I John 4:7-21
As I was preparing for this sermon, I felt like a rather insistent jukebox kept playing in my head. And didn’t I just date myself there? What I meant to say was: A rather insistent Spotify playlist kept playing in my head. The main song was, of course, “All you need is Love.” That wouldn’t stop. But also: “Precious Love” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And even the song from the hit Broadway musical “Oliver”: “Where is love?”
Small wonder that the hits kept coming because love is the universal hunger of the human heart. Infants who are given food and shelter and warmth but who are not given loving touch, who are not bonded with another person, often do not thrive and may not even survive. As my friend Rolene told me when I was pregnant with Patrick, “Just love him unconditionally for three to five years and you basically can’t mess him up.” (Thank God we could stop at age 5.) As we get older, the search for love will drive us to many things — jealousy, rage, cosmetic surgery, early 80s soft rock. (Air Supply’s “I’m all out of love” plays.)
This being seen and known for we who are — with all our warts and wounds and wondrousness — and being valued and cherished despite this knowledge or because of it — this is what we need. When the orphan Oliver Twist longingly sings “Where is love? Does it fall from skies above?” he is singing our song. Without this love, we are orphans on this earth.
The good news in our scripture for today is that we don’t have to go searching for this love. It is already and always here for us. And, what’s more, this love that we already and always have does not come from mere humans — who, let’s face it, are capable of withdrawing that love from us and leaving us desolate, or letting us down in innumerable ways. Whose love is not constant or sure, even the best of loves, because we are limited beings. In fact, this love comes from the Unlimited — from God, the Source of Life, the Creator of the Universe. The truest thing we can say about Reality is that it is Love. And it is a perfect love. It can never be withdrawn from us. It is always constant, always sure, always fresh. As another song says: A fountain ever springing.
The Greek word that the author of I John uses to describe this love is agape, which is used 43 times in the four chapters of 1 John— and some 27 of those 43 occurrences appear in the section of the letter we just read. But like the English word “love,” which can be overused and misused, agape, for some of us, may have the same problem. It gets used a lot in some circles. Back in the days when we used to have Yellow Pages — I am dating myself again — I looked up the word agape in the business section and found no fewer than 25 businesses in Oakland that used that word in the name of their business, including Agape Housecleaning Service and Agape Sheepskins.
But at the time that John was writing his letter, agape wasn’t an overused word at all. In fact, it was — according to one Bible scholar — an “old, colorless Greek word,” that was not much in use. Much more common at that time were other synonyms for love, words and concepts like philos— a Greek word referring to the mutual affection friends have for each other. Or eros — the love that lovers have for each other. Agape was a vaguer kind of love, maybe referring to the love you have for a spouse or family member, or perhaps the affection you have for a particular activity (according to Wikipedia). Like, I don’t know: I really agape the Olympics?
Early followers of Jesus took this word and invested it with much deeper meaning. They had to almost reinvent the word to describe the kind of love that they had experienced in Jesus and in the community that formed around him. Agape — love for the unlovely, for those deemed unworthy, invaluable. That woman with the menstrual discharge, that guy with leprosy. These were people who, at that time, were seen as disgusting. They were the people you make a wide path around. Agape – love for the frightening, impure stranger. That Samaritan woman who talked to Jesus at the well. Agape — love for those who participate in evil. Like Zaccheus — the tax collector whom Jesus loved. As in: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” Agape — unconditional, sacrificial love, even to the point of giving of one’s life for another.
We have been loved, in this way, says the author of I John — in this unconditional, sacrificial, radically affirming way. The author of I John is very clear that receiving that love comes first. But now, we can love and must do so. And, in fact, as our paraphrase says, we are commanded to love others. To agape them.
Agape love is not mutual, it is not companionable like philos; it is not zesty with sexual desire, like eros. It is not necessarily a fun love. In fact, it can be an uncomfortable love. An uncomfortable love because it may lead us to do uncomfortable things. In fact, I will say that without a doubt agape will lead us to do uncomfortable things.
I was thinking of all this when our Discipleship Group met last week. Our assignment from the month before had been to go on a prayer walk in a neighborhood and, basically, open our hearts to what we saw there. It was about seeing — noticing signs of hope and signs of need and being curious about how we were called to be present to both. Anna Rich told a particularly uncomfortable, particularly powerful, story from her Prayer Walk and I asked her to share it with us this morning, which she graciously agreed to do… Anna speaks.
I loved Eric’s response to Anna’s story: “It’s beautiful to hear your heart’s breaking.”
Agape love is uncomfortable. It is a love that will keep pushing us out of our comfort zones, beyond the walls and barriers that race and class build. It is a love that will break out hearts — and it’s possible there’s nothing more uncomfortable than that. It is a love will ask us to willingly, intentionally, gladly walk into those places where our hearts might be broken and where we may, most uncomfortably, see our own brokenness.
When Faith in Action’s Executive Director Lorena Megarejo was here a few weeks ago, she said: The question is not what do we need to do but who do we need to become? My hope is that we are becoming the warty, wounded, wondrous Beloveds, who know we are valued and cherished beyond our wildest imaginations. And my hope is that we are becoming more comfortable with loving uncomfortably. With walking into those places where we feel uncomfortable, walking into those places where we don’t know what we are doing and are certainly not in control, walking into those places where we might see the world’s brokenness and feel our own — and where we can once again be reminded that we are loved despite of our brokenness and actually because of it. Amen.