So, my Sunday sermon, "Animals of the Bible" was pretty well received, for the most part. Of course the "animals of the Bible" were, for the most part, the fox, the chicks, and the mother hen (although other animals, including my dog Scout, made brief appearances.)
One of my more learned parish members told me afterwards that she took issue with one sentence in my sermon: when I talked about how much the Mother Hen loves the chicks. As she told me, she just didn't buy it. It's centuries of evolution that make the hen behave in certain ways toward her chicks. It's not what we know as "love." That's way too anthropomorphic.
I gave her the point, and went home, thinking about the mother hen whose evolution has included dying for the sake of the brood, and wondering about the word "love," as we humans know it.
If we think of love as an emotion (and we do), certainly chickens do not "love" their babies, at least not in the way humans do.
But I am not sure that it's helpful, in Biblical terms, anyway, to consider 'love' as primarily an emotion. I'm not sure if it's even so helpful in human terms, actually. Is 'love' essentially the ability to feel really warm and connected to someone or something else? When Jesus says "Love one another as I have loved you," is he talking about how he feels about us, or how we should feel about each other? Or is it something else?
What is love?
Coincidentally, today I've been reading the children's book The One and Only Ivan. The book is the story of a gorilla captured when he was just a baby, and living in a cage in a small "circus" located in a mall. It's a lonely life. We get to imagine Ivan the gorilla's imagined thoughts and feelings in his cage, and know a little bit about his past. After he was captured, he lived as a sort of a pet with a man named Mack, who dressed him up and fed him hamburgers and let him live in his house until he got too big to manage. Then Mack took him to this sad little circus, where he became his keeper.
Later on in the story, some other people come to be concerned about Ivan, and the other animals who live at the Mall. They finally rescue Ivan, and help to re-introduce him to the kind of life he was born to. They know a lot about what is good for gorillas, because they've studied and learned about their needs and their lives. Before Ivan leaves though, Mack gives him a picture of the two of them from when Ivan was small. "Weren't those good times?" he reminisces.
I had a sudden realization: Mack thinks he "loves" Ivan.
What is love?
I don't know how the hen feels about her chicks, just that she feeds them, protects them, sometimes gives her life for them. And when Jesus asks us to "love one another, as I have loved you," he is bending down to wash their feet. He is not showing us how to feel, but what to do. He is not showing us how he feels, but what he is willing to do. That's how we know he loves us. That's how we know we love one another.
What is love?
It seems to me that the answer to this question means everything, not just for our faith in God, but our mission in the world. If it's true, that "they'll know we are Christians by our love," what is love?