Some thirteen years later, I can still remember sitting in my homiletics class critiquing the sermons of my colleagues. Between that and a similar practice in our liturgics practicum, to this day, I am incapable of simply attending a church service. My eyes are always looking for things I would do differently. My ears are always fixed on ways I would have preached the text. When I get frustrated with this inner critic, I think back to those homiletics classes and remember that one time that I really got bent out of shape with a classmate who preached a sermon entitled, “it is all about love.”
“We don’t have a good working definition of love,” I said, indignantly, “so to preach ‘its all about love’ is to only exacerbate the misunderstanding.” More than a decade later, I still stand by that critique, but I see how maybe I could have helped more by suggesting a working definition of love rather than just throwing my hands up and saying, “quit with all this love garbage.” With our Presiding Bishop’s inaugural sermon forever floating around the internet as an Episcopal meme, it seems that maybe Sunday’s epistle lesson is begging Episcopal preachers to spend some time talking about Christian love.
Not including the two times John refers to his readers as “beloved,” the word love appears no less than 26 times in 15 verses. Twice, the author simply says “God is love.” It would behoove us, I think, to help people understand what this means. In every case, all twenty-six times, the Greek word translated as love is agape. Agape describes a love that is deeper than feelz. It isn’t just about butterflies in your stomach or safe-church-side-hugs or I’m-ok-you’re-ok-crappy-theology. Agape love is about giving oneself for another. It is a kind of love that has to be decided upon. It is love that requires action. It is a self-sacrificial love that seeks the betterment of the one who is loved. Agape love is the love that brings Jesus to earth in the form of a human being. It is the love that takes him to the cross that we might have life eternal. It is the love that invites us to share the Good News of God with a world that desperately needs it.
Before you spend 12 minutes talking about love this Sunday, please spend twice as much time considering what agape means for the people in your pews. Our Presiding Bishop is right, if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God, but there are so many different, sometimes unhelpful, definitions of love, that we owe it to our people to unpack what it all means.