Every first Sunday of the month we have Holy Communion, which begin with 1 John 4:20: “If we do not love (ἀγαπῶν: agapon) our brothers and sisters whom we have seen, how can we love (ἀγαπᾶν: agapan) God whom we have not seem?” (1 John 4:20). Jesus also said, “Love (ἀγαπᾶτε: agapate) one another as I have loved (ἠγάπησα: egapesa) you” (John 13:34).
So it is clear that we Christians are able to love our brothers and sisters with the love of God. This is what the Bible says, which sounds very positive about our capability. However, we keep wondering if I am ABLE to love brothers and sisters in Christ with God’s love. As we wonder if we are able to love brothers and sisters in Christ with agape love, we come across another question: What is agape? What is the love of God?
If you really want to know what it is, you should grab the Bible and read it. Then—only then—you will find what you want to know. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). And “God proves his love for us in that Christ died for us” “while we were still weak,” “while we still were sinners,” and even “while we were enemies against God” (Romans 5:6-10).
The Bible teaches us that God proved His love in Jesus who, as the Son of God, laid down His life to save us. In other words, God revealed His love in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Here, we find that the characteristic of God’s love is twofold: Firstly, it can be experienced only in Jesus, not in human hearts and actions. Secondly, it is unselfish, selfless, and self-sacrificial. Of course, it is true that: All our unselfish intentions, selfless approaches, or self-sacrificial actions do not manifest the love of God. Yet it is also true that: unless our intentions, approaches, and actions are unselfish, selfless, or self-sacrificial, we are not inspired by agape love.
As we have read and learned from the Bible, I think, it is not too difficult to understand what the love of God is. But when it comes to how to experience such love in our concrete lives and in our relationships, we feel doubtful asking ourselves: Can we begin a relationship with someone with a heart of selflessness, stay tuned to a heart of unselfishness all the way through, and remain so caring as to lay down our life for her/him?
Even if we are able to say “Yes, I can,” still we can only say “It is very close to the love of God—maybe not exactly the love of God” because we can find and experience it only in Jesus. Then we admit how limited we are to experience His love in our lives—in our relationships. Our question is “Is it possible?” What is your thought?
Limitations of Language
Before we talk more about the love of God, I want us to think about language for a moment. Language is one of the best ways we acquire shared knowledge, but not without limitations. For example, (1) by nature language contains ambiguity and vagueness, which is the reason why we frequently ask “Can you say more about that?” Also, (2) language can be used to manipulate others. We are aware of various forms of persuasion or manipulation such as advertising, propaganda, brainwashing, labelling, and stereotyping. Some people are good at using vague languages for their business. And, (3) language changes in context because it reflects time and culture.
I felt puzzled when I saw the young audience in a music concert the other day, who were holding pickets which read “I love you.” Also I felt the same at the responding words of the pop star on the stage, saying “I love you” to his audience. I wondered if the word love was relevant to the context. I understand, the singer wanted to put extra stress and emphasis on his heart of gratitude, and the audience on their hearts of support. But it seems to me that the word love has been so overused, misused, and even abused that it has lost clarity in its meaning. Do you remember the strange words that I shared in my sermon a few weeks ago, “Christian atheism” and “an atheistic Christian”? I think, love is another example of the misused.
The Four Loves
C S Lewis wrote The Four Loves. Is there anyone who read the book? I willingly recommend the book for your reading list. In this book, C S Lewis explores the nature of love from a Christian perspective. He talks about the four kinds of love—Storge, Eros, Philia, and Agape—which is originated from the Ancient Greek philosophy. Storgy describes the love between the family members. Philia means brotherly or sisterly love, or friendship. Eros is the word for sensual or romantic love. Agape is unselfish love for everyone. I feel astonished at the imagination and creativity of the ancient Greek.
Now let us go back to our question: Can we love each other with agape, which is the love of God? Can we begin with selfless love, stay tuned to self-sacrificial love all the way through, and remain unselfish to the end? What is your thought? My answer to the question would be: It is not impossible, but not easy either. I said, “It is not impossible” because I don’t think, there is none who loved others with such love during the last two Millennium or in human history. If I bring it to a personal level, I don’t think , there is no moment at all that I loved others with agape love in my life time so far, however brief the moment might be.
Then, another question arises from my answer: If I am able to experience the love of God among us, where does it come from? Were we born with it? Do we acquire it in our journey of life? Or, does the Holy Spirit inspire us to do so, whenever necessary? Each hypothesis would require a depth of theological exploration and discussion, which I wouldn’t try today. Instead, I just want to bring our attention to a truthful statement that “life is a never ending learning process.” Love is not an exception. How to love is part of our learning in life. Now let me ask you: Who do you think is your first teacher of love?
