Beloved by God

Having quit Greek after only a semester nearly fifteen years ago now, there is very little that I’ve actually retained.  I still know how to use a Greek lexicon, I’ll never forget the aorist tense being like the refectory’s Fiesta Dog, and because I use it in pre-marital discussions, I’ve got down the four words for “love” in Greek.  I’ve written about it before, so regular readers of this blog may want to skip ahead, but as a review:

  • Eros is the passionate love we associate with an intimate partner
  • Storge is the natural affection felt within families
  • Philia is the catch all type of love between friends and for Alabama football
  • Agape is self-giving love that seeks the needs of the other

The First Sunday after the Epiphany <colon> The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ is a day set aside each year to ponder Jesus as God’s beloved.  In the Collect of the Day, new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the author, the Rev. Dr. Charles M. Guilbert, chose to highlight that in his baptism, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and God proclaimed him beloved.  The lesson from Luke appointed for Year C, despite being mostly about John the Baptist (yet again), also makes note that the voice from heaven declared Jesus to be “the beloved,” o’ agapetos.

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Jesus isn’t just loved by God because he is God’s Son (storge).  Jesus isn’t just loved by God because God loves everybody (philia).  Jesus is declared by a voice from heaven to be The Beloved (agape), the one whom God’s self-giving love is directed towards.

Here’s the neat thing, however. That belovedness, that desire on the part of God to pour out agape love on something or someone isn’t the exclusive property of Jesus. As we can infer from the story in Acts, this belovedness, shown forth in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is the status of all who have been baptized into the family of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That Jesus is the only, pre-existent Son of God doesn’t mean that he is the only one whom God loves with agape love, but rather, Jesus serves as the harbinger of that love, the exemplar of that belovedness, in the world.

Imagine how different the world would look if we truly lived into the reality that we are beloved by God? How would it change the way we saw ourselves? How might we see our neighbors differently? How might it impact how we treat the stranger in our midst, our enemies, even the creation which God has entrusted to our care? Being the recipient of God’s agape love has the potential to allow you to love the world with that same sort of love.

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It is all about love

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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.

The Extreme of Love

In yesterday’s post, I posited that as Paul laid out some of the more extreme ways that people have chosen to follow the Way of Jesus, he had in mind only one real extreme: the extreme of love.  While 1 Corinthians 13 gets regular airplay at wedding ceremonies, the sort of love that Paul is talking about here isn’t the gooey romantic love of the wedding day.  It is more the ongoing, life-giving love of every day that follows.

During wedding rehearsals, as we go over the questions and vows that the couple will engage, I note that television shows and movies are fairly comfortable with the Episcopal marriage rite, but that they have missed a key part of the liturgy.  During the betrothal portion of the service, the Officiant asks the couple “Will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage?  Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?”  The pop culture answer to those questions is “I do,” but the truer answer is “I will.”  “I can get you to agree to anything on your wedding day,” I say to the couple, “but I’m much more interested in the life you’ll live after the event is over.”

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Paul’s extreme of love is focused on a lifetime of living in community.  The love that he describes to the Christians in Corinth is a “more excellent way” than the bitter disputes that have been dividing the community heretofore.  This love, if it is going to change the world is a love that must be patient and kind.  It must be a love that doesn’t seek its own gain, but rather cares for the greater good.  It must be a love that doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and endures even when the times get tough.  This love which can never end can come only from the Creator of the Universe, the inventor and perfecter of agape love, who showed us that love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his only Son.

The extreme of love is impossible to accomplish on our own.  Human beings are incapable of the sort of patience, kindness, and endurance that the true agape love Paul describes requires.  While still in our mortal bodies, we can only see that love through a mirror dimly, but in Christ, we know it is possible.  Through Christ, with the help of the Spirit, we grow into that sort of love more and more until that day when we see fully and are fully known.  Paul lays out of the Corinthians a more excellent way, a way of extreme love.  Give us grace, O Lord, to love as you love us.

