I don’t know about you, but one thing I’ve been doing throughout our on-again-off-again quarantine, is catching up on some of the buzz-worthy, highly recommended movies that I never had a chance to see back when life was going at its more normal pace. And one of the best movies I’ve seen in that time is one called Pride, which was made in 2014 but is set in 1984 in the UK. Pride tells the true story of a group of young Lesbian and Gay activists in London who began a movement to support striking coal miners in South Wales.
These young activists saw the way that the rural miners were being vilified in the media, and marginalized by lawmakers, and attacked by law enforcement as they protested their conditions, and this group of “lesbians and gays,” as they called themselves back then, realized that each one of those struggles looked pretty familiar. So they began fundraising and marching and organizing to support these total strangers.
These incredibly forward-thinking young people saw how their struggles against discrimination intersected with the struggles of rural workers marginalized by geography and social class (and all this happened long before “intersectionality” was part of how we were thinking about systemic oppression!). These young folks got to work helping their neighbors in Wales, and raised a lot of money for them, the equivalent of about 80,000 British pounds in today’s currency.
Although unfortunately, the miners’ strike was unsuccessful, the relationship they miners had forged with the LGBT folks who’d come to support them, that relationship remained. When the time came for the following year’s Pride Parade, guess who came all the way to London to march with them in 1985? These miners from rural Wales.
The lesbians and gays ended up inviting the miners to lead the parade that year, and they did, even though their cause had been lost and the miners had nothing more to gain from the partnership. But they continued to support and advocate for gay rights anyway. (One of the Welsh miners’ wives even developed a bit of a taste for activism through that whole experience and went on to become the first woman elected to parliament from her district!).
Anyway, I find this story so touching because the collaboration of these two groups defies so many stereotypes that many of us, myself included, have about young, urban singles and families living and working traditional jobs in rural communities. But I love it because I think it shows what love looks like. Not candy-aisle love, but real, generous, action verb love. The kind of love Paul talks about.
There is a book I’ve been relying heavily upon over the past few months as I’ve been digging into Paul’s writing for this Fruit of the Spirit series, and the book’s called Paul of the People by Sarah Ruden. Sarah Ruden is not a theologian, but she is a practicing Christian and a scholar of classical languages, in particular Biblical-era Greek, the language the New Testament was written in. And she has extensive expertise in the other, non-Biblical Greek writing that was circulating around the same time that Paul’s letters and the Gospels were being composed. So one thing she’s really good at doing is noticing where Paul’s thought and the early church communities really stand out, culturally, from other Greek records and stories from the same time.
Ruden admits that she’s someone who always cringed a bit at the famous “love passage” we heard today. To her it felt a little too treacly, too impossibly aspirational, and the fact that our minds inevitably connect this love with romantic love adds a whole other layer of baggage. Because what person is really capable of loving like that 24/7, ‘til death do you part? The repeated refrain “love is this,” “love isn’t that,” it just felt more chastising than inspirational to her. And I get that.
But then, once Ruden had developed a mastery of Biblical Greek, she revisited the passage, and was quite surprised by what she found.
Our Bible translators translate this word for “love” in the indefinite, meaning it sounds like Paul is talking about just love in general, any love, all love. Which can make us feel like, if we’re not loving like this, is it even love at all? But Ruden points out that the Greek here is definite, meaning that it might be better translated as the love, as in, THE love is patient, THE love is kind. THE love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. This isn’t just any love, this is a particular, special, living kind of love that comes from God and is for us.
Ruden then goes on to point out something really dramatic about the grammatical structure of this passage. In our English version, this passage follows this steady rhythm of nouns and adjectives, love is patient, love is kind, love is this, love is that… But in the Greek the words wouldn’t be classified as adjectives, instead we have what Ruden calls “a mass of verbs,” and many of them are entirely unique to this passage, you don’t find them in other Greek writing from that time. Meaning that, Paul literally invented some of his own language to communicate what had been laid upon his heart to share about this special and particular love from God.
Ruden gives us a literal translation that sounds a lot more like: The love patients, the love kinds, the love no envies, the love no inflates-like-a-bellows (apparently that’s the Greek way of saying “not arrogant”), and so on it goes. It’s all the adjectives we know and love, but verbified. (See, I can make up words too!).
Ruden encourages us to take meaning from the form of the writing, and interpret this definite, specific, verb-obsessed love that God offers us, and think of it like an active agent, one that moves in us and through us intentionally and on purpose. She takes Paul to be saying (and I’m quoting here), “You know the right ways to feel? Turn those feelings into acts and perform those acts, ceaselessly” (213). That is what this specific, verbified love—God’s love, the love that the Spirit births within us, the love that baptizes us into God’s holy work—that is what this love equips us to do.
Which brings us to generosity. Specifically, the generosity exemplified by early church. This was a group of people whose ground-breakingly verbified love was made manifest in those early Spirit-filled communities. As we heard in the Acts reading this morning, people could see that the fruit was flourishing. Those first Christians were taking care of the ones in need. Their love was actively made known in their generosity.
I thought this Love passage would tie up our reflections on the Fruit of the Spirit nicely. It’s convenient that these verbs that THE love offers us overlap nicely with some of Paul’s Fruits of the Spirit, including love, patience, and kindness. I take Ruden’s message to heart, that this passage is not meant to chastise or shame, but rather to promise and inspire.
Much like the Fruit of the Spirit that God promises when we dwell in the Spirit, this love, THE love, too, is the love that God already provides us, that is glowing within us and shining out of us in every loving, patient, and kind gesture we make. In phone calls, in visits, in food pantries, in smiles to strangers, God’s love is made known in us.