Everyone thinks it’s Eros, but that’s because they’ve got the wrong brother. They look very similar. Even their mum probably got them mixed up. The statue is Anteros, the brother of Eros. Eros is the Greek god of love and sex. Anteros is the Greek god of selfless love. This matters. The statue of Anteros was paid for by the people of London to remember the life of the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, who died in 1885. Please don’t give up on me. I know I have moved from obscure Greek mythology to obscure dead aristocracy but I am going somewhere wonderful.
I reckon Shaftesbury is one of the greatest ever Britons. He is responsible for outlawing children working in factories. He also took the children out of the mines. Both of these laws were bitterly opposed by his rich mates, whose fat profits depended on being able to employ children on miniscule pay to do hard work. Shaftesbury also outlawed children going up chimneys, because what Mary Poppins never explained is that sending boys up chimneys was abusive and frequently lethal. And there’s more. Shaftesbury also drove through the legislation to improve the conditions of the mentally ill. They used to be chained to their beds for the whole weekend, while the staff went home. You can imagine what those wretched people looked like on a Monday morning when Shaftesbury took a tour of their hospital. And finally, Shaftesbury was responsible for the first schools for the poorest children. He took the children of our nation out of mines, factories and chimneys and put them into schools.
Stand at the statue of Anteros and you can look down Shaftesbury Avenue. Because he flattened the slums that stood there to give London’s poorest better homes, the grand avenue that took their place was named after him. Where did Shaftesbury’s passion for the poor come from? Christ. Where did his Christian faith come from? Not his family. For a large part of his life, his father refused to speak to him, because Shaftesbury’s care for the farmers on his estate meant that the family’s income dropped through the floor. He spent money on the poor instead of squeezing them to pay him more.
The nameless nanny who sat the toddler on her knee and spoke to him of Jesus Christ is where Shaftesbury’s Christian faith came from. So, lesson one: if anyone ever questions the value of preschool ministry, please send them to Piccadilly Circus and don’t let them come back until they’ve got the message. 40per cent of the UK Church in 2017 said they came to faith under the age of 5. Boom!
Do you see why Shaftesbury needed a statue of Anteros, not Eros? Anteros is the god of selfless love. Shaftesbury was the embodiment of selfless love. He didn’t worship the god of selfless love, he worshiped the God who is selfless love.
“God is love” (1 John 4:8). That word ‘love’ is the Greek word agape. God’s agape love is always selfless. Because God does not need to receive love. He is enough without the love of others. He didn’t create us because he needed our love. He created us because he chose to love us.
CS Lewis put it bluntly: “God is a ‘host’ who deliberately creates his own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and take advantage of him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.”
That picture is painful to read and ponder. God chose to be the rotten meat so that the maggots could have life. He created us so that we could have life, not so that he could benefit. That is true selfless love! I am sorry to describe you and me as maggots. All of us take exception to that description at first glance. It’s offensive. But Shaftesbury lived that offensive story. Why did Shaftesbury show love to the children, to the mentally ill and to the poor farmers? Was it because he longed for their love? Was it because they would one day pay him back? Did he crave popularity? Was it his get-rich plan? No. He loved the weak, the forgotten, the oppressed and the hopeless because God had shown him that love first.
“This is love: not that that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Amazing love. Authentic love. Divine love. Love is not that we loved God. Love is that God loved us, when we were not loving him. This is the love Christians celebrate every day, not just on Valentine’s Day.
I think it’s erotic love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. The difference between Eros and Anteros, the difference between erotic love and selfless love, is striking. Erotic love is not wrong or dirty. It is the opposite. It is beautiful. It is God-given. But erotic love must be ruled by selfless love. Erotic love on its own will tend to be short-lived and selfish. Erotic love starts to see the partner as the one who provides satisfaction, who supplies what I need and who performs on demand. Truly beautiful erotic love is mastered by God’s grace to look to the needs of the partner first, to seek to encourage with God’s truth and promises to be long-lasting, no matter what.
An older man in our congregation has just buried his wife. For the last five years she suffered with dementia. By the end she could not feed herself, stand or speak. She could only sit. Every single day, without exception, her husband sat next to her for every moment that her nursing home allowed. Presumably a long time ago, their relationship was fired by erotic love. His devotion to her has been fuelled by selfless love. He has shown true Christian love. That is a work of the Spirit in his life. That is a love worth celebrating on Valentine’s Day.
And the encouragement of Christian love is that it is available and freely given to all, not just those who are married, or those who have a girlfriend or boyfriend, or those who are fancied by another. The ultimate love that truly satisfies is available to all through Jesus Christ. He loved not because we are lovable, or attractive, or married, but because he is love. By his Spirit he is transforming our love. Because of the sin of others, we constantly need to show love that is more like God’s love. And our Christian brothers and sisters constantly need to love us like that, because of our sin. That love will continue into the new creation, where every day will be a celebration of love.
Our world is confused about love. Too many people long for the temporary thrill of being in love. The love that satisfies is found in God. His love is selfless and by his Spirit our love for others is being transformed into his love. His love for us and through us is a love worth celebrating every day.
Dear Father, thank you that you are love. You are the source of all love. Your love totally satisfies. Thank you that at the cross we see your love. Thank you that every day we can enjoy your love. Thank you that you are changing us to show your love to others. Amen