Sermon: What Is Love? (Seriously, though, what is it?)

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Saturday/Sunday, May 5/6, 2018
Grace Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE
Sixth Sunday of Easter

Good evening/morning! It is such a delight to be here again at Grace Lutheran.  I have missed you all.  I bring you greetings from the people of Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces, NM, and also from Pastor Mike and Kristin Ostrom, who are now at Oregon State University!

It’s so good to be here with you all again.  And it seems very fitting that love is such a prominent theme in our texts for this weekend. Grace has always been a community in which I have experienced great Christian love.

Our gospel reading from John especially highlights this theme.  This text is part of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” to his disciples before he is crucified, in an ultimate act of love.  And his words about love raise for us a very important question. This question has one, immediate, right answer, so I want to see if any of you know what it is.  Are you ready?  What is love?  Hahaha, that’s right!

In all seriousness, though, what is love?  How would you describe it?

We use the word “love” to mean lots of different things, and the word changes meaning depending on the context and on how we say it.  For example: I love avocados!  I love my grandma.  I looove doing my taxes.  It’s a real challenge in English.  Other languages, like Greek, have many words to describe many kinds of love, but in English we use the same word for all of them.  So, since there are so many ways of understanding “love,” it’s worth reflecting on just what kind of love Jesus has in mind when he commands his disciples to love one another as he has first loved them.  And for this, we’re going to get down and nerdy and dig into some Greek!

The original Greek word used in this passage for love is a word many of you have probably heard: ἀγάπη. We think of agape as unconditional love – and it is – but there’s even a bit more of a nuance to it than that. Agape love carries with it the idea of self-giving.  When we feel agape love for other people, it means that we care deeply about their well-being, to the point that we are willing to go out of our way, and even to make sacrifices to ensure their well-being.  Older translations of the bible actually use the word “charity” to translate agape, rather than “love.”  It carries this same connotation of giving and generosity and care for other people.  In our gospel reading, Jesus gives us the greatest example of this kind of love, saying, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  That is next-level agape.

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There is another important distinction to be made here, and it’s also reflected in Jesus’ words in our reading.  Jesus says to the disciples that he has chosen them as his friends, just as he chooses us.  This act of choosing distinguishes agape love from other kinds of love – for example, it distinguishes it from another very similar kind of love, which in Greek is φιλέω. (This is the same word from which we get words like “bibliophile” – someone who loves books)  Fileo love can also be very strong, unconditional love, like agape love.  But fileo love is based in emotion.  When we fall in love, that’s fileo love.  The love that we feel for our friends and family is often fileo love.  We can – and do! – feel both fileo and agape love for people.  And both are good kinds of love.  But we don’t really get to choose who we feel fileo love for – it’s just part of being human that we feel love for certain people and not for others.  Agape love, on the other hand, is a choice.  We can choose to love other people with agape love.

I find that this distinction helps me make a lot more sense of Jesus’ commandment to love other people – all other people.  Not all people are super lovable!  I don’t always feel a lot of love for, say, the person driving the truck who cut me off on the interstate, or for politicians who choose to end protections for refugees, or for anyone who thinks cilantro isn’t poison.  (Kidding!)  It’s always seemed a little strange to me to be commanded to love other people when we have so little control over who we feel love for.  But this commandment isn’t about an emotional kind of love. It’s about an attitude of care and generosity and self-giving toward other people.  It’s about choosing to invest ourselves in the well-being of our neighbors.  Jesus commands us to agape love, self-sacrificing love – and sometimes the sacrifice we make may even be that we are called to care for people we don’t even know or particularly like or want to care for.

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Jesus also helps us to understand why we are commanded to practice agape love for other people.  He says to the disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” and he commands them to love one another as he has loved them.  I want to dig into one more word here, and then I promise I’ll stop making you think about Greek!  The word translated here as “as” is the Greek word καθώς.  This is a conjunction that can mean either “as” or “like” – or it can also be translated as “because.”  So we can read Jesus’ words as “Love one another as I have loved you,” and also “Love one another because I have loved you.”  We can also read him saying, “Because the father has loved me, I have loved you.” We love because of those who have loved us.  We are capable of choosing to love others with agape love because of the way that God has chosen to love us.

Our triune God is the ultimate source of love.  The Trinity itself is a living, divine relationship of love.  In fact, St. Augustine described it in this way: that the three persons of the Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are Lover, Beloved, and Love.  The love of the Trinity is mutual, self-giving, unconditional love.  It is agape love.  This is love that flows unending like a river, overflowing from the heart of God, from the relationship of the Trinity.  It spills over into our own lives with abundance and drenches our own hearts with the love of God.

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This is the kind of love that we are called to emulate in Christian community.  We are called and commanded to practice the agape love of the Trinity with and among one another – to love one another as Christ first loved us. To love one another because Christ first loved us.  I know that Grace is a community that practices this kind of love.  I have experienced it firsthand!  When I showed up here out of the blue, six years ago, you all welcomed me with open arms; you helped me discern a call to ministry; and you have supported my journey through candidacy every step of the way.  And Jacob reminded me recently that you even gave me a chance to practice some of that self-sacrificing love – by allowing myself to be pied in the face nine times by the Sunday school kids.

It matters that we practice choosing to love one another with agape love; it matters that we choose to care about and invest in one another’s well-being.  When we do, we are imitating the Trinity.  We are allowing that river of love that flows out from the Trinity to gather and grow here.  We are allowing it to pool up in this place until it overflows and floods the lives of the people whose lives we touch.  This is an incredibly important witness.  The love we practice in community spills over into the lives of the people around us.  And many of those people are lonely, people who live in a society that emphasizes individuality and encourages isolation.  Our love for one another in community points to the Trinity’s divine relationship of love and to God’s love for us, and it underscores that God wants for us to be in relationship with one another and to be in relationship with God.  When we practice the love of the Trinity in community, we can show others a better way to live; we can flood deserts of lonely hearts with the overflowing, abundant love of God.  And that is exactly what Jesus is commanding us to do.

I know how capable this community is of that kind of love.  I was once one of those lonely-hearted people.  I have felt what the love of God, flowing through this community, can do.  So keep it up! Keep loving one another as God has loved you.  Keep loving one another because God loves you.  And I do, too.  Amen.

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