My favorite Christmas movie is called “Love Actually.” Christmas is not so much the theme for the movie as the setting for a collection of love stories that loosely connect with each other. But these love stories aren’t the stuff of your typical Hallmark Christmas movie. There’s the love of a sister for her mentally ill brother. There’s love between friends, and love between a man and woman from two different countries, cultures, and languages. There’s a character who says he’s looking for love but is really feeling something more like lust. There’s love that comes as an unwelcome surprise, love that comes at an inconvenient time, and love that causes pain when it is ignored for the excitement of a dangerous flirtation. Woven throughout the movie is a song that an aging rock star hopes will reignite his career as he tries to remake his biggest hit, “Love Is All Around Us,” into a prize-winning Christmas song called “Christmas Is All Around Us.”
The original song title affirms something about the wonder of love: love is all around us. And, as it does in the movie, love takes many forms. Unfortunately, we use the word “love” so widely and casually, and we apply it to so many things, that we can lose our sense of wonder at it. Love becomes the wallpaper of our lives, rather than the centerpiece.
The English language doesn’t help. We have one measly word to use for everything and everyone we’re fond of or attracted to, admire or have an emotional connection with. We love our spouses and we love ice cream. We love our children and we love the new app on our phones. We love our country and we love the latest James Bond movie. We love God and we love our best friend’s new hair style. Love is all around us, all right, but we have no way of differentiating between our feelings for the many different objects of our affection.
The authors of the Gospel of John and the letters of John were luckier. The ancient Greek they spoke and wrote in offers lots of different words for love. The word for romantic, passionate love is different from the word for love among family members. There are different words for playful love, enduring love, and obsessive love. Love for friends, love of money, and a healthy love of self each have their own terms. If the producers of “Love Actually” had been writing in ancient Greek, they would have had to change the title to “Eros, Philia, Storge, Mania, Philautia, Pragma, and Ludus Actually.” That would have been one a cumbersome movie poster!
There is yet another kind of love that doesn’t show up in the movie but is all over the Gospel of John and the letters of John. It’s the divine love of God. It has its own word, too—a word you’ve probably heard many times: agape.
What distinguishes agape from all other kinds of love is that it is entirely selfless. All the other kinds of love have an element of self-interest in them. Love of money and possessions always is about satisfying some need in us. Even when we desire the well-being of the people we love, our relationships usually also meet some need that we have, like the need for companionship, or a legacy, or inclusion or affirmation. Agape, on the other hand, seeks only the well-being of the other.
This is the kind of love the author of 1 John is concerned with. The entire letter is only about 100 verses long, but John uses some form of the word agape 51 times. It’s also the kind of love the Gospel of John describes. Dozens of times, the gospel speaks of agape love. That’s a lot of love—a lot of divine love shown to us and that we reflect back to God and toward others.
Agape is the kind of love that moves someone to give their life for another. Agape is the kind of love that moved God to come and live among us in human form of Jesus, who gave up his heavenly home and divine power in order to live our life and die our death. It’s the kind of love that fueled Jesus’ ministry—a ministry that denied him many of the earthly pleasures we enjoy—a home, marriage and family, a peaceful old age. Long before he went to the cross, Jesus gave up his life for the people he came to save—for you, for me.
Then, out of his agape for us, he did go to the cross. Agape led Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Rest for a minute in that thought: Jesus loves us so much that he chose to die for us rather than abandon us to a life lived apart from God—a life which is really no life at all, a life without true peace, true joy, true freedom. When the mob came to arrest him, when Herod questioned him, when Pilate sentenced him to death, in essence Jesus said, “My life for hers. My life for his. Out of my love for you, my life for yours.” Take a moment and wonder at that kind of love.
The letters of John and the Gospel of John were likely written by two different people, but they both spring from the community shaped by the apostle John’s testimony. That testimony is in large part about agape. We don’t initiate this love; God loves us first. We can’t buy it, and we don’t need to. We can’t earn it, but we can respond to it. Agape is offered first by God and reciprocated by those who experience it—a perfect circle of love.
The Gospel is where we first hear about this perfect circle of agape love. Knowing that his earthly life will soon end, Jesus speaks words about the agape that binds Jesus to his Father and the disciples to Jesus—a connection they will need when he is no longer physically present with them. “Abide in me,” he says, “like a vine that is firmly connected to its branch and, through the branch, to its roots. As my Father has loved me, so I love you, and as I love you, you should love one another. As I have kept my Father’s commandments, so you should keep my commandment to love each other.”
The epistle writer clarifies and echoes the Gospel. He wants to help his readers learn how to live in and live out of the love God has for them—a love so deep that “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” When this love lives in us, it should show in our lives, he says. It’s a pretty simple matter as far as John is concerned: “Since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another.”
As God’s agape abides in us and we abide in it, we have the privilege and responsibility of showing agape to each other and to the world. By the power of the Spirit, God abides in each person who confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. We respond by offering that same kind of love back to God and to each other.
So, we have fellowship with each other. We obey his commandment to love God and neighbor with the same love that’s been extended to us. We choose carefully what to extend this love to—not to things of the world—the fleeting material pleasures, the opinions of others, the desire for wealth, but only for God and the ones God loves. We share what we have with those who are in need, without considering what it will cost us or how we will benefit. Our believing and loving and commandment-keeping are the evidence of God’s love abiding in us and us abiding in God’s love.
