I John 4:7-12,19
Read John 15:12-17
Read I John 4:7-12,19
These words of Jesus remind us that our faith is much, much more than a statement of our beliefs, or holding to the correct creeds. There is something concrete and observable about us and the lives we live and the relationships we share. Our beliefs influence our actions. This teaching reminds us there is an integrity about our lives that is tangible, that we indeed practice what we preach, to use the old cliché. We all have a sense of this as we often hear the words from the novel, In His Steps, “What would Jesus do?” We do not ask, “What would Jesus think, but what would Jesus do?”
We have thus far reflected on three fruits, or three expressions of our faith, hope, peace or shalom, and joy. Today, I want to reflect for just a moment on love. We know that this fruit is the very foundation or cornerstone of our Christianity. It is The Great Commandment, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It was expressed in both of our passages read today. I John, “God is love. The commandment we have received is, those who love God must, not try, or do your best, but must love your brothers and sisters also.” So what does this mean?
In Greek, the language in which the New Testament is written, there are three words that we translate as love. One is eros, which is the passionate, physical expression of love. It is obviously the cognate for our word erotic. The second word is philia, which means friendship. Again we see the expression of this word in the name Philadelphia, or the City of Brotherly Love. But the word used in Jesus’ Great Commandment and in most of scripture is the word agape. It is this word I would like to reflect upon a little more today. What does it mean? What might it look like? This question is the foundation of Christmas. Jesus, as Emmanuel, God with us, reminds us that God so loves, so agapes the world, that God sent God’s son. And it is this son who shows us what it means to live agape. In the passage from The Gospel of John we hear Jesus say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus is the concrete expression and example of what it means to live by the fruit of love.
In this life we not only see the expression of God’s love, see what it looks like, but maybe even more importantly, we see that God will never ask us to do anything that God has not already done first. I John, “We can love because God first loved us.” In Jesus we have the example and the gift of God’s love for each and every one of us. God will not ask s to give what we have not already received from God. We have been gifted. We have received the Christmas gift now it is our turn to be the gift of Christmas. We, in our own way, become the incarnational presence of God’s love in the world. This is why people are looking toward us and our lives as the expression of our faith. That Christmas is not just the celebration of a historical event, but it is the transforming moment for the life of our world. Jesus came, as he says himself, “so the world might be saved.”
So what does all of this mean? What is the call to agape look like? How do we love as we have been loved? Agape is not so much an emotional expression of love, as we might experience toward a spouse or children. It is more of an attitude or character by which we live our lives. I believe it means to have a genuine honoring and respecting of all life. It is personally seeing that all life is sacred, for all life is from God. So if this is what it means, if this is our starting point, then how does this influence our character, and hence our practice of living our life?
As always, one can only share from one’s own experiences and understandings. You can ask my family, but I have a hard time killing anything. If I hear my daughter scream because there is a bug or spider or bee in her room, I grab a jar or cup and catch it and throw it back outside. Now I must admit I have my limits. Where we lived in Phoenix, we were in the midst of a scorpion hot bed, so we would occasionally find one in the house. No jar, just step on it and move on. Don not even ask me about rats.
I am not a vegetarian, so I acknowledge that something dies so I can grill. Can you imagine not being able to have a barbecue? But, during one of the Tuesday classes, we were talking abut the sanctity of life, and one person brought up a Native American belief and faith practice. When they went hunting and made a kill, they would give thanks and express gratitude to the animal for the sacrifice they made so the hunters and their families could live. Sounds a little like Easter. There is still an acknowledgment of the sacredness of life. As we hear Jesus’ teaching that all people, no matter who they are or where they live are our brothers and sisters for they are all children of God, loved by God, and that Jesus came to save them as he came to save you and me, that really complicates things for us. You have heard me in the past express concern about border issues and border policy. It has never been a question of needing to have good border policy, but a struggle for me of the policies we see in action at the moment. When you have a reverence for all life, can you support a policy that condemns men, women and children to death by dehydration on the desert? If all life is revered and sacred to God, then how can it not be revered and sacred to us?
It does get complicated and sometimes presents us with issues that are not so clear as to what it means to live in agape. One of my most respected people and heroes of the faith in my life is a German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was prominent in Germany just before World War II. Bonhoeffer was actually in the U.S. teaching just before the war began. When he told his colleagues he was going back to Germany, they tried to convince him to stay and teach until the war was over. Bonhoeffer’s response was, “How will I be able to help my country rebuild, and how will I have the ability to help my brothers and sisters recover, if I do not live and experience with them what they face. So he went back to Germany. So here is a man who reveres life. Yet, when he lives in the midst of what is happening, his heart is breaking by what he sees his brothers and sisters experiencing. So he becomes part of the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. After this failed attempt, Bonhoeffer is arrested and put into a Berlin prison. While in prison he writes letters to his fiancée, family and friends, which were later collected and made into a book entitled, Letters From Prison. Many people use this book as a devotional. One letter sticks out in my mind. Bonhoeffer writes about being locked in his cell with the other prisoners and hearing the bombers fly overhead to bomb Berlin. The guards did not take them to a bomb-shelter, but left all the prisoners in their cells during the raids. Bonhoeffer says, “He could hear his fellow prisoners praying to God that the bombs would miss them,” but Bonhoeffer said, “I could not pray that prayer. For what I was praying would mean if God prevented the bombs from falling on me then they would have to fall on someone else.” In agape, in the reverence for all life, Bonhoeffer could not place his life above anyone else’s. As we see, he even placed others lives before his own. Bonhoeffer was hung just two or three days before the Allies liberated Berlin. Bonhoeffer’s story may be the extreme case of the difficulties trying to live love, agape, may bring to us.
What does it mean to live by agape? How does it affect and influence our decisions? What do people see from us in how we respect and honor creation? The next time we meet officially as the church will be Christmas Eve. We will celebrate the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, the expression of God’s love for each and every one of us. It is a commitment of respect and honor for each of our lives. As the Apostle Paul said, “Nothing can separate us from the love, the agape of God, through Christ Jesus our Lord. Now it is our turn. Now we hear the words of love one another as I have loved you. Now is the time we are asked to respect and honor each other. Now is the time we are challenged to hold sacred and revere all life. Love one another, as I willingly loved you.
Sermon delived by Rev. George Cushman on December 21, 2008.
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