I agree, our first teacher of love is mum. Even before we were conscious of ourselves—e.g. as one year old baby—we were all loved. Even before our memories of mum took shape in our brain, we had all experienced her love and learned how to be loved and to love. Here I am not beautifying mum’s love but sharing what happened in our life journey. I do not think, motherly love equals to God’s love, but I believe, motherly love is closer than any other to the love of God. God gave each one of us a mother who was called to teach us not only how to be loved and to love, but also what the love of God is like.
We admit that some mothers were not able to response faithfully to such a divine call, and also there are a number of people who experienced abandonment by their mother immediately after their birth. We live in the corrupted world, in which we all suffer. So do those mothers who had to turn her back on her child. Admitting that we cannot fully comprehend all the cases of such sadness, we just feel sorry for them and for their children. Having said that, I believe that all mothers were called to be a divine call, to be the first teacher of love.
Commonalities and Differences
If motherly love does not equal to agape love, and if motherly love is the closest love to the love of God, what are the commonalities and differences between the two loves?
Firstly, God’s love and motherly love are so intense as to risk one’s life for the sake of their children. Secondly, the both loves are ever forgiving toward their child. Many years ago I heard a story of a man whose crime was so terrible that he was finger-pointed and condemned by everyone, eventually sentenced to death, and executed. What struck me was that his elderly mother never turned her back on her son. She did not deny his terrible crime, but she could not reject him, for he was her son. That reminded me of what Jesus did to his disciples: “he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). The Bible keeps reminding us that “while we still were sinners God proves his love for us in that Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Thirdly, God’s love and motherly love are unchanging. Unless it is distorted in this corrupted world, a mother’s love toward her child never changes. All mothers experiences aging in this world, which may result in a loss of her memory, or a parting with no return. Within her capacity, however, she continues to love her child. So does God. Good news is that God’s capacity is limitless and that there is nothing that distorts God’s goodness and mercy. So the psalmist praises that “His steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136).
Now we see the differences between God’s love and motherly love already disclosed as we talked about commonalities. Firstly, motherly love is limited in space and time, but God’s love is ever-lasting beyond time and space. Secondly, motherly love can be distorted in this corrupted world, but God’s love is not affected by anything. Thirdly, motherly love is ever forgiving only to her own child, but God’s love is ever forgiving to all people.
Do you love me?
“The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
From today’s reading from Zephaniah God speaks to us that “I love you” so much that He rejoice over us with gladness. It does not mean that He loves us because we are doing good—reading the Bible and praying every day, helping each other, feeling uplifted in worship, dong good to others, and being active in ministry. No. To our surprise, God loves us so much that He rejoices over us with gladness even when we are so discouraged, unmotivated, self-disappointed, ashamed, distressed, miserable, depressed, and consequently even when we chose to be unfaithful, irresponsible, rebellious and disobedient.
About thirty years ago when I went through a long and dark tunnel of spiritual life, Zephaniah 3:17 came to me as a beckoning light. When I first faced it, I resisted, speaking to myself, “I know, but I don’t deserve it.” But soon I found, I was more than I had been because I was created in the image of God. I slowly emerged out of spiritual darkness by the help of the words in Zephaniah 3:17. Even today whenever I read or recite Zephaniah 3:17, I feel my heart warmed up, not strangely, but thankfully.
When Jesus called Peter for the first time, he said, “Follow me.” And Peter followed Jesus, and loved him. But Peter did not love Jesus with agape love. How do we know that? Peter denied and left Jesus when he was arrested and crucified. If it had been agape love, he would not have abandoned his teacher.
After the death of his teacher on the cross, Peter came back to his hometown, and resumed his work, fishing in the lake. To Peter’s surprise, the resurrected Jesus came and found him absorbed in fishing. Jesus took Peter to a quiet place and asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus meant agape love. Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” A second time Jesus said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” This time Jesus meant philia love. Peter said, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” The third time Jesus said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Again, Jesus meant agape. Peter felt hurt because Jesus asked the same question three times in a row. He said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
The last word that Jesus gave him was: “Follow me.” By which Jesus meant, “I know you love me, but I want you to love me not with your love any longer, but with my love.” We are also invited to the same calling. Jesus says to us, “Follow me.” He wants us to love him not with our love any longer, but with his love which is agape love. And Jesus says to us, “Love one another.” Now, are we ready to love each other, not with our love any longer, but with the love that God revealed in Jesus?
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, today we hear your calling again, “Follow me.” Give us strength to follow you. Today we hear your calling again, “Love one another.” Open our eyes to see your love surround us here and now. Give us courage to love each other with your love, more deeply, for the sake of Your name. Amen.
“Do you love me?” Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-17; John 21:15-19.
Mother’s Day 13 May 2018. Rev Joohong Kim. Crossway Community Church