Love. We toss the word around so carelessly, thoughtlessly. We talk about falling in love, being in love. We say, “I love you,” but what does that mean? Is it a feeling, a fact? We say we love God, but what exactly does that mean? The word “love” seems inadequate, not quite up to the task.
Perhaps if we knew a little Greek, we’d be a little more precise. The Greeks distinguished four kinds of love. There is storge, warm affection, a kind of instinctual, nurturing love. This love is not mentioned in the Bible, though the Greeks knew it. The image is of a baby nursing contentedly at its mother’s breast, or even a mother dog or cat with her puppies or kittens. As CS Lewis describes it – “all in a squaking, nuzzling heap together, purrings, lickings, baby-talk, milk, warmth, the smell of young life. This is the humblest sort of love – the love of need and need-filling. Lewis once remarked to a friend on the affection one often sees between a dog and a cat living in the same house, to which his friend remarked, “Yes, but I bet no dog would ever confess it to the other dogs.” This is the love associated with familiar, comfortable things – soft slippers, your favorite robe, old jokes, the dog sleeping at your feet, Grandma’s snickerdoodles, Christmas cookies. Nostalgia. Much of American religious life is built around this love of being safe and secure.
There is philia, the bond of friendship. We know it from the name Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. It’s the love of friends for each other, a thing we pretty much take for granted today, or perhaps rarely experience. We’re quick to refer to someone as our “friend,” but we rarely experience a true bond of friendship in the deepest sense. We tend to skip along the surface, we have “acquaintances” or people with whom we might share an interest or cause. But philia, the love of friends, is more than that. It’s a love of two people walking together side by side. It’s the love in which you can trust the other person with your backside and a loaded gun.
In the movie Tombstone, Doc Holliday, dying of tuberculosis, goes to a showdown with the leader of the Cowboys in place of his friend, Wyatt Erp. The Cowboy’s leader doesn’t understand.
“Why are you doing this?” he says to Doc.
Doc replies, “Because Wyatt’s my friend.”
“Shoot,” says the Cowboy, “I got lots of friends.”
“I don’t,” says Doc.
“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
There is eros, the passionate love between the sexes. We get the word “erotic” from eros. This is the love we “fall into” when we fall in love. It is sexual, but it’s more than sexual. It’s passionate. This is the love that so easily leads into idolatry, what we usually mean when we say, “Follow your heart.” If you want a poetic picture of eros from the Bible, read the Song of Solomon. We could spend much time talking about eros, but I’m afraid it would push the rating of this sermon from PG-13 to R, and so we best press on to the fourth love, the one that is repeated over and over again in our readings this morning.
Agápe. This is the word most often used in the Bible. God is agape. He is the Source, the Lover. “God so loved the world (in the agape sense of the word), that He gave His only-begotten Son.” This is love, not that we loved God but that He first loved us and gave His Son Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” “There is no fear in love, but love perfected drives out all fear.” We love because God first loved us. This isn’t some love you generate. This is the love God works in you, the fruit of being a living branch joined to the true Vine who is Jesus and having His Word take hold in you and His life and love fill you to overflowing. This is the love that flows from faith.
Agape is self-sacrificing love; “love to the loveless shown.” Unconditional, no strings attached love. Divine love. It’s not a warm fuzzy, or a deep lust or a bond of affection. It’s an act of will, a work of God, an obedient orientation. Agape is the only kind of love that can be commanded. It’s the only commandment Jesus gives to His disciples: “Love one another in the same way that I have loved you.” You can’t command eros. You don’t need to command philia or storge. But agape is a decisive, deliberate, intentional act of will, the love for another without regard for return.
The apostle Paul painted a picture of agape in his letter to the Corinthians. You often hear this letter read at weddings, but the original context is the congregation. Paul says without this kind of love, this agape, we are nothing, regardless of how smart we are, how religious we are, how courageous we are, how pure we are, how successful we are. Without agape, we are nothing.
What does this agape look like? Listen carefully. Love (agape) is patient and kind. It is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, trusts all things, hopes all things, patiently endures all things.
That’s what Jesus has in mind when He says, “This is my command: Love one another.” He doesn’t say “like one another” or “have affections for one another.” You can’t legislate feelings. You can’t say, “Thou shalt have warm, fuzzy feelings.” Jesus says, “Agapate – Love one another.” Be patient and kind to each other. Don’t be jealous or boastful or arrogant or rude toward each other. Let the other have his or her way. Don’t be irritable or resentful toward each other. Don’t rejoice in what is wrong with each other but in what is right. Bear all things, trust all things, hope all things, patiently suffer all things for the sake of each other.
Wow! Tall order? You bet it is. Just think to whom Jesus was speaking. His twelve disciples, his inner circle. Among them were two sets of brothers – Peter and Andrew, James and John. Those of you who have siblings know how it can be. You have history. You have a past. Competition, rivalry for attention. We have “issues,” as we like to say, justifying ourselves. “Love one another,” Jesus says.
