Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
Over the past few weeks, we’ve listened to Jesus describe God and himself in ways that his listeners might be able to better know and understand God. The images he uses, the bread of life, the vine and the branches, and the Good Shepherd, offer glimpses into the nature of God. For those who heard these illustrations for the first time, Jesus’ metaphors would’ve been both familiar and challenging. Familiar in that many were already spoken of in the Psalms or other texts of the Old Testament; challenging in that the images often pushed the limits of people’s vision of God.
Yet what is striking about these images is that throughout salvation history we’ve come to know God not through visions of God but rather by what God has done in human history. We know God not by sight, but by the way God relates us to us. While we are inclined to cultivate images of God, those images fail to fully convey who and what God is. In fact, all images of God fall short of the real thing. St. Paul makes this point even more bluntly when he tells us that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” (1 Cor. 5:7)
Rather, if you want to know God, you must first come to know love, as St. John writes in the first part of the epistle we read today:
Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:7-10)
As I shared last week, Jesus challenges his listeners’ preconceived notions of God and invites them to imagine a more expansive view of God. In fact, by his very life and death, Jesus transforms our experience of God. Recognizing the significance of this, St. Paul notes in his letter to the Philippians that God humbles and empties God’s self in the person of Jesus Christ, even to the point of death, death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-11) The God we come to know in Jesus Christ is a God who so utterly loves us and all of creation that God gives of God’s self for us. This is no ordinary love; rather, it is a love that seeks not its own good, but the good of the other.
The significance of God’s love is not missed by John. In fact, most of you are likely familiar with his meditations on God’s love for us and our love for God. Both in his gospel and first epistle, John devotes considerable effort pondering the nature of love. Unfortunately for those of us who no longer read or speak Greek, we miss the nuances of his texts. Although we hear the word “love” repeated over and over in these readings, John is speaking of something more powerful than what we hear when the word love is spoken.
Before I say more, let us ponder love for a moment. Although we English speakers have many words to describe the various expressions of love, we tend to simply use the word “love” to describe a whole range of feelings, from liking a particular dish of food to intimate relationships. While I wasn’t completely unaware of the many other words for love, I didn’t realize how often I used the word “love” for so many different things until I met my partner and his friends.
Many languages, Greek included, have strict rules for how and when a word is used. This is also true of many modern languages, such as Ukrainian and Russian. I first became aware of this while having dinner with my partner and some of our friends from Ukraine one night a few years ago. At some point during the dinner, I said in English that I loved a particular dish we were eating. Immediately my friends began to laugh and questioned me: “You love this food?” To them, such use of the word love was utterly ridiculous. You can’t love food; food is an inanimate object (or at least we hope it is by the time we’re about to eat it). Before I could defend my use of the word, one of our friends launched into a long talk about his perception of North American English. He noted that we use the word love for everything, from romantic love to taking pleasure in a certain object. He questioned our sense of love; do we really know what love is?
Although I thought my friend’s critique harsh, I gave it some considerable thought. I began to listen to how we use the word love in conversations, in music, and in movies. As I did, I noticed something about our use of the word love: we tend to use it to either describe something that makes us feel good or to express fondness for something. At times, I was disturbed by the way the word love was misused: some pop songs employed the word to describe infatuation or a desperate feeling of wanting to possess or contain another person’s passions. More often than not, the colloquial use of the word love expressed more of what a person desired or wanted, rather than their commitment to the wellbeing and good of the person loved. While I realize and know many people have a genuine and authentic care for those they love, our cultural usage of the term love is often quite shallow and lacking depth.
This presents a real difficulty for us when we try to understand and appreciate scripture passages on love, such as the texts we have before us today. We miss the significance of what John is saying. The love that John writes about has very little to do with the forms of love that most of us associate with the word. To understand why, we need to briefly consider the original Greek text.
