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Christian Expressions of Love

I recently visited Northern Ireland, on the invitation of Reverend Chris Wilson and Reverend Sam Peden, to see more of the churches and people within the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland - and, with a mix of nervousness and excitement, to preach at Dromore Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. This is part of the 'two way traffic' envisaged when the Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians was founded around 18 months ago and I feel honoured to be one of the 'pioneers' of this new initiative, recognising there is a long history of Christians from the Unitarian tradition 'going over the water' to Northern Ireland to serve with the Non-Subscribers.

Whilst in Belfast, my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing much of the rural areas around Belfast before visiting the city itself. I plan to write more in the near future about this side of things, particularly our walk around the Shankill Road and Falls Road areas - one of the faultlines of The Troubles - which has stayed with me since our return home.

We felt truly blessed to receive such a warm welcome from members of the NSPCI - we left around a stone heavier but with smiles on our faces!

Below is the sermon I gave at Dromore...


Good morning friends, thank you for inviting me here all the way from Stockport to lead you in worship today. It is a pleasure and an honour. I also bring greetings from other members of the Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians over the water in England.

Most here today will know that yesterday was Saint Valentine’s Day – a day with roots in varying myths and legends, one of which tells the story of the Saint secretly marrying Christians following a decree by the Roman Emperor Claudius II that outlawed such practices. 

This Feast Day has gradually become the largely commercial event we know today, with the exchange of cards, flowers, chocolates and other treats as an expression of love – or at least affection and interest. It’s also worth pointing out that Valentine’s Day has spread around the world to largely non-Christian countries including India and China, maybe a result of good marketing – or simply, an example of our increasingly shared humanity as the world gets smaller.

This morning I would like us to consider expressions of Christian love.

Love is one of those words in the English language that has a multitude of everyday uses and meanings. In one breath we might utter the words, “I love you…” to our partner expressing our commitment to them as husband or wife or fiancé. In another we might say the same to a parent, child or grandparent to express our commitment to them as family. And yet in another, we might say we love chocolate or pizza. Had I not been flying over the Irish sea yesterday, I might have well been singing – if you can call it singing - “We love you Wednesday, we do…” at eleven men on a football pitch in Sheffield with 20-odd thousand other football fans. And if we are talking commitment, then following a club like Sheffield Wednesday is just that!

But I wonder, how all this fits with common phrases in the Christian vernacular? Phrases like “God is love…”, “Love thy neighbour…” and “God so loved the world, he gave his only son…” How might we understand this love as Christians? How might we express this love as Christians? We might begin by reminding ourselves that Christian scripture is a translation from the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages of yesteryear. ‘Love’, as discussed in the original New Testament scriptures, is in fact not one word but four words - eros and storge followed by phileo and agape.


The first two words - ‘storge’ and ‘eros’ – are the most simply defined and tend to be discussed only briefly and implicitly in scripture. ‘Storge’ means the naturally occurring bonds that exist within family, between parent and offspring. It is alluded to in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and the Colossians, with calls for children to be obedient and parents to bring their children up patiently and faithfully.

‘Eros’, a word again only alluded to in the New Testament in scripture such as Matthew 19 and Matthew 7 means the naturally occurring intimacy shared by lovers. In many ways, this kind of love is the easiest to experience and express, part and parcel of our animal instinct. These are recognised as important to the Christian life in the Gospels with a call for them to be treasured as much as they are enjoyed – which is why the protective institution of marriage is viewed as so important.

But Christian love is more than this, exceeding and sometimes supplanting such love. This is where we find ‘agape’ and ‘phileo’ of which the Bible speaks more directly and with more urgency about.


Phileo, in the context of the Gospels, is a deep friendship. Something that is established, maintained and grown through a life together in covenant. We see this most obviously in the time Jesus and his disciples spent together, travelling together, worshipping together and eating together. Phileo is the church at work within - as a fellowship bonded together with a shared vision and experience of the divine, a covenant written on their hearts.

A commonly used example of phileo in the New Testament is found in Jesus and Peter. Peter, as we know, is eventually called ‘my rock’ by Jesus but their relationship takes in peaks and troughs. Although phileo tends to be more literally translated as ‘brotherhood’, it is also in the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, I propose, that we see another great example of phileo. Mary Magdalene is often confused with another Mary – Mary, sister of Martha, the sinner who washes Jesus’s feet – and therefore tends to have been viewed over the ages, and might I add wrongly viewed, as the reformed prostitute. And, then, there is another more recent theory that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife – why else, the proponents of this argue, would some Biblical scholars suggest she is the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved?

Yet, the relationship we see between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the New Testament is not focused on a physical or legally-sanctified relationship – it is more than this. Mary Magdalene is, we learn from recently discovered Gnostic scripture, the one Jesus shares his innermost thoughts with, she is a trusted listener. Mary Magdalene, if we look back to the New Testament, is also one of the few - when all appears lost with Jesus arrested, publicly humiliated and crucified as a charlatan at the hands of a ruthless dictatorship and baying mob – who remains present. Mary Magdalene is one of the few remaining followers who holds a faithful vigil at Jesus’s tomb, and in turn, becomes one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. 

We ourselves are not caught up in as strangely mystical, as dangerously political story as this – at least as far as we know we are not. Yet, I put it to you today, that we can draw comfort, hope and guidance from such stories about how we might to live in phileo with one another. Maybe we need to reflect on whether we are truly present for one another – what with all our modern-day distractions like mobile phones and the internet. Maybe we need to reflect on whether we are open with one another, whether we can allow the masks of ‘look how well we are doing’ to slip, share our doubts and fear, accept the help when we need it. And finally, and most importantly, I wonder whether we too can be like Jesus’s portrayal of the father and the prodigal son - forgiving unconditionally and welcome back those who have betrayed our trust.

If we are to love as the early Christians loved, then we surely we must try.


Finally, we have the third love – agape. In the New Testament, agape is unrequited love, selfless love, sacrificial love. The most creative love of all.

Jesus gave the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of love purely for the sake of others, even for those who may care nothing at all for us, or even hate us, as the Jews did the Samaritans. This love is not based on a two-way relationship, a transaction, a feeling even. It is a love that is that does not say “I will love you in order to…” or “I will love you if…” It is a state of being, an act of will rooted in a profound experience of God. It is the love that says confidently, yet quite dispassionately, “I will love you because this is who I am and who you are.”

But Jesus does not simply muse or pontificate about love, he becomes love in action – touching those viewed as untouchable, spending time with those declared impure and demonic, all in pursuit of healing them, bringing them into a more joyful existence, bringing them back into relationship with God.

This bursting forth of agape reaches a crescendo in the cross, where Jesus gives over his life. There are different interpretations across Christianity at what ‘dying for us’ means exactly, but we can say simply Jesus gives over his life for the cause of agape. And we know full well, that this love in action is representative of God in action – for we are told repeatedly in the Gospels that God is agape.

So, let us remind ourselves; Jesus doesn't just direct debt, giving from a distance – not that this is to be scorned at. But Jesus does go a step further, he goes out there and meets people where they are at, he holds his own hand out to the beggar, to the diseased, to the sinner and touches their hand. I wonder, are we willing to do the same? For this is the challenge of loving as a Christian, this is the challenge for the church operating out there in the world.

Friends, in the Quaker text we heard earlier, it is said “Christianity is not a notion, but a way.” We could sit and speculate from now until next Valentine’s Day, and to the next and the next and the next, about the nature of God, about the relationship between Father and Son, about the historical accuracy of the Gospels – but if we are to grasp the heart of Christianity, to become truly human, then surely it is to practice love - disciplined love, nurturing love, selfless love. Amen.