Sermon: Agape

I love Pastor Olga. I also love books, video games, and mac & cheese. I use the same word, ‘love’, for all these things, but I don’t mean it in the same way. It would be unhealthy and more than a little disturbing if I loved mac & cheese in the same way I love my wife. There are different kinds of love for different kinds of people and things in our life. But in English, there is just the one word. Most languages, however, have multiple words for love to capture the multiple meanings and ways that we love.

That presents a challenge. Which word do we use to describe the particularly Christian love – the love that Christ showed and the love that those who belong to him are supposed to bear into the world?

The Greek-speaking world in which the New Testament was written had two main words for love – two main meanings of love. The first is eros. Say eros. Eros is the name for one of the Greek gods of love – the greek equivalent of Cupid. It was also the word for physical attraction, intimacy, and desire. Eros is where we get the word ‘erotic’ for it is that kind of love. It is the burning passion to take pleasure in the other person or thing. There is nothing wrong with eros in itself, but it is easily twisted. It is easily turned to using the other for our own pleasure, turned toward the wrong things or in the wrong context. So when the Spirit led the apostles to speak of Christian love, they could not use eros.

The second word is filia. Say filia. Filia is the kind of love characterized by friendship. It can also refer to brotherhood or sisterhood. It is the kind of love between equals. You care for each other and have each other’s back. You genuinely like each other and desire to be around each other. All good, but still not quite Christian love. You don’t have eros or filia for outsiders, strangers, or enemies. They do not capture the self-sacrificial love that Christ showed and calls for in his disciples.

So what did the Spirit do? He called the apostles to take a rare word – to mold it, shape it, and bend it – and then bring it into the forefront of the imagination. That word is agape. Say agape. Over and over again, agape is the way of Christian love in the New Testament. Eros is love anyone can have. It must be redeemed and directed well, but it is entirely natural. Filia is love seen throughout the world, to a greater or lesser degree. But agape is the distinctively Christian way of love. It is a gift from God. And in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, the Spirit reveals to us just what agape is.

If you would, turn there with me. 1 Corinthians 13. 1 Corinthians is in the New Testament – Acts, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians. 1 Corinthians 13. As always, you are invited to leave your Bibles open as we read and study God’s word together. But before we do, please pray with me. 

Father, may your Word be our rule,

Your Holy Spirit our teacher,

and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels,

but do not have love,

I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy

and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,

and I have a faith that can move mountains,

but do not have love,

I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor

and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,

but do not have love,

I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind,

it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It does not dishonor others,

it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered,

it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts,

always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

Where there are prophecies, they will cease,

where there are tongues, they will be stilled,

where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part,

but when completeness comes,

what is in part will disappear.

When I was a child, I talked like a child,

I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.

When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror,

then we shall see face to face.

Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.

But the greatest of these is love.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)

Agape.

Again and again, this is the word translated ‘love’ in this chapter. It was a rare word, brought into prominence by its overwhelming use by the church to describe the kind of love that characterizes the Christian faith. So what do we learn about agape in short, hymn-like chapter?

The Necessity of Love

First, we learn that love is necessary for the Christian life. Listen to verses 1-3:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels,

but do not have love,

I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy

and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,

and I have a faith that can move mountains,

but do not have love,

I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor

and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,

but do not have love,

I gain nothing.

Without love, I am nothing but a loud racket, I am nothing, I gain nothing. Paul starts by naming the gifts most prized by the Corinthian church – speaking in tongues. They boasted in their many spiritual gifts, but Paul says if they do not have love, all their tongues-speaking is nothing but noise. He then names some incredible gifts – prophecy, fathoming all mysteries and all knowledge, faith that can move mountains – but without love, I am nothing.

No matter how gifted we are, we need love. We never get to a place or get beyond the need for agape to be our way of life. Without it, even if we have everything else, we are nothing.

There is something already counter-cultural in these opening verses. Our world believes that you can rise high enough, get enough money, become successful enough that your character does not matter. In same ways we expect the most successful people to be the least loving. We expect them to be ruthless with their competition and powerful in an overt and dominating way. When you sit in the big chair, we come to believe you no longer have to care as much about others.

Not so in the Christian life. Paul tells us that no matter how many other spiritual gifts God gives you, you are never beyond the call to love. We cannot say, “Well, I have the spiritual gift of hospitality, so I don’t need to love my enemy” or “God has called me to be smart, not loving” or “I am serving God by providing for my family, I do not need to love.” No matter how high the gifts, we are all called to agape love.

Even if we give everything we possess to the poor and give over our bodies to hardship, without love, it is worthless. I gain nothing. Love beats at the heart of the Christian life and just as it doesn’t matter how big your brain or how strong your hands are if you heart is not beating, all the other gifts in the world do not matter if our hearts do not beat with agape love.

The Character of Love

So first, we learn that agape is necessary for the life of the Christian. Then, Paul tells us what agape looks like. Verses 4-7:

Love is patient, love is kind,

it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It does not dishonor others,

it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered,

it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts,

always hopes, always perseveres.

Throughout history, the church has rightly seen in this description of character of love, the character of Jesus Christ. He is the one who fully lived agape love. Jesus is patient, kind, not envious or boasting. Agape is the way of God’s love for us in Christ. Love itself has become a person and walked on stage in Jesus Christ. Yet, because Christians are those who belong to Christ, are united to him and filled with his Spirit, agape is to be the way Christians bear the love of Christ into the world.

