Agapē

May 27, 2018/Covenant Living: Love Unconditionally

Luke 6:27-36 and John 15:12-14


Last Saturday – just a week ago – some 25 million people in the United States crawled out of bed early to “attend” the wedding of Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle.  I’ll bet some of you were among that number.  My son, the former Marine, asked with raised eyebrows, “Why do people get so hyped for ‘royal’ weddings?”

I suspect people tuned in to the nuptials for a variety of reasons.  Many folk no doubt were caught up in the fairy tale romance between a beautiful American woman and a handsome prince.  We don’t have princes in the States, after all, so the idea of meeting and marrying a royal signals a story that is out of the ordinary.

Some folk probably watched for the pomp and circumstance.  A royal wedding is a bit over the top compared to the average ceremony.  Not everyone has wedding guests like Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, and David Beckham – not to mention the Queen of England.

And then there was the dress.  The sleek, fitted wedding gown that defied all predictions and looked like no one else’s but, well, Meghan Markle’s.

But if you tuned in, you were privileged to witness something far beyond the fairy tale and the pomp and the fashion.  You had a front-row seat to love.

There was the precious comment by Harry upon greeting his bride at the altar: “You look amazing!  I’m so lucky!”  There were the lingering looks between the couple as they sat, holding hands, while the choir sang and the cellist played and the minister preached.  That was, after all, the reason they were all there, he said.

But Bishop Michael Curry also was very clear that the love between Harry and Meghan was not the only reason folk were gathered in St. George’s Chapel that day.  “We were made by a power of love,” he said, “and our lives were meant – and are meant – to be lived in that love.  Ultimately, the source of love is God himself: the source of all our lives.”

And love, Bishop Curry noted, has power.

It’s easy to love a prince or a beautiful young woman.  It’s easy to love a newborn baby.  It’s easy to love people who are lovable.  But the true power of love appears when we allow love to well up from our hearts for the unlovable – the commoner or plain young woman or bratty two-year-old.  Or our enemy.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Love your enemies.

Agapē your enemies.

The Greek word for love that Jesus uses here and that appears throughout our readings from Luke, John, and Corinthians, describes the kind of love that holds nothing back, that puts others before self, that is willing to sacrifice everything – to, in Jesus’ words, “lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Agapē love is the kind of selfless love that Jesus revealed on the cross, the kind of merciful love that God revealed in sacrificing his son so that we might be able to draw near to God and experience God’s love.  Agapē love is different from philia love – the deep love that you might have for a friend – or eros – intimate love.  Agapē love places no conditions on the person loved – if you do this for me, then I will love you.  Unconditional love, agapē love, is the love shown to us by God through Jesus Christ.  And it is that unconditional love that Jesus tells his followers they must exhibit.

Every Sunday morning we end our worship by promising to “love unconditionally.”  To agapē love.  Friends and enemies.  Neighbors and intruders.  Spouses and exes.  Our children, and the children who bully them.  Love unconditionally.  Because that is what Jesus commanded us to do.  “Love your enemies.”

Jesus’ reason was simple.  There is power in love.  As Bishop Curry said a week ago, “There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can.  There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will.  There’s power in love to show us the way to live.”

The writer of the Gospel of John put it this way: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Jesus didn’t get any special prize or reward for hanging from that cross – we did.  Jesus’ love redeemed us.

At the royal wedding Bishop Curry said, “Redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.”  That kind of love can erase the lines that divide people.  That kind of love can open our hearts to dialogue with our enemies.  That kind of love can remove conflicts and end wars and feed hungry children.  “When love is the way,” Curry preached, “we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.  When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.”

Eight years ago, our son joined his Marine unit in the sandy deserts of Afghanistan.  I can truly say that there is no fear so constant, no prayer so fervent, as that of a mother whose child is living in a combat zone, whose son or daughter is facing daily risk to life and limb.  I was a wreck.  For the first time in my life, I did pray ceaselessly, as Paul urges, but I found no comfort in my prayers.

Until one day, when my studies took me to this passage in Luke.  “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  For the first time, I considered the enemy my son was facing in Afghanistan.  I considered the mothers and fathers of Taliban soldiers who, like I, offered up their fervent daily prayers to God for the safety of their sons.  And my prayers changed.  I began to pray for these young men, too.  Even as I prayed for Christopher’s body, heart, and mind, I prayed for theirs.  Even as I prayed for his safety, I prayed for theirs.  For the first time in weeks, I began to feel a sense of peace.

Love your enemies.

One more story – a fish story.  Thousands of years ago, God told a man named Jonah to take a message to the big city of Nineveh.  Tell those folks that if they don’t straighten up, I’m going to destroy them, God told Jonah.  Instead of following directions, Jonah turned in the opposite direction, stowed away on a ship, and wound up in the belly of a fish.  The part of the story you may not remember is that, eventually, Jonah did carry God’s message to Nineveh, walking through the city shouting, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  The king himself ordered the entire city to don sackcloth and to cry to God.  And God changed his mind about destroying the city; he did not do it.

Sounds like a successful prophetic outing, doesn’t it?  But Jonah was “displeased”; he was “angry.”  “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful … and ready to relent from punishing.”  And Jonah wished he were dead.  God’s response?  “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, a great city?”

So was Jonah just a lazy prophet?  Why did he run from God?  Why did he begrudge God’s mercy on Nineveh?

Because Nineveh was an enemy city.  Nineveh was part of Assyria, a nation that had made life miserable for the Israelites year after year.  They were the enemy.  And Jonah could not stand the thought of God’s pardoning his enemy.  In fact, the story of Jonah is a story “that insists that your enemy may be more open to grace and love than you are.”  It is a story that “confronts us and disrupts us with the kind of love that can actually transform us into more mature and courageous people, people who love even our enemies.”[1]  Listen again to God’s closing comment to Jonah: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, a great city?”

Which is to say, should I not love this city, this people?

Which leads us to the question, should you not love this people?

That kind of love does not come easily.  It does not come on its own.  That kind of love grows when we ask God to nurture it in our hearts.  That kind of love can change the world.

Start with that one person who is a thorn in your side.  Ask God to guide you in loving that one person.  In time, that agape love will grow to encompass others – the person who cuts you off in traffic, the person who breaks in line at the grocery store, the person who hurts your child or your friend.  The person who is different from you.  The people who are not like your people.

And pretty soon, agapē love will transform the world – or at least your little corner of it.  And that’s a good place to start.

Love – agapē – unconditionally.

[1] Rob Bell, What Is the Bible?, 105

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