1 John 4:7-12
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
At the center of the Christian faith, there is a story. It is the story of God’s unending love for the world. It is the story of the sovereign God of the universe choosing to come close enough to touch, and hold, and embrace, and deny, and betray, and crucify. We Christians tell the story of a God who is not distant and unapproachable, but who is available to each of us so that we may know that we are loved. But this divine love story is not just one that is to be told. It is one in which we are called to live. You and I are a part of the story of God’s love for the world.
During this sermon series, we’ve looked at four Greek words that are often translated into the English word, “love.” And we’ve aimed at faithful reflection on each—teasing out the differences so that we might better understand the complexities of loving relationships and make good on our call to love God and love neighbor. And so we’ve considered storge, or familial love—the kind of love that takes place through healthy family relationships. We’ve reflected on phileo, brotherly love, as it has been referred to, or that tie that binds us to those in whom we find deep and abiding friendship. We have spoken of eros, the love expressed through intimate, physical relationships. And today we conclude our series by considering the word agape.
Agape is a word mentioned often in the New Testament and refers to the love that God exercises towards the world through Christ. Agape is unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance as noted in the ways that Christ has suffered for love of the world and of us. Agape is not an abstract proposition. God’s love is not simply a theory. This love is about doing. We see that in Jesus. His love was not abstract, but rather concrete, active, lived love. And it is love that is bound to transform those who take it seriously.
During the brief time that I lived and worked in Atlanta, I attended a congregation there and was engaged in a Sunday School class with other young professionals. We met each week before worship service for prayer and bible study, and we were quite content with the rhythm and nature of our brief time together each Sunday. That is, until one day a visitor showed up to class. He was another twenty-something like the rest of us who had apparently been visiting many different churches around the area. And when we asked him if he’d be willing to share a little about his search for a community of faith he said to us, “Well, it’s been pretty interesting. I’ve gone to some churches and I heard a lot about Jesus but very little about the world. I’ve gone to other churches and I heard a lot about the world but not much about Jesus.” Then he continued, “Last Sunday in this congregation, I heard a lot about Jesus and a lot about the world. But here’s my question: if I hang out at this church, will I meet people who are like Jesus?”
Well, of course, we were all taken by surprise at this serious, yet simple question. And I looked into his eyes for any signs that he was just being cynical or accusing. But I have to tell you, what I saw were honest eyes asking a clear and earnest question: Does following Jesus show?
That question has stuck with me through these years. Is our love of God, our commitment to Jesus Christ, visible in the way we live? Many in our time are justifiably skeptical. They have heard messages of exclusion and judgment thinly covered in Christian language. They’ve seen acts of hatred done in the name of Christ and watched churches preach love while practicing condemnation. Does following Jesus show in the way that we live our lives?
According to our passage this morning from 1 John, there is a straightforward and unambiguous way to determine this. The test is this: Do we love one another? It is as simple—and as difficult—as that. Do we love one another?
Back in the day, before memes became the popular means for communicating all of life’s clichés, there were bumper stickers. I still see a few vehicles out on the roadways that have their back end wallpapered with these stickers, offering those of us behind them the opportunity—or misfortunate—of reading whatever the driver thought was worthy of risking the resale value of their car. There have been a few that have stuck with me over the years, one in particular that left me with a bit of sticker shock. It said, “I love my wife, I love my dog; but everyone else can go to …” – well, you can guess the destination. And there I was at the stop light thinking to myself, “My wife, my dog”… that’s a pretty short list to have to keep track of.
You know, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, there are so many folks who believe that it is perfectly okay for us to pick and choose—among various lists and categories—those whom we will love and those whom we will not. But agape does not take into account these categories that we construct. If we are to follow the example of Jesus, we are not called to just love those that are easiest to love, or those most capable of responding in kind. Our faith proclaims an all-encompassing love accompanied by sacrificial acts.
For years now, one of the ways that this congregation has taken action toward loving all people has been through our collaboration with Week of Compassion. To get everyone up-to-speed, WEEK OF COMPASSION is the relief, refugee and development mission fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Our support of Week of Compassion has enabled us to show compassion through disaster response, humanitarian aid, sustainable development and the promotion of mission opportunities.
