By The Rev. J.C. Austin
Do you ever hear a song and it takes you back to a particularly significant moment or season or event in your life? Perhaps the song was literally playing when it happened; perhaps it simply encapsulates the memory in some perfect way. Sometimes the emotional reaction to hearing it is one of warmth and happiness; sometimes it is one of pain or fear.
When I was a high school wrestler, I used to warm up before my matches while listening to hard-driving rock music to get my adrenaline flowing, and hopefully my confidence with it, while the wrestlers in the weight classes below me were competing. And for many years afterwards, when I would hear songs that had been part of my wrestling music, the hairs on the back of my neck would literally start standing up. But of all the songs that I have that kind of reaction to, the one that for years stimulated fear in me the most was, by far, “Endless Love.”
“Endless Love” was not on my wrestling playlist. You’ve probably heard the song even if my mentioning it doesn’t ring a bell. It was a monster hit for Diana Ross and Lionel Richie in 1981, and Billboard magazine later ranked it as the greatest duet of all time in popular music.
It is an epic love ballad with soaring harmonies over a beautiful piano and strings accompaniment, and lyrics like, “I’ve found, I’ve found in you, my endless love.” So not the kind of song that would get you hyped for a wrestling match, nor one that would normally inspire fear or anxiety. But that happened to be the song that was playing when my first-ever “date” went tragically, spectacularly wrong, at least in sixth grade terms.
I was sitting in my classroom at Cetronia Elementary School over in Allentown, and I got a note from a girl that I often talked with between classes or worked with on group projects; we’ll call her Mary. Out of nowhere, Mary sent me one of those notes that basically said, “Will you go out with me? Pass it back with your answer.” I, of course, said yes, and then the question was, where and when? She suggested the roller skating rink at Dorney Park that Saturday, which was a popular hangout for the girls in my class. I agreed.
Which, in hindsight, was where things actually went wrong, I just didn’t know it yet. Because the problem was, I had never even been on roller skates a single time in my entire life. But in the rush of excitement I felt at this invitation, I thought, “well, how hard can it be? I’ve seen people do it. You just sort of glide along on the skates.”
As it turned out, that kind of reckless confidence rivaled that of Icarus in Greek mythology, the guy who created wings of wax that allowed him to fly, only to crash in spectacular fashion when he arrogantly flew too close to the sun and his wings melted and sent him plummeting into the ocean. When I met Mary at the rink, she was there with a couple of friends already. I strapped on my skates and stepped out onto the rink, and immediately recognized this was going to be much harder than I thought.
I managed to stay on my feet for the first, agonizingly slow and awkward trip around the rink, frequently clutching the rail, and eventually a second and I think a third. But it was not pretty, and I could tell Mary was rapidly proceeding from excitement to concern to disappointment. That’s about when “Endless Love” came on, mocking me with its beautiful harmonies amidst the dissonance of my ineptitude, which then sprang into full flower around the second chorus when I began drifting out into the middle of the rink like a rudderless boat, unable to stop or turn, and got knocked off my feet by a fast-moving skater who didn’t see me.
My knee went down so hard on the side of his skates that I couldn’t stand on it again for hours, and I had to pull myself along the floor of the rink to get out of it like I had just been shot, with Mary and her friends looking on in horror. Not surprisingly, Mary passed me a “let’s just be friends” note that Monday, and that was the end. To be fair, I wasn’t expecting an “endless love” out of that, but I did think we might at least make it through the week!
That story encapsulates so much of how we often talk about love in both its most idealized sense and the lived reality of it. The song, obviously, is about a love that is endless and perfect: “There’s only you in my life, the only thing that’s right; you will always be my endless love,” and so on. And it’s easy to get swept away by that concept of love, a sense that yes, a flawless and endless love may be rare, but it’s possible, and that kind of eternally perfect love is the thing above all things that we should desire and seek.
The problem is, probably the quickest and surest way to bring love to an end is to insist on it being flawless or perfect, because if human beings are involved, it’s not going to be perfect. Even the most devoted and lasting and beautiful love relationships have their moments and seasons of disappointment, conflict, pain, and fear. And if that leads us to the conclusion that because it isn’t perfect, it isn’t good, then it won’t be long before that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and that love is brought to an end.