Think about Matthew the tax agent, and Simon the radical, the political operative. You couldn’t get two people further apart on the political spectrum than that. One man was a member of the Zealot party, bent on overthrowing the Roman government. The other man was a tax collector, a agent for the Roman government. Can you imagine the talk between these two men as the Twelve gathered around the table? Would they even sit next to each other? Can you imagine the feelings they must have had toward each other. “Love one another,” Jesus says to them.
What about us? We have our differences. We don’t necessarily like each other. Maybe we rub each other the wrong way. Step on each other’s toes. We have our political differences, our differences of opinion. We are Republicans and Democrats and LIbertarians and who knows what else. We have our issues, all that stuff we’ve been saving up for just the right moment when we can justify our disobedience. You might be tempted to turn tail on your brothers and sisters, like some kid who takes his bat and ball and goes home when the score of the game isn’t going his way. You may be tempted to withdraw, to say to your congregation and even to the whole church, “I don’t need you.” And as you’re walking out the door, feeling self-justified, the words of Jesus slam into your ears: Love one another as I have loved you.
It’s not an option. You can’t say, “I don’t feel like it.” This love overrules your feelings. John says, “Anyone who says ‘I love God’ yet hates his brother is a liar.”If you can’t love your brother whom you see, how on earth can you claim to love God, whom you do not see?
Love one another. Husbands, love your wives the way Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. Parents, love your children. Children, love your parents. Disciples of the Lord Jesus – chosen, baptized, believing – love one another. This is how the world knows we belong to Jesusr. This is what caused the world to sit up and take notice of the church in the first century. It wasn’t their impressive buildings, they didn’t have any. It wasn’t their airtight body of doctrine, that hadn’t been developed yet. It wasn’t their fancy worship, the pagan temples were far more impressive. What impressed them was the love the first Christians had for each other in spite of everything. “See how they love one another, “ they said. They’d never seen anything like it before.
In the book of the Revelation, the Lord has a special word for each of the seven congregations of Asia Minor that were under John’s episcopal care. The church at Ephesus comes to mind here. Ephesus was the pure and proud congregation – the Missouri Synod of Asia Minor. They were hard working. They bore up under suffering with patient endurance. They were doctrinally pure and had no tolerance for evil men or heretics in their midst. They put the teachers to the test and flushed out the false apostles. They knew a heresy when they saw one. They suffered loss with a stiff upper lip, they hadn’t grown weary under the weight of persecution and hardship.
But Jesus says, “I have this one thing against you: You have forsaken your agape, your love, that you first had. Do you remember those days when you first began together as a little mission congregation? How you bent down to help each other and cared for one another without being told? How you put up with almost anything out of joy for the Gospel? Remember how you used to set aside your differences, how you forgave one another, how you worked side by side and hand in hand? Repent. Return. Change your thinking. Love one another, as I have loved you.”
We run the same risk as a congregation, as a synod. We’re so intent on having it our way we tune out the one commandment Jesus gave His disciples – love one another.
Now let’s be clear on this. This isn’t a commandment like the top ten from Moses. This isn’t a do it or die sort of commandment. Jesus doesn’t issue commandments that way. Remember, Jesus is the One who did it and died for the world, who took up our lovelessness on the cross, absorbed it like a sponge, died with it and buried it in His tomb. He didn’t suffer and die under the Law so He could give us a new law in simplified terms. And if salvation depended on our love, we would be damned and doomed.
This is the command to be who you already are in Jesus. God is love, and we who live in God, live in love. You are baptized into the death of Jesus, the highest expression of agape there is. He laid down His life for you, for me, for everyone, and He took you into His life, grafted you to Himself.
Jesus isn’t saying, “Love one another or you’ll burn in hell.” That’s not how agape works. There is no fear in this love. This love drives out fear. This is the love that happens when we come to recognize who we are in ourselves, and how miserably sinful we are in ourselves, and how God has picked us up out of the trash like some rusty old can on a junk heap and made us His own in Jesus. And it’s in that love of God in Jesus that we turn to our neighbor and say, “The peace of the Lord be with you,” even if we don’t like that person or if we’ve been arguing with that person all week. We let go, we drop dead, we forgive for this one simple reason: God in Christ has done the same for us and for that person too.
This is about joy – the joy of being called a “friend of God.” The joy of being chosen and beloved. We didn’t choose Jesus, He chose us. And any decisions we might make along the way are made on top of His decision to embrace us in His death. This is about joy. Jesus says, “I’ve told you this so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” It’s what David prayed for when he said, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” David wasn’t worried about his salvation. He was missing the joy.
When we do not love one another, when we keep the love of God bottled up inside us until we’re about to explode, we rob ourselves of the joy of being a friend of Jesus, of being chosen and beloved by God. Where’s the joy in being an apple tree if it never produces apples? Where’s the joy of a grape vine if it never bears grapes? Where’s the joy of faith in Jesus if you do not love your brother, your sister, your neighbor, your enemy as Christ has love you and them?
In the post-communion prayer, a prayer written by Martin Luther, we pray that the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood would strengthen us “in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another.” There it is. There is the source of agape, divine love – the death of Jesus that embraced us all in love.
God is love. And in Jesus the Beloved Son, you are loved by God. And within the embrace of a love that will not let you go, you are free to love one another.
In the name of Jesus, Amen