The impact that we have through Week of Compassion is great and widespread—both here and abroad, but I thought you’d be interesting in learning that Week of Compassion helps to fund a program called Global Mission Internships, which allows young folks between the ages of 21 and 30 the opportunity to serve alongside one of our many international mission partners.
To place young adults in the missionary context allows them to explore ways that we can extend the love of God to others across the globe. It is a powerful program. We currently have a couple from within our congregation that is serving through this program. Dusty and Kelsey Riebel just began serving alongside on of our denomination’s partners based out of Quito, Ecuador, and I very much look forward to hearing from them about how the Spirit is at work in that place.(1)
From 2007-2009, I also served as Global Mission Intern, thanks to the support of Week of Compassion. I was able to follow a calling to ministry alongside our sisters and brothers in Honduras; an experience that has deeply shaped my faith. And it was during my time there that my eyes were opened to the nature of agape love in a way it had not yet been revealed in my life.
I was on my way to meet with local leaders of a small, far flung village that was located in the heart of the Mosquito Coast, a massive expanse of rainforest most famously highlighted in a strange Harrison Ford movie of the same name that came out after the original Star Wars movies. There, in the jungles of La Mosquitia, there are no roads, the river is the highway—and long dugout canoes, called pipantes, are the means of transportation to your destination. These pipantes are impressive vehicles but, being wood, are also vulnerable to the occasion encounter with rapids that come at the rainy season, like the ones that flipped the vessel that I was traveling in…dumping us passengers and our contents into the quickly moving waters. I was soaked, but worse yet-already two days travel into the jungle, I was without my pack–no snacks, no clothing, no money…just little ol’ wet me.
I arrived at Krausirpe that afternoon and, in this strange twist of events, my first impression to these folks was no longer that of long-expected guest coming to offer support and guidance—I was first and foremost a stranger in need of help. I was the one who needed tangible expression of God’s love, and the community did just that for me, caring for me with food and supplies until my departure.
What I learned from that trip to the jungle, and the humble village of Krausirpe, is that it’s easy to forget that we are also the neighbor that stands in need of God’s love from others, and it is beautiful to see the face of Christ in those around us.
It is something that I hope that we are able to do for those around us, because we are called to pay God’s love forward to those around us. It’s the notable turn that agape takes in the scriptures. Notice that the passage this morning does not say “since God has loved us this much, we also ought to love God.” (That would be the logical conclusion to the sentence.) But what does it say? “Since God has loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:11) This is the important turn of agape love—the love of God is not reciprocal. But then again, how could it be? We humans could never love God as God loves us. Of this the author of 1 John proclaims that God’s love is made complete when we, in turn, pour out love to those around us. It is then that God is made known in us—and divine love’s intention complete—when we pay it forward in concrete acts of compassion, justice, and kindness towards others.
Author, journalist, and radio host, Krista Tippett wrote that “When all is said and done, none of us will be judged on how much we accomplish but on how well we love.” (2) And so it is for church; we will be measured by love—how much of God’s love pours back into the world. And I’m convinced that there has never been a more important time to live out of that call.
We’ve spoken often of the divisive rhetoric and hateful actions that threaten to tear us apart. In such a time as this, an abstract love is simply not enough; we are called to more than that. And to attempt to love the world as Christ has loved us is a difficult, soul-searching, life-changing demand. Loving like Jesus requires each of us to question our intentions, and actions, and priorities, and commitments—to ask ourselves, “I wonder if God sees it that way? I wonder if I’m investing my whole heart and soul and mind in ways that God would intend?”
Attempting to model agape—unconditional, sacrificial love—is perhaps the single greatest challenge we are issued as disciples of Christ. But, friends, here is what I know: you can quote scripture until you are blue in the face, shout out pious proclamations of pure love for Jesus, you can boast and brag about how much faith you have, or how devoted you are to the idea of God’s grace and love, but simple fact remains that the only real evidence of our love of God we have to offer is the life we live. Can we love one another as Christ has loved us?
At the center of the Christian faith, there is a story—a story of which we are a part. It is the story of agape—of God’s unconditional love for the world that we are called to share as best we know how with every bit of creation. Church, may we be defined by nothing less than love.
(2) Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters – and How to Talk About It. (Penguin Books, 2008) p111