Mr. Aubrey Grey
What Does AGAPE Mean?, Jul 9, 2017
A little about me. I started attending this wonderful church almost exactly 32 years ago. For many years, I was part of what was then called Adult Christian Education where I learned to love the Bible and what it taught. A few years ago, I retired from my career as a software engineer and pursued more opportunities to serve God at Westminster. This included taking over a Wednesday morning seniors' group started by John Burnett, managing the Monday Bible Study, taking the training for and becoming a Stephen Minister, and graduating from a two year course to become a trained Spiritual Director. I have been part of worship committee for many years now, and recently you elected me worship elder to serve on your session... Charles said two years ago that he had only 52 sermons, he has done 45 up to now, so he has only 7 left... so here I am to explore with you the meaning of love as Jesus taught.
Let us pray:
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock, and our redeemer.
So, what is love, and what does the Bible say about it?
I was wondering, too, what wonderful descriptions about love I would hear from children. Naturally, one place to look is the internet. Another is right here with the children of our congregation. But here are three from the internet:
Jenny - age 8 said, "There are two kinds of love. Our love. God's love. But God makes both kinds of them."
Tommy - age 6 said, "Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well."
Jessica - age 8 said, "You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget."
Back to the Bible.
You have often heard this passage from Matthew 22: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:33-43)
And this from Matthew 7: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)
Jesus may actually have been slightly mis-quoting, or paraphrasing, the famous Jewish Rabbi, Hillel, who is reputed to have died in 10 AD, just 20 years before Jesus was crucified. From the Jewish Talmud, one famous account tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently. But this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Rabbi Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Rabbi Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary -- go and study it!" (Shabbat 31a)
So, what does this have to do with the passages in John and Matthew I just read, or the passage read by Nicola from first Corinthians? How can you treat your neighbor as yourself unless, either you do it grudgingly, in which case you will likely fail pretty often, or you do it from love, in which case you will do it naturally! (It also implies that you should not hate yourself, but that is another sermon.) You have probably heard it said that there are four words in Greek for what we, in English, translate as love. (Actually, there are eight, but that is for a good Google search, and the other four are not in the Bible in any case!) The three I am NOT talking about are EROS, romantic love, STORGE, family love, and PHILIA, brotherly love. This passage in John uses the word AGAPE three times, which is the selfless love I want to explore. Jesus loved so selflessly that he gave his life for all of us. For whom did he give his life? Well, there is debate on that, but my theology says that he gave his life for all humankind. Yes, that includes women, men, boys, girls, Buddhists, Muslims, Roman Catholics, Hindus, yes, even Methodists. Yes, even those who worship God and Jesus in different ways, and with traditional music, contemporary music, or with no music.
Now, because I am guilty of this as well, I will bet that many of you are saying to yourselves, "Wow, I know what he is talking about. There is this person who I know definitely does not show Christian love. He or she is doing something to which God will object and so I object!" However, today, I am not talking about that other person, I am talking about me. I am talking about you.
When I think about unconditional, sacrificial love, I think of teachers. One of my favorite stories is about a teacher who expressed love, perhaps inadvertently, but still within her nature. The story goes like this:
There were two boys in this teacher's class, both named Johnny. One was a model student; the other was a terror. One day was open house, and the parent of the 'terror' went to talk to the teacher. Mom was afraid of what the conversation would reveal, but still she went to Johnny's teacher. The teacher asked, "What is your son's name?" Mom answered, "Johnny." Then the teacher, who immediately thought of the model student, told mom how wonderful it was to have Johnny in her class. Mom almost could not believe it, but she went home and told her son how much his teacher loved him in the class. The story concludes that from that day forward, and into later life, Johnny became the model student and person.
What does this tell us? Love changes lives. It changes your life, and it changes my life, and it changes others. It is ESPECIALLY true when the love is supposedly undeserved. Did Jesus love us because we deserved it? Obviously not. Yet, Jesus has changed the world - and us. We think the world can certainly use improvement, but can that improvement be had by hate, even returning hate with hate? Certainly that is not what Jesus taught us in the sermon on the mount. "But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:39-44)
Philip Gulley in his book, "For Everything a Season," says this: "If we allow ourselves to hate other persons and make choices on the basis of hate, rather than on the basis of wisdom, reason, and love, we are not grown-up. For we are allowing our emotions and urges to dictate our actions. Grown-ups don't do that."
Let's talk more about what love looks like with a few examples:
First story from history: When Hubert Humphrey died, hundreds of people from across the world attended his funeral. All were welcome, but one - former President Richard Nixon, who had not long previously dragged himself and his country through the humiliation and shame of Watergate. As eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him. Nixon could feel the ostracism being ladled out to him.
Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was well known for his honesty and integrity. As he moved to his seat President Carter noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, and smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said, "Welcome home, Mr. President! Welcome home!"
The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: "If there was a turning point in Nixon's long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion." Source: Reported in Maxie Dunnam, The Workbook on Living as a Christian, pp.112-113
Second example from the Bible: You have heard about, and read, the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke's gospel. Henri Nouwen, in his book "The Return of the Prodigal Son," writes about putting himself into the three principal characters, the younger son, the elder son and the father. If you remember, the younger son essentially tells his father he wishes him dead and asks for his inheritance and runs off with it to his ruin. He comes back, his tail between his legs, so to speak, but the father welcomes him back and throws a big party, but the elder son refuses to participate. The father loves the younger son, not only unconditionally, but far beyond any rationality - the very definition of "prodigal." This is why Tim Keller calls God, "the Prodigal God." Tim Keller writes that there are too many 'elder sons' in our congregations, which is why our congregations are shrinking, but I digress. The kind of love shown by the father is what C.S. Lewis, in his book "The Four Loves" calls AGAPE Godly love, or charity. It is unconditional and, to us, frequently irrational, but not to God.
A third story closer to home: A few years ago I spent about a week and a half in the hospital. One of the members of the choir, whom I hardly knew at the time, spent hours of every day visiting me. He was not a deacon nor an elder, just a member of our congregation and of the choir. Before that I had barely known him. It is partly because of his love that I signed up to do Stephen Ministry here at WPC. His name is Frank Cooper.
A fourth example: As you know there has been some significant disagreement, among members of the congregation, about a few theological and secular issues regarding Biblical interpretation in this time of transition. I am well aware of the differences that we have. Nevertheless, a large number of you have been unchanging in your expressions of support for me, as me, if not for all of my opinions. One of you I have secretly called the Barnabas of WPC because of his unwavering support to me and to others. (Barnabas means 'son of encouragement' in Hebrew, and it wasn't his birth name but was given by the Apostles.)
And fifth: Westminster has joined the pledge signed by the Religious Leaders of Ventura County in response to the refugee crisis. As people of privilege it is a Christian duty to love those unlike ourselves who are in need. N.T. Wright says, "It is faith that looks up at the creator God and knows him to be the God of love. And it is faith that looks out at the world with the longing to bring that love to bear in healing reconciliation, and hope." N.T. Wright, For All God's Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church.
These things are true demonstrations of Godly love for each other. These people and actions demonstrate what AGAPE means.
Rick Warren, in his book "The Purpose Driven Life" says, "God teaches us to love by putting some unlovely people around us. It takes no character to love people who are lovely and loving to you."
In the words of Nikka, age 6, "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate."
Go and do likewise, and remember, "You will know we are Christians by our love."
Westminster Presbyterian Church