Infusing our lives with agape, 4 Epiphany (C) – 2010

January 31, 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

In this morning’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we get some of the most beautiful language found anywhere on love. Paul writes:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

The only problem with these beautiful words is that they don’t ring true. “Love never fails.” Didn’t St. Paul have the foresight to know that this reading would become the single most popular scripture reading for a wedding ceremony? Yet in America today, some reports indicate that almost half of all marriages end in divorce. Paul writes that love never fails. Why then does it seem as if love fails about half the time?

A quick look at the Greek text of this passage shows that Paul writes using the word agape. Agape is one of the three Greek words for love used in the New Testament. There is eros or “erotic love,” and phileo or “brotherly love.” Finally there is agape, a “self-giving love,” routinely shown to be the love God has for us. It is this agape that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is this self-giving agape love of God that never fails.

Paul calls agape love a “still more excellent way.” To set love in an extreme example, Paul writes that if he understands all mysteries and has faith so as to move mountains, but has not love, he is nothing. If he were to give away everything he owns and hands over even his very life, but has not agape love, then he is nothing.

So what is the difference between this godly love that never fails and the kind of love that results in half of all marriages ending in divorce? The difference is that love that starts with us and goes out to another person is usually conditional. “I love you as I think you are.” Or “I love you as you are now.” Or worse yet, “I love you as I wish you were and hope to change you to be like the ideal of you that I love.”

All of these are examples of love that start with “me.” Yet, if I change and you change, this feeling of love will likely go away. I’ll wake up and realize that the feeling I had has gone away and may never return. At that point, I can either give up on love and stick with a loveless marriage, or I can give up on you and seek love elsewhere. Neither of these options are suggested by scripture.

Paul tells us of a still more excellent way. We can infuse our lives with agape, the love that is God’s love for us. Agape love starts with God, and God’s love for us. With this love of God and God’s love for me, I can then begin to see other people as God sees them. From this experience, I reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.

The love that is within the Trinity is not conditional. God’s love for your spouse is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood or anything else so changeable. God’s love for your children does not depend on their lovability. God’s love for your friends does not depend on whether or not they let you down. God’s love for everyone else is a lot like God’s love for you. This love is a lot more dependable than we are, even on our best days.

At this point a detour is needed to clear up one possible point of confusion. This is not to say that someone who is suffering abuse needs to stay in the abusive situation. The Trinity’s love for creation is not an excuse for tolerating an abusive relationship. Staying in a home where you never know if tonight will be a good night or one of the nights when your spouse hits you or the kids is not love. In physically and emotionally abusive situations, true love for a spouse will mean you remove yourself from harm. Love your spouse enough not to allow the situation to continue.

Real love can mean not becoming co-dependent and supporting someone in their abuse of their own bodies with drugs, legal or illegal. Real love can mean setting clear boundaries. Love that is more concerned for the other can be lived into in many ways that involve standing up to abuse and not letting it continue.

The love that wants something better than abuse and acts to make changes to end such needless suffering is a part of the love God has for all creation. The love of God was in the Trinity before creation overflowed into this world of ours – and that loves continues, even though we are fallen and not deserving of it.

This love that was in the very life of God before creation is the love that never fails. This is the love Jesus had when he was dying on the cross and looked out at those who were killing him, as they mocked him, and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Forgiving those who killed him was the most precarious thing an all-powerful God could do. When God became flesh in the person of Jesus and lived among us, it was possible that no one would return that love. The incarnation – God’s becoming human – is when God risked everything for love. With real love, there is no force or coercion. There is always the possibility in love that the love will not be returned.

God came and lived among us in Jesus, and when the cost of that love was a brutal death, Jesus still did not give up on that love. Jesus could have come, lived among us, died for that love, and no one could have noticed or cared. This precarious act of loving, even though it may well not be returned, is part of the agape love of God.

God’s love is being more concerned about the other than about your own self, but it is not about self-loathing or being abused. Agape love is more than a feeling. Agape love is a decision, an act of will. Decide to see others as God sees them. Act on this decision rather than just whether you feel the emotions of love.

Do you want to experience that sort of godly love for your friends, your family, your spouse? Then the love you have for them cannot start with you and go out to them. The love you have for others must start with God. Ask God to give you this gift. Pray for God to reveal to you the way God sees these other people in your life, especially the difficult people you deal with. Seeing another person as God sees them is not always easy, but when we get it right, this love will never fail. This agape love is a gift from God, which is the still more excellent way.

— The Rev. Frank Logue is a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia. He is the vicar of King of Peace, Kingsland, which is on track to become a parish in February 2010.

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