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Philadelphia – What Makes the Not Perfect have Strength to Survive

Date: 12/07/2015/Speaker: Agetta Widjaya

Hebrews 13: 1-8 (taken from We Make the Road by Walking)

My name is Agetta. I am Indonesian and I’m a student of Jakarta Theological Seminary. I come from a traditional Presbyterian church which is trying to be progressive. I’m doing my third internship here so I will be here until August. I chose to do my internship here because I have been interested in issues on sexuality since I was in the second year of my theological study. I believe that sexuality is part of our lives so everyone actually deals with this issue, but only some of us have the courage to talk about it. I hope one day my church can be open to at least talk about issues on sexuality and it is only after that we can be open to all people regardless their sexual orientation and gender identity. Since FCC is the only church on the list that is open to all people regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, I chose FCC. I think there are so many things to learn here. I don’t believe in the sexual orientation and the gender binary, so for me there is no straight and gay. I believe that sexual orientation as well as gender identity is a spectrum.

Have you heard about a few types of love in Greek and Christian tradition? Well, in the New Testament, there are at least 3 words that is translated as love: eros which is known as the erotic or embodied love, philia or philadelphia which is known as friendship or brotherly love (it is usually translated as brotherly love, but I think a better translation in today’s context is the love of equals), agape which is known as the unconditional love, and some of the theologians added storge, the affection that is found in the relationships between siblings and family members. Do you think one is better than another? Think about it. Hold that thought. I want to show you a video first. It’s a story about two orphans with different abilities who love one another. They are called Ahmad and Fizi. Although they have been through difficulties in their lives, this love help them to survive.
What kind of love do you think they have? Most of Christians believe that those love compose a hierarchy which places eros on the lowest level, philia above it, and agape as the highest. Maybe you have been to other churches and heard other pastors preached about it. Maybe it was preached here in FCC. This idea was popularized by C. S. Lewis, the writer of The Chronicles of Narnia. Well, the hierarchy of love may be true for some. But for me, each love has its own beauty.

We often consider eros as the “not so good one” but I wonder if we can live without it. Imagine if your partner always gives everything they have to you and declare that he/she will die for you, but at the same time, they never touch you, hug you, kiss you, or show his/her affection to you physically. Wouldn’t you doubt that love? Wouldn’t you feel like ‘Do you really love me?’ None of us would even become Christians if the Word of God isn’t embodied in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. In-carnation (in the flesh). Emmanuel – God amongst us. Besides, we can see from the Scripture that agape is not the only love that has been suggested to be shared and done in our daily lives. My sermon today is based on Hebrews 13: 1-8. Let me read the passage for you.

Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you are in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. 4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. 5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 6 So we can confidently say,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
So, we see that in this passage the writer used philadelphia instead of agape. Why do you think that is so? Isn’t the unconditional love better than the love of equals?

My point of view here is really influenced by James Fredericks, a theologian who focused on interfaith dialogue. He sees the importance of philia in making friends with people who have different backgrounds, especially religious backgrounds (Fredericks 1999, 174). Agape is indeed a perfect love, which you give to someone even if the person doesn’t deserve it. When we are asked to give this perfect unconditional love, we shall love others no matter what. So in this relationship, the giver of the love is the better person. He or she must be a very nice person, honored, holy maybe, must have everything, etc. Meanwhile, the receiver of the love is the lesser person. He or she may be a terrible person, sinner, poor, just doesn’t deserve the love. But however, the giver still choose to love that person. This love includes the feeling of compassion and mercy and even pity towards the person.

If we remember the people on the video back then, they all seemed to see Ahmad and Fizi as pitiful kids. Maybe some of us see them in the same way. The people seemed to be sorry for the situations the two kids had to face. But for the two, there’s nothing to be sorry. In philadelphia, the giver knows exactly that what he gives can be returned back by the receiver. He is aware that the receiver is not worse than him, like the way Ahmad and Fizi sees each other. In Philadelphia, people see each other as equals. We choose some people to be our friends because we aware that maybe they are not perfect, but they have some qualities which make us have the willingness to love them: kindness, patience, understanding, etc. Love of equals makes us aware of all these things, and aware that we all possess the same love.