Jesus’ Mandate – Maundy Thursday

Every year at this time, I stop and give thanks.  I give God thanks and praise that the Church decided that the thing it would remember about Jesus wasn’t the washing of feet but the sharing of bread and wine.  Today is Maundy Thursday, the day when the Church remembers Jesus’ final evening with his disciples.  It was, at least in the Synoptic accounts, the evening of the Passover Feast.  Jesus and his disciples were gathered in the room that had been home base all week to share the sacred meal and remember God’s salvific work for their ancestors enslaved in Egypt.  Over the course of the evening, there are three main events that are worth remembering: Jesus’ Meal, Jesus’ Pedilavium, and Jesus’ Mandate.

Jesus’ Meal: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

According to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, The Holy Eucharist is “the principal act of Christian worship.”  In the midst of our corporate worship with offer God thanksgiving (Eucharist) for the gift of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We do so through the sacramental signs of bread and wine; symbols of Christ’s body broken and his blood poured out on Good Friday.  We do so in congruence with his own words, that it be done in remembrance of him.  Through that remembrance (anamnesis), we are grafted into a two-thousand year-old practice and united with Christ and his disciples in that upper room.  This will be the last Eucharist celebrated until Easter morning.  We’ll go without the nourishment of Christ as we remember his death on Good Friday and keep watch at the tomb on Holy Saturday.

Jesus’ Pedilavium: “I have set an example.”

During that last supper, Jesus got up from the table and did something astonishing.  Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  Jesus, always the teacher, explained to them what he had done.  “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”  Just as we remember Christ’s gift of love in the Eucharistic Feast, we follow the example of that love by taking part in the most humbling and humiliating of activities that one human being can do for another (outside of areas covered by a bathing suit).  We engage in this profoundly counter-cultural, shockingly intimate, utterly awkward act as a sacramental reminder of God’s never-failing love for us, and we’re lucky we only have to do it once a year because it is, at least according to John’s account, the sacramental act that fulfills the mandate of Jesus.

Jesus’ Mandate: “Love one another.”

Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos.
A new commandment I give to you: Love one another.

That love which Jesus commands of us is the agape sort of love.  It is self-giving love.  It is the love that compels God to send his Son to save the world.  It is the love that motivates Jesus to stretch out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross.  Agape love is deeper than writing a check.  Agape love is more profound than getting up early on Sunday to go to Eucharist.  Agape love is well beyond quiet times and Bible memorization.  Agape love is washing feet, and it is the love that Jesus commands we have for one another.  Maybe it was agape love that kept the Apostles from highlighting foot washing over the Eucharist, or maybe it was just a good PR person.  Either way, I’m grateful for the choice they made, even as I remember the profound act of agape love that is the pedilavium.

God’s Love for You

Evan Garner has convinced me.  This Sunday’s lesson may, in fact, be all about grace, but grace is a second level experience of God.  We only experience God’s grace because of God’s great love for us.  His love for me.  His love for you.  As I read through the lessons again this morning, the word “love” jumped out at me.

Ephesians 2:4-6 God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

I had a suspicion about that word “love” and so I went digging to confirm it.  God’s love for us, in all three instances, is the Greek word “agape” which is used all over the New Testament to describe not only the love God has for his creation, but the sort of love disciples of Jesus are expected to have for God, for one another, and even for our enemies.  It is, according to the First Letter of John, the type of love that typifies God.

God is love

God is love – 1 Jn 4:8

Agape love is self-giving.  It is, as Paul writes, patient and kind, not self-seeking, and endures all things (1 Cor 13).  That is the sort of love that God has for you.  A love so deep, so great, so unimaginable that we have to hear about it over and over and over again, and even then, we have a hard time wrapping our minds around it.  God loves the world he created so much that he gave his only Son to restore it, all of it, from the amoebas in the sea to the billy goats on the mountain side, from the baby asleep in a mosquito net in east Afica to the CEO in the corner office in mid-town Manhattan, from me in the depths of my sinfulness to you in the heights of your hopes and dreams, he wants to restore all of creation to right relationship with him and with one another.

God pours out his mercy upon us.  His grace saves us through faith.  That is all true, but before all that, God loves you, and that is more than enough.