One of the things I appreciate most about the Presbyterian tradition is its relentless realism about the persistent imperfection of humanity. It’s why, in worship, we have a Prayer of Confession in every service, because we know there are always going to be things we’ve done or haven’t done that create distance or even conflict between ourselves, each other, our neighbors, and God. It’s why we always have a Prayer for Illumination before the Scriptures are read and the sermon is given.
What we’re asking for there is the help of the Holy Spirit to hear what God is saying to us in Scripture and sermon so we can accept it and apply it in our own lives and faith and ministry, and without God’s help, there’s a good chance that either the hearer or the preacher or both will get some important things wrong! To insist, instead, on a flawless faith or love, for ourselves or for others, is to set ourselves up not only for disappointment, but for adding to imperfection by pretending like it doesn’t exist, or at least it doesn’t have to, and thus judging ourselves and/or others far too harshly for having any imperfection as a result.
Which is why this passage from John’s first letter can be so problematic if we’re not careful, where he talks about God’s love being “perfected in us” and that “perfect love casts out fear” and “whomever fears has not reached perfection in love.” Well, I mean: who doesn’t fear, at least sometimes? And if that’s the case, then doesn’t that mean that nobody can reach perfection in love?
Which would be fine with a suitably Presbyterian perspective on things, but John certainly seems to be saying that perfection in love is not only possible, but expected. He even goes so far as to say that “Love has been perfected among us in this…because as he is, so are we in this world.” There’s a big, big difference in saying that we should strive to be more Christ-like as Christians and saying that, if we love one another well enough, God will abide in us and love will be perfected in us.
And Christians throughout the centuries have done immeasurable damage to themselves and others by insisting on the attainment of a perfect life and faith, meaning pure and clear and unblemished; becoming a “paragon” of love, in other words, which is a term for a large and perfect diamond, without discoloration or impurities.
The thing is, that’s not what John is calling us to in this passage. It is telling that in our language and culture, the words “perfect” or “perfected” are synonyms for something being or becoming “flawless” or “pure,” like the desired quality of a diamond. That is not the case with the Greek word that John uses in his letter; it gets translated into English as “perfect,” but what it really means is “end.”
Not end as opposed to endless, which is how we usually hear it, but end in the sense of the fulfillment of a purpose, like when we say, “to that end, I will do such-and-such,” meaning that we are going to take an action that will help fulfill a particular purpose. So it has nothing to do with something being perfect, flawless, or pure; it has to do with something being fulfilled, whole, complete. John is not talking about love in the sense of a perfect diamond, but love in the sense of a filled-up glass, holding every drop it can possibly contain, because that is the greatest fulfillment of the purpose of the glass.
So a better translation of the most central verse in this passage would be something like, “Love has been fulfilled among us in this” (not perfected, but fulfilled): “that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but complete love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached completion in love.”
Do you hear the difference? Struggling with fear is no longer an imperfection or an impurity, but simply a sign that our love still has room to grow; it is not yet complete. It is an acknowledgment of incompletion rather than imperfection. And that is a very, very important difference, because a diamond cannot be made more perfect, more pure; it is either perfect, or it is not, and that determines its value once and for all.
But a glass is something very different: it doesn’t matter whether you call it half-empty or half-full, because either way it can still be filled up, still fulfill its purpose to hold as much life-giving water as it is possible for it to hold. You just need to add more, that’s all. And as long as the glass still exists, there is always time to do so.
“Love has been fulfilled in us in this…because as he is, so are we in this world.” That is the end of love in and through Jesus Christ; the purpose, the fulfillment of that love: that as he is, so are we in this world. The purpose of Christ’s love is to fill up so much with it that we are like Christ in this world: living lives of loving service to God and our neighbors. And that calling can be both intimidating and inspiring.
It is intimidating if we try to be Christ-like in terms of perfection, but that is not actually what we are being called to do or be. What’s truly inspiring is that we are not called to perfection, but fulfillment: we are called to be filled up with Christ’s love and share it with others as he did, knowing that is the end, the purpose of that love, and knowing that love is also endless in the best and truest sense.
That we are like a glass being filled from a river of God’s love, a river that never runs out and never runs dry; a river to which we can always return, over and over, whenever we are feeling empty; a river from which we can be filled anew once more, because there is always more than enough of God’s love to have, more than we can possibly ever hold for ourselves, more than enough for us to share with even the most parched places and people of this world and still have more than we need.