That’s why when Peter was asked this question by Jesus “Do you love me?” It was hard for him to answer. Jesus used the word agape in His question to Peter. Imagine someone that you acknowledge as the Son of God asks you, “Do you still love me even though I’m poor now? Even though people see me as a loser who blasphemed God and was crucified for what I’ve done?” Some people indeed saw Jesus that way. So the question was like “Do you feel pity towards me?” How do you feel? Peter’s answer makes sense and it is no wonder he was distressed. Who could still be happy to hear a close friend that you respect so much ask you the question that way? It is heartbreaking. And his choice to answer with philia is quite tough. It was like he had to convince Jesus that for him, He was still the same Jesus and their bond remained the same. The crucifixion did prove something, but it did not change their relationship and the love he had for Jesus.

The letter of Hebrew was written when most of the Middle East area and Asia Minor were controlled by Roman Empire, and Christians were persecuted by Jews. Some of them died as martyrs because of the persecution. The others were imprisoned and were tortured. However, there were some who were saved. This letter was written for them. To them, the writer exhorted that they should keep the love of equals, philadelphia. After that, he started to explain how to show love of equals in the situation they faced. They should show hospitality. In their tradition, hospitality is a treatment given to sojourners. So with the love of equals, whoever comes to your place and stays, you should treat them with the awareness that you are equal, that the people you welcome have the ability to do the same to you, and that they are as deserving of love as you.

In the next verse the writer said “Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them, and those ill-treated as though you too felt their torment.” So many Christians back then and now really like to judge. When someone gets in trouble, it means that person has done something bad. It was a common way of thinking. There might be some readers of Hebrews at that time who thought that way. So, when the readers’ friends were imprisoned or tortured, there were some of them who thought that it must be because those people did something wrong before. When someone’s blind, it is because his ancestors had done something bad. So, the bad situation they faced must have been caused by their mistakes, their sins. Through this letter, the writer wanted to show the reader that what they were thinking is not true. Because their leaders had faced so many bad situations, some even ended up dead. It was not because of their sins. It was because of their faith. So, actually the people who were not caught or tortured were no better than the people who were sent to jail or tortured. That’s why they must remember their brothers in prison as though they were in prison, and those who were ill-treated as though they too felt their torment. They should touch them with love of equals, and not the love shown by the holy to the sinful; the love which is not full of judgement and superiority, but understanding and equality. This love would make them realize the good things they have, including the love of equals that they too possess and give them strength to survive. It would empower them.

And now, how does this love matter to us? As human beings, we are all not perfect, yet we have struggles to face in our lives. Somehow we have pain inside us. But we are friends to others. We are brothers and sisters. I am actually a stranger here and I cannot speak English very well. I might make mistakes. I may offend you with my way of speaking even though I don’t mean it. I might be rejected because of many reasons. It is easier for me to just give up. So, since the beginning, I kept telling myself that I and people whom I would meet in FCC possess the same love, the love of equals, in our hearts, because we are all humans, plus you have the FREE slogan. First Realize Everyone’s Equal. And somehow that way of thinking helped me manage myself. It helped me conquer my fear. It gave me strength to survive. And you prove what I believed in.

I may not know all of you well, but I can sense the atmosphere of friendliness and acceptance among you. So, through this sermon, I want you to know that maybe we are not perfect, but we all have the love of equals in our hearts. There are people in this room who are still struggling. Some of us are still struggling with our family members and friends; some others are struggling with God; and even some of us are still struggling with our selves. But we don’t have to be afraid because we have family here and we are all connected with love of equals. There are people outside this church who are still struggling as well. We know some of them through the stories we heard last week. They are waiting to be embraced with the love of equals; the love that is shown by the not perfect; the love which is full of understanding. We are able to share this love with others, even in the worst situation, even in our imperfection. And through sharing this love, we together with our sisters and brothers will have strength to survive. And as we find the readers of this letter and their leaders were faithful, I believe that our way of loving each other will make people who come behind us find us faithful. Faithful in our struggle, faithful in our imperfection, faithful in our love, faithful until the end. Amen.

Fredericks, James. L. 1999. Faith among Faiths – Christian Theology and Non-Christian Religions. New York: Paulist Press.
Marshall, Howard, Stephen Travis, and Ian Paul. 2002. Exploring the New Testament vol. 2. London: Bath Press.