Another piece of evidence that we are abiding in God’s love is our freedom from the fear of God’s judgement. John reminds us that no one has ever seen God, but we’ve all seen the images—the old man with the flowing white hair and beard, the stern face, sometimes with fingers pointing in judgment. You can erase that image.
God is just, and we will all stand before God in judgment. But God will judge us according to God’s loving nature, for love is not simply something God does. Love is what God is. God’s very nature is love, and love and justice can and do co-exist. In God’s agape for us, we are offered forgiveness through our faith in Christ. Our confidence in this love enables us to have boldness on the day of judgment, not boldness as audacity or bluster, but a free and fearless confidence in the saving grace of Jesus Christ that covers us in his righteousness. Rest for minute in that thought: We have a God who sees us in all our sinfulness, but loves us in a way that we can live without fear. Take a moment and wonder at that.
Our sense of wonder at God’s love for us kindles our desire to abide in that love, but learning to do that is a process. It takes some of us longer than others. We may progress in fits and starts, sometimes making great leaps forward and sometimes taking a couple steps backward. Our ancestors in the faith—the readers of John’s letters—shared that process. We know because John offers them some warnings. He cautioned them against lying, and against hating their brothers and sisters in the faith. His word for “hating” is interesting. It can mean hatred as we think of it—as detesting something or someone. But it also can mean simply to “love less.” We are to avoid offering less love to others than we could. John offers, not just a prohibition, but encouragement to grow in agape.
John encouraged his readers to live with integrity—not pretending to a faith they didn’t have. If we say we are followers of Christ, our lives ought to show it. In an earlier chapter of the letter, John makes it plain: “Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” That means not only doing the things he did and commanded us to do, but to do them in the same spirit—in a spirit of self-giving agape.
I recently learned about a particularly insidious threat to our integrity in faithfulness. I actually read about it in a mystery story called The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny. It’s part of a series about a detective named Inspector Gamache. In the book I just finished, Gamache learns about something called “near enemies.” A near enemy isn’t a sleeper spy or the co-worker at the desk next to you who’s always trying to undermine you. The idea of near enemies actually comes from Buddhism, and it’s a way if identifying attitudes and actions that appear to be good on the surface but are unhealthy underneath.
For example, someone may seem to meet life serenely, which is what we would expect from someone who abides in God’s love. But what we perceive as equanimity can actually be apathy—a passive indifference. This near enemy lets us off the hook of working to right the injustices of this world or serving our neighbors’ needs out of Christlike love.
What looks like joy may simply be exhilaration—not the enduring joy of our faith but a fleeting enjoyment of some earthly thing. Joy in the good fortune of others stems from agape. Exhilaration is more self-centered, and it can often mask jealousy. Then it becomes a form of hypocrisy.
The near enemy of compassion is pity. Pity looks down on others. It puts them into a category separate from us. Pity is when those who believe themselves to be inside the circle of God’s love throw bones to those outside rather than welcoming them in. Compassion literally means “to suffer with” someone. Their pain and grief and need become ours. We see them as equals, and treat them as we would want to be treated. This is agape, which wants the best for others without the intrusion of selfish interests. We offer the same agape we’ve received, not because we stand above them but because we stand next to them.
And then there’s the near enemy of love itself. Love’s near enemy can be described as “attraction.” It’s what many of those Greek words for love actually describe: the attraction of money or a seductive co-worker, or earthly pleasures that aren’t bad in and of themselves but aren’t appropriate objects for our love, like football teams and chicken wings and movie stars. Attraction masquerading as love crowds out love for God. John says as much in his letter in Chapter 2. “Don’t love the world or the things of the world,” he says.
Advent is a time of self-examination, when we prepare our hearts to both celebrate God’s ultimate expression of agape and anticipate Christ’s return. How can we discern whether these near enemies aren’t undermining our efforts to walk as Christ walked? The key is that near enemies of all kinds are accompanied by an element of fear. A fear that people won’t think well of us or like us if we don’t conform to worldly expectations. A fear that justice for all will mean less for us. A fear that if we get too close to the people we help, we’ll lose our superior status. A greater fear of coming up short in the world’s judgement than in the Lord’s judgment. Fear of losing something that meets a need in us, and fear of being left with that unfulfilled need. Fear psychologists are now calling FOMO—the fear of missing out. If we that find our “love” of something is accompanied by a nagging fear of losing it, it isn’t agape.
But the good news is that when our love fails—when it becomes something less than agape—God renews us in God’s self-giving love. God’s perfect love casts out fear. It casts out fear of punishment by God, and it also casts out fear of punishment by the world. It doesn’t guarantee we won’t suffer some form of punishment when we refuse to conform. It’s likely that the original readers of the letter were experiencing that very thing. John’s words offer courage and hope and an assurance that God’s love will not fail them—or us. Jesus offered the same hope and assurance when he spoke to the disciples in the upper room as he prepared to go to the cross.
Only this kind of love—this agape—can create in us a true sense of wonder, because it is a love beyond all explaining, all reasoning. That God would condescend—that God would descend from heaven in order to be with us—is hard to fathom. That God would walk this earth in a human body, with all its hungers and pains, would be unimaginable if it hadn’t happened. How God could love us so much that Jesus, God’s very Son, would die so that we might live, is a mystery we will never solve. Let it be enough to wonder at this great love and then to respond, for we love, because God first loved us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young