how do others know we love them? It’s very mysterious, this four-letter word that we use as a noun, or just as effortlessly, a verb. So mysterious is the concept of love, however, that philosophers and theologians have written volumes and volumes down through the ages to define it, categorize it, nail it down somehow, or even put it in a box. And mostly their tomes have been admirable, but not quite adequate. So, though it may be presumptuous for me to attempt to continue the discussion left lacking by the greatest thinkers of the world, I will anyway.
Though I can’t hope to articulate the existential nature of Love, I have experienced it, given and received it, felt the power of it, and known the ecstasy of its presence. So, shamefully oversimplifying, I’d like to propose a theory, not of what Love is, but of what The Signs of Love are. Specifically, the three essential signs that alert us to the presence of Love. Three elements that must be present for us to know or to express love. And if any of these three signs of love are missing, we should question if what we’re feeling is really love. See if this sounds right to you.
The first sign of love has to do with actions, the acts of love are both performed and received. It starts with attentiveness; we’re singled out and made to feel special. Then there follows loving acts: kindnesses and generosity, consideration and patience, encouragement and support. They all go together to give us the first notions that we are loved, whether romantically or in friendship. Paul expresses the types of action of love I’m talking about in his letter to the Corinthians. He says that Love is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud or dishonoring or self-seeking, but it protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. So he tells them to agree with one another, live in peace, greet one another with a holy kiss, and the love of God will be among you. All those actions begin to tell us that we’re loved.
But it doesn’t stop there – not if it’s true love, because love is more than just loving acts. The second sign of love has to do with words. We’re told, “I love you.” And sometimes the way we’re told is very convincing. One of my favorite writers is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a poet and an author and one of the most articulate lovers of all time. Her Sonnet #43 is, for me, the greatest expression of love ever written. You know it, I’m sure. It begins:
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach. . . "
Barrett Browning’s words express what love is in a way that touches our heart somehow and makes us say, “Yes, that’s love.” But even Barrett Browning’s words fall short of fully describing what love is. Because love is one of those realities that is impossible to adequately express only with words. Go ahead, try it. Whatever you say, it won’t be enough. Words, no matter how beautiful, can’t fully express true love. And even when they’re combined with acts of love, we may still not have love. Because love is more than actions and words. And that brings us to the third sign of love.
The third sign is something we can’t perceive with any of our five senses. We can’t hear it, see it, smell it, taste it, or touch it, because the third sign isn’t externally perceived. The third sign is perceived internally, in our hearts, and even though it’s invisible in all ways, it’s the most powerful sign of all. It’s what we might call the Spirit of Love.
You know it. It’s that feeling within that the one you love is not just “the other” but an actual part of you. It’s a longing for him or her, and the knowledge that he or she longs for you. It’s unspoken and unseen, yet somehow ever-present. The Spirit of Love completes the reality of Love, its power combining with our feeble attempts to communicate through action or words, and Love, the inexpressible, is known.
And it seems that’s the way God has chosen to love us too, through actions, words, and through the Spirit of Love.
1) Take action first: God has come and continues to come to us through acts of Love. The acts of Creation – as small as the creation of a blade of grass, to the infinite creation of the Universe. God creates each of us, and that act of love astounds us as it astounded the Psalmist in Psalm 8, who says: When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, * the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, What is [humankind] that you should be mindful of them? * the son of man that you should seek him out? You have made him but little lower than the angels; * you adorn him with glory and honor. . . That’s a powerful statement of the action of God’s Love in the world. But there’s more action that God has taken and continues to perform in the universe, more than I can name. But you know what they are. Try naming them sometime when you’re having trouble going to sleep.
2) God’s Love is not just in actions though. God’s love is found in the Word too. The Word that God spoke in the Creation story: “Let there be Light” Let there be water, sky, sun, moon, stars, land. Let there be vegetation, creatures of the sea, birds of the air, creeping things and wild animals upon the earth. And the most loving words for us, “Let us make humankind in our image.” More words of love: The words that were spoken through the prophets, the words of God Commandments, and The Word, with a capital “W” that John’s gospel tells us was in the beginning, the Word that was with God and that was God, the Word that “was made flesh and dwelled among us.” God’s love is found in the Words that Jesus spoke to us, and the words that Jesus left with us as he ascended, saying “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and” spread the Word. All these words inform us and assure us of the Love of God. Add that to the mighty acts of God, and it probably would have been enough for us to know that we’re loved by God, don’t you think?
3) But God wasn’t finished: God loved us one more way – through the Spirit that is Love, the Holy, Holy, Holy Spirit of God. That invisible yet very intimate, very present Spirit that animates us, inspires us, indwells us. That which we know, not by action or words, but by our heart-knowing. The Spirit that was breathed into you at your birth. The Spirit that may have come to you in tongues of fire, or in the still small voice of silence. The Holy Spirit of Love that surpasses all attempts to describe it.
Love, known beyond doubt through the presence of Three Signs. One Love, Three Signs. Sort of a “Trinity” of Love, wouldn’t you say? I bet you wondered if I’d ever get around to that tie in, huh?
But of course, the Holy Trinity is more than the limiting “signs” I’ve given it. And probably our best shot at describing the Trinity is simply to say “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But couldn’t we also describe the Trinity as a perfect expression of the three signs of Love? God in action; God in Word; God in Spirit. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Sustainer, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. What it finally boils down to is that The Blessed Trinity is for us, the epitome, and the model of Love for all times.
So I leave you with more questions than answers: How can we possibly explain the Trinity? How do we explain God? How do we explain Love? And how do I end this sermon? Well, I’d like to end it by praising, thanking, and expressing our love to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, borrowing the best Words of Love that I’ve ever heard spoken. Let us pray:
Dear Triune God, How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of being and ideal grace. I love thee to the level of every day's Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for right. I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if [you] God [should] choose, I shall but love thee better after death. Amen. Elizabeth Barrett Browning The Rev. Diana Peters