Pentecost 12 (Proper 15)
One person wrote the following request on the survey form seeking input for our current series of sermons: “Pastor, would you please explain ‘Agape Love’?” The short answer to this request is the English language does not always show great precision when we use certain words. And the word love is a good example. People in one breath can say, “I love corn on the cob” and in the next breath say, “he loves riding motorcycles,” and then say, “We love one another in our family,” and then say, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” And the word love does not help distinguish the true emotions being described (or the commitment reflected) by those four statements. The Greek language is much more precise, at least on the subject of love. There are a number of different words used in the Greek language which are all translated into English as “love.” The Greek word “eros” generally refers to sexual love, but it can be used of other types of love. What is unique about “eros” love is that it always denotes a love that is called forth by the inherent worth of its object. This love desires to possess and enjoy its object. “Eros,” then, is an egocentric love, seeking its object for the sake of its own satisfaction. Another Greek word translated into English by the word love is “Philos.” We get the city name Philadelphia from this Greek word. The city name refers to a community known for its “brotherly love,” because “Philos” refers to social love, the affection of friends. The word “Agape” is the most other-directed form of love in the Greek language, a self-giving love—used often in the Bible of the undeserved love that God demonstrated toward us in His Son, who gave Himself for us while we were yet sinners. To be honest, the Bible does not always use the word “agape” for a positive sort of love. For example, in Luke 11:43 Jesus criticized the Pharisees because they loved (with agape love!) the most important seats in the synagogues and public greetings in the marketplace! They had a deep-seated love (a willingness to sacrifice much!) for the wrong things! We don’t usually talk about that angle of agape love, but it can be found on occasion. But the far more prevalent usage of this word is when it describes self-sacrificing, positive love. So ordinarily when a person comes across the phrase “Agape Love” it is an intentional signal that here we are speaking about the deepest love imaginable, a willingness to give up a great deal for its object! In a nutshell Agape Love is self-sacrificing love that comes from God. Agape Love is the word God uses to explain His love for undeserving sinners and to reflect the love of human beings that springs from the “agape love” which God has given to us.
Perhaps a story can help us better understand the importance of this “agape love.” Once there was a young preacher who was preparing to preach his first sermon, and he wanted to have a memorable introduction. So he went to an older pastor he knew and asked, “Do you have a sure-fire introduction that is guaranteed to get everybody’s attention?” The older preacher replied, “As a matter of fact, I have a riddle that works every time. When you enter the pulpit, make this statement: ‘Some of the greatest days of my life I spent in the arms of another man’s wife.’” After you make that statement, pause for a moment and say, ‘My mother.’ Don’t forget to pause before saying ‘My mother,’ And it would also be a good idea to tell your wife what you are going to do.”
The day arrived for the pastor to deliver his first sermon, and this young, inexperienced preacher stepped into the pulpit. He entered the pulpit with two strikes against him: 1) he was quite nervous, and 2) he had failed to tell his wife about his introduction. But he proceeded. He cleared his throat and began, “Some of the greatest days of my life, I spent in the arms of another man’s wife.” As he had been directed, he paused. But that was just the amount of time his wife needed to get up from her pew and storm towards the pulpit. That action so unnerved him that he stammered and stuttered and said, “For the life of me, I can’t remember who she was.”
Where does “Agape Love” fit into this story? Only “Agape Love” can save this preacher. The truth of the matter is that only “Agape Love” can save any of us.
