According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary there are roughly a million words in the English language – possibly a richer vocabulary than any other language in the world. And yet there is only one word for LOVE. One little four letter word has to be used to express vastly different meanings. Listen to these two sentences:
“I love vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate fudge.”
“Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friend.”
Today, our theme is love – the third of our Advent series based on St. Paul’s words in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three things, and the greatest of these is LOVE.”(1 Cor. 13:13)
I don’t think Paul was referring to the emotion experienced as you spoon in ice cream and chocolate fudge. In fact, I know he wasn’t because Paul had the good fortune to be writing in Greek, and although Greek has a relatively small vocabulary, it does have several different and distinct words to describe what we in English so parsimoniously call love.
The most common word in Greek for love was philia. It was used for friendship, loyalty to your family and friends, the enjoyment of certain activities. It gives us words like bibliophile, lover of books, philosophy – lover of knowledge. Another popular Greek word for love is the word eros. This describes the kind of passionate attraction that another can evoke. A sensual longing and desire for another. Erotic love. There was also the word storge which described the natural affection within families – for example, the love felt by parents for their children. These words were enough to describe the kinds of love familiar to the everyday lived experience of men and women 2,000 years ago.
But when God became man in Jesus Christ, when “love came down at Christmas,” it was a love unlike any other love. Those first disciples received a kind of love from Jesus which they had never known before: a generous, selfless love, passionately committed to their well-being. And this wondrous love was fully revealed when Jesus died upon the cross. On the cross God revealed once and for all, God’s self-sacrificial love for humanity – how much God loves each one of us.
This selfless, self-giving love, this divine love, was so unlike the other loves with which they were familiar, that the New Testament writers sought another word to describe it. And they used a word which was rarely used in ancient Greek. And that word is AGAPE.
So St. Paul writes, “Now faith, hope and agape abide, but the greatest of these is agape.” The Latin word for agape is caritas, which gives us the word charity. And so in the King James Bible we still read, “And now abideth faith, hope and charity these three, but the greatest of these is charity.” Of course, the word ‘charity’ has changed, and no longer expresses the power of agape.
The word is hugely important for our understanding of our faith. John, in his first letter, chapters 4-8, puts it absolutely clearly. “ Ό ϴeos aγaπηv εσττιν” God is Love.”
If God is love (agape), if God’s essential nature is to love with a selfless, self-giving love, passionately committed to the well-being of others – and if we are made in God’s image, then we can only be fully human, fully expressing God’s image in us, when we too love selflessly, when we too live our lives passionately committed to the well-being of others.
This kind of love is life-changing. When you know, personally, that God loves you passionately and unconditionally, that can set you free, free to be truly yourself, free to love others unconditionally. This kind of love, this agape love, is very attractive. In the Early Church it attracted pagan notice. In the 2nd century the Christian writer Tertullian wrote, “Our enemies say ‘Only look, look how they love one another.’”
In our Gospel today St. John describes the crucifixion and in two verses he describes the moving moment when Jesus looks down from the cross and sees his mother and the disciple whom he loved. We see the power of agape love. He says to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
Something very new is happening here. The power of agape to create something new. A new relationship is being forged. For John, this is the birth of the church. It is born here, born from above, from Jesus lifted up on the cross.
This birth from above means that the, as it were, DNA of the cross, the pattern of self-giving love, agape love, is meant to fill every bond of connection between one person and the next. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The church is to be marked by this self-giving, self-sacrificial love. We are called to live lives of agape love. So how do we build community, true Christian community of agape love? As at the Crucifixion, such communities can so often be forged in the crucible of terrible suffering.
These past days have been overshadowed by the terrible events in Sandy Hook School, Newtown, CT. It is so profoundly sad. In my own prayers and reflections on this awful tragedy, I come back to the cross, and to the wondrous love expressed there, and Jesus’ desire to build strong communities of self-giving love.
Kathy Adam Shepherd is rector of Holy Trinity, Newtown, and a friend of our community. She preached on Sunday these words, “I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t honestly believe that every one of these precious lives is being held in the greatest love that could possibly be. And that love is amazing, and so abundant, that it’s overflowing into those families. I’m hoping that when I say Sandy Hook, the world will think community and love.”
That is the love which came down at Christmas. Not a shallow, sentimental love – but a love as strong as death. Agape love.
For me, nothing describes this love so beautifully and poignantly as the hymn we shall shortly be singing, set to music by John Ireland: “My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me, love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.”
That is the love which came down at Christmas – the only love that can make any sense of the tragedies and conflicts which assault our lives.
“For love is strong as death. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”(Song of Solomon 8:7)
That is the love which you and I are called to embody and share with others: the love which has power to heal the broken-hearted and bind up the wounds.
If this evening you feel that you or a loved one is in need of healing – do please avail yourself of the laying on of hands and anointing with oil which will be offered in Saint John’s Chapel.
And as we approach the Christmas season, think of someone in your own life who is sad, or lonely, or hurting, and pledge to say or do something to help bring God’s healing love into their lives. Invite them for a coffee, or a meal. Pay them a visit. Phone them. Show them that they are not alone.
Bear God’s love on your lips and in your lives – and let it overflow into the lives of others, that they, too, may be drawn to the fire of God’s love, in Jesus’ name.
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