We are told that agape is characterized by patience. Some translations use ‘long-suffering.’ The image is of someone who has put their anger away. It is the powerful, stronger person who could crush their enemy, but chooses not to do so. Think of David at En-Gedi. Saul was chasing David and he hides in a cave. Unaware of David, Saul goes into the cave to relieve himself. David sneaks up behind Saul and, instead of stabbing him, cuts off a piece of the king’s robe. David had the power to harm Saul, but he showed agape patience by setting aside his anger and enduring.

Agape love puts up with a lot. It is patient, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoice with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Agape endures, whether it is in the position of the strong who do not take vengeance or in the weak who patiently endure suffering. Even when hurt, agape does not continually pull out the ledger and mark down the offenses. It lets the hurts of the past fade away. Without forgetting, it does not let past suffering dictate the way it responds in the present. It does not bury hurt and let it fester, not constantly marinate in it, but it “keeps no record of wrongs.” Agape love finds no enjoyment in nasty rumors, but rejoices when they turn out to be false. It finds no joy in violence.

On the receiving end, we see that agape love is characterized by endurance and patience. On the other end, agape love is shown in selfless giving. Fundamentally, agape is not self-seeking. Eros and Filia can care about others, but they easily hide a concern for ourselves – our pleasure, our reward, our reputation. But agape seeks the good of the other person without concern for how it will benefit us. It is only agape that could love an enemy, especially when our love does nothing to soften their hearts toward us. Love is not self-seeking. It is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others. Agape is not caught up in petty divisions, jealousy, or competition. Instead, in modesty, it seeks the good of others without concern for itself. In all things, agape considers others as better than yourselves.

This is agape. Patient endurance of wrongs and selfless giving for the sake of others. This is the love we see in Christ – who endured hostility, jeers, beatings, and ultimately, the cross for us and for our salvation. This is the love characterized by Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians. He endured hostility, jeers, beatings, and ultimately, was killed for the name of Christ Jesus.

This is agape. Selfless love. This is the love we see in Christ – who gave himself for us, without concern for his own advantage, but only our good. This is the love we see in Paul – who gave the whole of his life to serve Christ by shepherding the flock and proclaiming the gospel.

This is agape. This is the love scripture tells us is necessary for our Christian life. Without it, we are nothing, we gain nothing, all our talk is just noise.

At this point, perhaps like me, you are beginning to feel uncomfortable. Maybe you are feeling, like John Calvin did, that when we hear this description of love, “we may infer, how very far we are from having love implanted in us by nature; for we are naturally prone to have love and care for ourselves, and aim at our own advantage. Nay, to speak more correctly, we rush headlong into it.”

If you are like me, you hear this description of patient endurance and are reminded of all the times you, like me, have been easily angered, have kept records of wrongs, and took the chance to strike out at others. If you are like me, you hear this description of self-less love and are reminded of all the times we did what was best for us and not for someone else, how even when we did something nice, our motives we selfish, or how we held back on love because the cost seemed too high.

If you are like me, the high calling of agape love is both beautiful and convicting. How far short of this do I fall? Those who heard this first felt the same way. All the things the Paul says agape is not – envious, boasting, proud, dishonoring, self-seeking, easily angered, keeping records of wrongs – all of these things Paul has said are found in the Corinthian church. Every one of them. But for us, as for them, this is not a hopeless situation. We, like the corinthians, are called to repent when we recognize our sin and how we fall short of the glory of God. We are called to turn from all those ways of living and come to Christ. Come to Christ and receive agape from him and then carry agape into the world.

Jesus lived the only completely loving life. Jesus lived agape. And when we are united with him by the power of the Spirit, his love dwells within our hearts and we bear that love into the world. It is not on our own strength, but by being joined to Christ that we have and live out agape love. That is why Paul can say that it is necessary for the Christian life, because to be without agape is to be without Christ. Listen to how John says it: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

God’s agape love in Christ is the source, the driving force, of our agape love for one another. Christ in us, by the Spirit, makes the love of God complete in us as we love one another. As Calvin said, naturally, we rush headlong into love and caring for ourselves, but by the grace of God, we who are in Christ have been united with Christ by the Spirit and he pours out his agape love into our hearts so that we then can gratefully love others, even our enemies.

The Permanence of Love

Christ pouring his love into our hearts as we are joined with him is good news because of the last things 1 Corinthians 13 teaches us about agape. Agape is permanent. Verses 8-13:

Love never fails.

Where there are prophecies, they will cease,

where there are tongues, they will be stilled,

where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part,

but when completeness comes,

what is in part will disappear.

When I was a child, I talked like a child,

I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.

When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror,

then we shall see face to face.

Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.

But the greatest of these is love.

Everything else fades, but love. There is a place for all sorts of gifts in this age. But we won’t need prophecy, tongues, or knowledge, when we behold God face to face. All these good gifts will fade. They are partial but true and have their use now, but before the face of God, we will need them no more. What will remain is faith, hope, and love. But faith will be transformed into sight, and hope will be transformed into fulfillment. Only love will be largely unchanged. The agape love the Father has poured into our hearts in Christ through the Spirit. In this way, the love we receive now from Christ and the love we show to others in Christ by the Spirit is a taste of the coming kingdom.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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