There are not many four-letter words derived from Anglo-Saxon roots that can be used from the pulpit. There is, however, one such word that is at the heart of the Christian faith and life. That word is love from the Anglo-Saxon word lufu. The difficulty with the word love is that it is used in so many different ways. The love of which the Bible speaks and what I call the “heart of the Christian faith and life” is not erotic or sexual love nor is it brotherly or sisterly affection for another. The Greek word agapé translated in most modern versions as love is translated in the King James Version by the word charity, which for our culture has fewer problems and in some respects may be a better word.
When we give to charity, we generally don’t expect anything in return except perhaps a good feeling or that what we give is used for some good charitable purpose, but not for our own benefit. The best definition of agapé that I have ever heard is “the giving of oneself to and for another without the demand or expectation of return.” That’s the kind of love God has for us. The difference between charity and agapé is that giving to charity is giving something for others whereas agapé is the giving of oneself to and for another without the demand or expectation of return. Mind you, agapé is not a feeling, not an emotion and not an attraction to another. Agapé is a commitment to act in a particular way, an act of the will to do something positive and creative and doing it–not just in word but also in deed.
That’s how God loves us. In Christ, God gives himself to us and for us without demand or expectation of return. God does not say, “If you are smart, or good, or handsome, or beautiful, or dress well, or smell good, I will love you.” God’s love is unconditional without any ifs, ands or buts. According to St. Paul, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, “neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God’s love is the most powerful and creative force on earth. One theory of creation that I believe is thoroughly biblical and not in conflict with either creationism or evolution is that everything that exists comes from the effervescence of God’s love, from the overflowing of God’s creative power. The power of God’s love is strong enough, tough enough, powerful enough not only to create all things but also to overcome all evil including sin and death.
I hope that this is not news to any of you. It is the heart of the good news, the gospel. But there are hundreds and thousands of people in this city, this nation and this world who really don’t know that God or anyone else loves them. In part, at least, that’s because they have never experienced real love from anyone. As sad as it may be, for too many people, to talk of a father’s love or a mother’s love is to bring up negative experiences of abusive or unloving relationships.
I was an eighteen-year-old enlisted man in the Navy during the latter part of World War II serving in the Pacific theatre preparing for the invasion of Japan. My father was a priest of the Episcopal Church, and it was my assumption that all families and friends were something like mine. I can never remember ever feeling unloved. In talking with shipmates, especially on long night watches, the conversation often turned to family. At least a third of the men I talked with would say, “My old lady told me to get the heck out of her way, don’t bother her any more, just get lost.” When asked about their father, many of them did not know who he was, or if they did, he was abusive to his spouse and children. When asked about brothers or sisters, there was little or no relationship.
It’s extremely difficult and sometimes virtually impossible, for an adult who has never really been loved by anyone, in the agapé sense, to understand or accept the reality of such love. I recently heard a specialist in the learning of languages who said that children who had never learned a language by the time they reached adolescence seemed to have lost most of the ability to learn to communicate verbally. In my experience, the same thing seems to be true for the ability to understand and believe in God’s love–it’s not impossible but extremely difficult.
Those of us who have been blessed by experiencing God’s love from our earliest childhood are blessed with an invaluable gift from God. We have been rooted and grounded in God’s love by being loved. We love God because God first loved us through our parents. As we mature, we transfer that knowledge of love from parents to God. Like all the gifts God gives to us–whether material or spiritual–God asks only (but not as a condition) that we share those gifts with others as an act of thanksgiving for all God has given to us. We share the love transmitted to us initially through our parents, our family, including our church family, and our friends. That’s normal for those of us fortunate enough to be brought up in a loving family and actively involved in a healthy church family. If we are to know agapé, it has to be passed on, from those who have experienced it, to others. I grew up thinking that was normal. I learned in the Navy among other things, that it was too often the exception rather than the rule.
One of the best sermons I have ever witnessed, and I say that because it was as much of an experience as it was listening, was in a boys’ church day school in Philadelphia, the Episcopal Academy. At the daily chapel service, a retired rector of a prominent parish preached to the whole school from kindergarten through grade twelve. The whole sermon was composed of nine words that he repeated. He got out of the pulpit and walked up and down the aisle in silence. His first stop was in front at the littlest boy in kindergarten. He stopped, looked at him and said in his booming but gentle voice, “Little boy, do you know that God loves you?” He then approached the headmaster, who was a few years from retirement, and said, “Mr. Headmaster, do you know that God loves you?” He approached the senior class and looked at the biggest tackle of the football team and said, “Young man, do you know that God loves you?” He continued with ten or a dozen more students, faculty and staff. By the time he finished there was not a single person in that chapel that did not know for sure that God loved each and every one of them. And I’ll bet that it was one sermon they’ll always remember in its entirety.
Love, in the Christian sense, the kind of love God has for us and that God asks that we share with others, is the giving of oneself to and for another without the demand or expectation of return. Jesus said, “Love your enemies!” Many people will say that such is not practical, foolish at best and probably suicidal. There are examples where it has proven to be some of the best counsel in history. For example, after World War I, the traditional “To the victor belongs the spoils” was carried out with a vengeance. The victorious Allies saddled the defeated nations with tremendous, impossible to pay war reparation debts–to pay the Allies for the cost of the war’s destruction in the victorious nations. That’s the way it had always been.
After World War II, this nation took the unprecedented action of helping rebuild those nations that had been both ally and enemy. Going into debt to do so, as a nation we gave of our resources and strength for the rebuilding and restoration not only of France and England but also of Italy, Germany and Japan through what was known as the Marshall Plan. Foreign aid was seen as our response to the world’s need and was a respectable part of our national budget. Fifty years later, I wonder if we would respond in the same way.
But it does indicate that we can love our enemies and that good can come from it even in the world of international politics, at least in terms of giving of ourselves to and for others. Regrettably, we usually attach demands and expectations to what we give not only in politics but also on a personal level, and we fall short of the full glory of God’s love for us and for all humankind.
Do you know and have you experienced the love of God given to you and for you without the demand or expectation of return? God wants us to share that love with each other and especially with those who have not experienced it. I believe that sharing God’s love is our mission, our primary mission, as the children of God, as members of the body of Christ and heirs of the Kingdom of God.
We are called to share God’s love with each other but especially with those who do not know it or who have not experienced it, and they are legion both in this country and around the world. We don’t need to go far. The local jail or a nearby prison, any mental health facility, a shelter for the homeless or a soup kitchen serving breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or it may be another employee where you work, or a friend or acquaintance who is in distress. The fact of the matter is, we can share God’s love wherever we are and with anyone we meet.
Dear friends, do you know that God loves you? Do you know that God gives himself to you and for you without the demand or expectation of return? If you do, share it with someone whenever you have the opportunity. If you don’t, by all means ask others what their experience has been. I hope they will be glad to share it with you. Dear friends, do you know that God loves you?