As I noted moments ago, ancient Greek had many words for the various kinds of love humans experience. Among the several Greek words for the various types of love include storge, for the feeling of bond of empathy, philia for the bond of friendship, eros for romantic love, and agape, a self-giving and selfless love for another, most often associated with the love for God. Each of these words describe a degree of love. When we turn to the Greek text of today’s gospel and first lesson, the Greek word for love that John uses is agape. This is an important detail, a critical clue for understanding what John is writing about.
Many of you have likely heard of the word agape over the years. The word became popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s at a time when Church and society was moving away from rigid social norms. The renewed interest in the word offered a refreshing expression of faith and view of God. Many Christian communities even began to share agape meals, an intimate table fellowship that drew people together with each other and with God.
Agape love is frequently mentioned not only in the New Testament, but also in the Greek editions of the Old Testament. The early Jewish translators of the Hebrew scriptures translated the Hebrew word for love into the Greek word agape. As such, the word occurs more than 250 times in the Old Testament. It’s use in the Old Testament gives us early clues that agape love is not the same sort of love that is popularly imagined today. Rather, it described the love we ought to have for God and for neighbour. Love for God is realized in obedience to God’s will as expressed in the covenant, in keeping the law, and in devotion to one’s neighbour. Simply put, it is the love we are to have for God and for others; it is entirely about the other and not ourselves. (Exodus 20:6; Deut 10:12-13; Lev 19:18) This is an important detail. Agape love is not the sort of love that simply warms our hearts and makes us feel good. Instead, it is a love by which we give of ourselves for God and others. It is a selfless love. It makes demands upon us and stretches us well beyond our comfort zone.
The New Testament, and the gospels in particular, further emphasize the nature of agape love as an act of selfless giving to others. However, the gospel writers emphasize that Jesus exemplifies through his life, ministry, and death the perfect form of agape love. Jesus reveals to us the true meaning of agape love as he takes to himself the poor, the sick, and the sinner. He teaches the new way of life we are to live, a life of extraordinary compassion and care for the lost and forgotten of our society and generous inclusion of all God’s people. Through Jesus, the Kingdom of God breaks into our fragile world and turns it upside down. No longer will the rich, the mighty, and the powerful take pride of place, but rather the marginalized, the poor, the weak, and the suffering. Jesus comes not for the healthy but for the sick. (Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31)
John goes even further than Matthew, Mark, and Luke when he writes about agape love. For John, the love between Jesus and the Father is the archetype of all love. This love is made known to us in the sending of his son Jesus and Jesus’ sacrifice on cross for the life of the world. He takes on the most shameful death so that we can have life and have it to the full. That form of love, again agape love, is the most perfect forms of all love. It is a love that gives of itself as gift to others.
But John doesn’t simply stop there. John takes it even further and reminds us that Jesus commands us to do the same, as he recalls Jesus’ words to his disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13) We who are called into friendship with Jesus are called by him to do as he does: to set aside our pride, arrogance, privilege, and to seek the lost, the lonely, the sick, and the suffering and to love them for who they are and without any desire for our own gratification and edification. This is a love that seeks not itself, but others. That is agape love.
With this in mind, the passages we read today from John’s gospel and first epistle take on new meaning and challenge us. As his disciples, we are not called to be comfortable and to feel good. Put bluntly, the love John is speaking of is a love that will make extraordinary demands upon us, perhaps even costing us our life. The life of the Christian disciple is to learn from Jesus this new way of love and to do as he does for others. For John, love is a sign and proof of our faith. Our love for others derives from God’s love for us. If we are incapable of loving our sister and brother, no matter how much they may annoy or disturb us, then we cannot say we love God.
Once again we return to a point I made last week in our sermon: what we say about God matters for it defines who we are. Today we learn that to know God and live as God’s beloved, we must do as God does: love all God’s people with unselfishly. God gives of God’s self totally and completely so we can have life. When we give of ourselves totally and completely to others, we then live in God and God lives in us; we experience life to the full. We discover our true purpose and fulfillment. Amen.