I. The source of Agape Love
The source of Agape Love is God. By nature it is “Eros” love that dominates in this sinful world. We look for value or worth in the object. If we see no value or worth there, we don’t give the object a second thought. But if there is some value we see, we’ll think about investing ourselves to possess it. By nature, we rarely think about the good of that object; we think about what’s good for us! I realized how pervasive this way of thinking is when some years ago I was listening to a television preacher who stated, “God saw something in you and me worth loving, worth saving.” And I screamed at the television, “No!” But as I’ve reflected on the words of this preacher, it is clear that the preacher was only reflecting our human understanding of love. How could any of us, including God, love something of no value? We cannot. But God can. This reality highlights the truth that “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are His ways ours!” If God selected the objects of His love the way we do, there would be no hope for any of us. How do I know this? Please read with me from Romans 5:6-8, page 1753. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since God hates sin, there was nothing in any of us that God found worthy of saving. This is the reason Agape Love is our only hope. In His self-sacrificing love that looks at us with a consideration “What is best for them?” God chose to love us in spite of our unworthiness. Though we had nothing to offer Him, He took upon Himself our sins. He saw that we were on our way to an eternity separated from Him; and He wanted only what was best for us. So He came, God in the flesh, to redeem us. In the passage we just read, Paul points out how different God’s way of thinking is. Very few people would ever consider putting their life on the line for anyone else. It is, of course, possible that some people might do it for a righteous person, an important person, a respected person. But even then there would be only a few who would make such a great sacrifice for someone else. But who would make a great sacrifice for a person who was a scoundrel? No one! But God demonstrates His love for us in giving the world’s greatest sacrifice ever for undeserving people.
II. The effect of Agape love
So here we have the greatest love imaginable. It is Agape love, where God offered Himself to pay for the sins of all sinners! This is love at its height; this is love that changes the way people think and live. This truth is revealed in the Scripture. John, the disciple known as the one Jesus loved (with Agape Love), expressed it well in I John 3:16-18, page 1901. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
Every time the word love appears in this passage it is the Greek word Agape. This love is so powerful that once it fills us it takes over our lives. We cannot be the same old people we were previously, looking out for ourselves and our own interests only. We see that love is not merely about words, but also about action. We grasp that love is central in the way we deal with family and friends, but also in the way we relate to strangers. We also grasp that there’s something wrong with us when we are pleasant, polite and loving toward strangers, but very difficult to live with when we’re around those who are closest to us.
Today’s Epistle Reading addresses husbands and wives. This reading suggests that the best way for husbands and wives to have a strong marriage is for both to have a strong relationship with Jesus Christ. His love is the model for love in the homes of believers. Spouses who know the Agape Love of Jesus treat one another differently. They see marriage as a way of serving one another, of helping one another to be the person God made them to be. We experience the Agape love of Christ, and it fills us to the brim—and it spills over into the way we treat one another.
Maybe you are thinking right now, “Wait a second, pastor. That’s not the way I think, and it’s not the way most married couples I know think.” Unfortunately, that’s true of all of us far too often. If your love is not what it ought to be, if you hold grudges, if you find it very difficult to reach down inside and come up with genuine kindness and goodness and mercy and compassion, there is something you can do. First, confess your difficulty to the Lord. Ask Him to pour out His Spirit on you so that you might see even more clearly the Agape love He has shown you in Jesus. Know that because of the work of Jesus all your sins are washed away, removed, forgiven, buried in the depth of the sea. Ask that He would fill you up with that love.
Years ago I heard a story of a man who in the midst of a large Bible class, asked publicly to be filled up with God’s love, when his wife cried out, “Don’t do it, Lord. That man has leaks!” Because of our sinful human nature, that statement is true for every one of us! But the nature of God is to keep extending agape love, self-giving, self-sacrificing love, love that thinks first of the best interests of its object. God keeps giving His love…and He keeps filling us with that love. He is always sure to answer that prayer! Then, filled with His love, we pray that we might love one another as He has loved us.
Built up with God’s love in this way, and fully aware that we could never have deserved such treatment, God empowers us to grow in loving others according to the measure of His love toward us. In this way agape love keeps spreading, touching lives and drawing more and more people to the love of the Savior, who started the whole process originally by loving undeserving people.
Agape love comes from God. When it touches us, it changes us. The apostle Paul also spoke of the way that agape love changes people. Using this special word for love, he addressed the Corinthians and us in II Corinthians 5:14-15, page 1799. “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that One died for all, and therefore all died. And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again.”
He died for all. He died for us. We therefore live not for ourselves, but for Him. That, in summary, is agape love. Amen.