Sunday, April 24, 2016

The ἀγάπη of God

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. 

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; when I became a man, I put away childish things. 

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully, even as also I am known. 

And now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13)


A dearly-beloved passage of Christian scripture is First Corinthians 13, the “love chapter” of Saint Paul’s writings often read and heard at weddings. It is lovely, beautiful, perfect, perfectly beautiful, especially in some English translations from St. Paul’s Greek. Nothing in the Bible, except erotic passages of the Song of Solomon, seem so loving and tender and passionate, personal, romantic.
But it is not, you see, not romantic. And if instead of English you’d read the original, you would be perfectly clear this is not the romantic prose that guests and wedding couples hear and assume. Paul’s Greek is perfectly clear; and what Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 13 is perfectly, totally, completely consonant with today’s gospel words of Jesus in John chapter 13: “A new commandment I give you: that you love one another. As I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

I do not mean to be clever with you, coyly working round to an astonishing revelation that this is not at all what you always assumed. Nor will I do the cute proverb that to “assume” is to make an ass of you and me, that’s not where I am this morning, I shall go with my agenda straight to my point. Maybe you’ll “get it,” more likely not.

A generation ago in the hands-in-the air renewal music of the Church, we had a praise song, maybe still sung, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Written by the late Peter Scholtes when he was working with young people as a parish priest, the song’s name is “We are one in the Spirit” and it captures Jesus’ New Commandment. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love. Love is the Word and the Word is Love. The only word, the Logos is Agape.

Translated into the English language, and apparently we are not alone, also in German as I check Luther’s Bible online, it becomes unclear just what is meant when the Greek evangelist has Jesus give a New Commandment, “that you love one another.” And translated out of its tongue and setting, Paul’s message at 1st Corinthians 13 is compromised. So I recall the chat we had here last Wednesday evening, our group discussion of this gospel:

“A new commandment I give you,” Jesus says, “that you love one another.” In English we may have just one word for love. But the New Testament is Greek not English and from reading the New Testament, I learned four Greek words for love: agape, eros, phileos, and storge — and Jesus’ Love Commandment is not phileos about brotherly love, and it is not storge about love around the family supper table. And it is not eros romantic love.

Likewise, Saint Paul did not mean 1st Corinthians 13 to be read at weddings where guests are chortling about the bride and groom leering at each other and this custom of slipping off the bride’s garter. Quite the contrary, at 1st Corinthians 13, Paul is chiding Christians who are greedy, selfish, mean, haughty, arrogant, unkind, thoughtless, cruel, and rude to each other. And as for you, you likely have not known what Jesus means in this New Love Commandment that sounds so warm and cuddly but is rather (what?) I’ll coin a Yiddish word: Yesusische, “Jesusish.” The ἀγάπη of God is Yesusische. The ἀγάπη of God is not warm and fuzzy, and is not romantic. The ἀγάπη of God is quite sternly about how you treat other people [and by the way, Christian, in this quadrennial time of bitter national divisiveness, how do you treat those who despise you, or who disagree with your politics, or who are in the welfare line and you are not, or on the other side of Immigration or Obamacare from you? You see, Jesus’ Love Commandment hangs your certitudes up for target practice ].

The ἀγάπη of God is quite sternly not a suggestion, it is the will of God the Father and the nonnegotiable commandment of God the Son, which moreover you have covenanted with God time and time again that you will keep the commandment. Will you, Will you, Will you, - - - “Will you seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, “agapeing” your neighbor as yourself?” Climaxing in “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” To strive is to love and to love is to respect, and you promise that you will do —as we renew our relationship with God, first in words of covenant, and then in  water of Baptism, and then in the Blood of Christ as you come to God’s table to eat and drink. 

I am a religious person, not spiritual, but somewhat religious, and I like to work out the ἀγάπη of God theologically. First of all, it’s set forth [and this is your homework, your reading assignment for this week even though I may be wasting your time and mine by making the assignment because most of you will never pick up your Bible, open it and read this] your homework is to read 1st John 4:7-21,“God is love.” First John Chapter Four, verses seven through twenty-one, read it please, theology of our God who is love, and of what God asks of you as part of God’s Being.

Second, we do not preach hell-fearing, groveling sin and guilt religion of the Middle Ages; we are disciples of Jesus Christ, Christians of the New Testament Age where God is Love. God is not keeping tally of my sins to judge and punish me at the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. Those baptized this morning will not “be saved” as we pray and pour water. God already loves these children, God already has filled them with his Holy Spirit, God has already saved them into his dominion just like Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” These children, like you and me, were saved on Good Friday afternoon two thousand years ago — or even In the Beginning as the Word of God said let us make little boys and girls in our Image — formed us of dust of the earth and breathed into us his Holy Spirit. Salvation is not an issue, salvation is ours from the ἀγάπη of God. We are, from creation, part of God — living here and now on earth to proclaim along with Jesus the Son of Man, that God is Love, who gives us life, to love. Baptism is our acceptance of the ἀγάπη of God that has loved us since walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden.

And so God commands us — “Love one another. As I have loved you, love one another.” It’s not phileo, or eros, or storge. The ἀγάπη of God is lovingkindness that is not a feeling but how we treat each other. In theological terms, the ἀγάπη of God creates us as fully homoousious* as Jesus himself, one being, one substance with God the Father. 

Already you are one with God. Baptism is your immersion in covenant to Love others as God loves you.


Sermon or homily in Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Panama City, FL on Easter5C, April 24, 2016. Text: John 13: 31-35. Remember, I post these sermons not in any way pridefully but to keep a promise to a dear friend. TW+

* Preached sans nihil obstat, blogged sans imprimatur. Heresy: stuff it or make the most of it. TW+ Sermon/Homily this morning, Sunday, 20160424

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