As I said last week, from this pulpit, I have been astounded by the love you have demonstrated for Arlene. I’ll say more than astounded by your love and concern, though. I’ll say proud. This week, as people crossed the threshold to Arlene’s hospital room, a virtual army of well-wishers, I just knew Arlene’s doctors and nurses must have been thinking, “Who IS this woman? Surely she must be a very important person to get so much attention.” And she IS a VIP—to those who know and love her. And of course, so many people extending their love to Arlene with visits and phone calls—they have provided healing in a way that a whole pharmacy of medicines and a whole gaggle of doctors and nurses can not. We may have tired out Arlene with our love, but it has been a good, satisfying tired—like when you return home from a week at the beach with family, or after a dinner out with good friends.
The kind of love Arlene is the happy beneficiary of, is called Agape love. It comes from God. It happens like this. From the moment of our birth, or maybe even before, when we are being formed in the womb, God loves us. God knits us together with fibers of his very being, which is a being of love. Those who are blessed to be raised in families that recognize and nurture that love, can’t help but return that love to God; and to share that love with others. And so we do. It’s that simple.
Agape is only one Greek word for love, the kind of love we are talking about. It’s to be distinguished from philia, which is love between and among brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents and so on; and eros, erotic love, as experienced by couples in a marital relationship.
I have been so astounded by your agape love here in this community, that I thought that today I would really zero in on that—giving you a brief overview of agape love as that word is used in the Bible— and then following that with some stories of agape love as I have witnessed it in church community.
So first, a quick Bible study. Agape only appears twice in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and both times in a negative sense, as in “Woe to you who are Pharisees, because you neglect justice and the love (Agape) of God.” The gospel of John, though, oh, my goodness. It’s just chock full of references to agape love.
Why is that? Two reasons, I think.
One, John’s community was closed off from other Christian communities. We know that because there doesn’t seem to be any cross-fertilization between the stories in Matthew, Mark and Luke and John’s gospel. John’s community didn’t share what it knew about Jesus and vice versa.
But John’s community was also closed off from the Jewish community even though its members were Jewish. We know that because the writer of John didn’t have to explain Jewish terms—like Passover, or Sabbath. If John’s community had been Roman, he would have had to stop in his story telling and explain them. Good Romans didn’t have a clue what these terms meant. What’s a Passover? So John’s community was Jewish, AND Christian, but, because their beliefs and practices were so different from the Jewish norm, they had been banned from worship in the synagogue.
So, closed off from other Christian communities, for whatever reason—by geography maybe, language differences? and closed off from the Jewish community, John’s community members, learned to depend on God and each other for strength and moral support. John’s community lived agape big time.
There’s one more reason I can think of that the author of John is so focused on agape love. The book of John was the last of the gospels to be written, probably at the end of the first century, beginning of the second. Those first gospel writers, especially Mark, were giving us more or less, breaking news stories—. “Got to get this in writing, before the first disciples die off and the beginnings of Christianity are forgotten!” By the time John is written, the author, and the disciple whom Jesus loved, had had time to reflect—to process. What did it all mean? What is God trying to tell us? In other words, the authors of Matthew Mark and Luke, are journalists, the author of John is a commentator. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the author of John—two different people, did you get that? They decided that Jesus’ life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection have everything to do with love—God’s agape love.
Agape love, as I understand it, and as I have witnessed it in churches, is an unconditional love for God and by extension, for each other. Agape love for other people transcends life circumstances—like economics, race, nationality, politics, gender and sexual leanings, age, education —how am I doing? All those life circumstances and life choices that normally divide us or even pit us against each other. More than that, though. If you love someone with agape love, as we are supposed to do in church communities, you may not like another person, you may actually dislike the other person mightily, but you still love him/her—which sounds contradictory, I know. And yet that is what God calls us to do.
So, we have been extending agape love to Arlene this week. However, Arlene is so easy to love. She’s not a test for us. I mean really. She’s polite; she’s gracious. She doesn’t have a criminal record, at least I can’t imagine she does; When she drives her car, she stops at stop signs and she doesn’t run red lights. She worked in the school system for something like 30 years. She pays her taxes, or we will assume she does. She is a contributing member to the town, the state, the nation. And of course, she shares our skin color, speaks our language without a foreign accent, dresses like we do; So again, she’s easy to love.
This week, I’ve been thinking of people in churches I have served, who unlike Arlene, are NOT so easy to love. I thought I would share with you something about them now.
One is a woman I’ll call Jackie. Jackie had a mental disability. When I first came to her church someone described her to me as “psychotic.” That sounds dangerous. She wasn’t that way in then recent history, though. She was, however, unplugged from the here and now. When her last living relative, a sister, died, she went to live in a “home.”
I visited her there once a month. She was always dressed in her faded pink and blue floral housecoat. She was either lying on her bed staring at the ceiling—or sitting in a chair on the home’s front porch—smoking cigarettes. Jackie could talk but her words were as they say, as hen’s teeth few. I would enter her room, saying “Hi, Jackie! How are you today? You remember me? I’m your pastor, Gay Lee.” There was never ever any hint of recognition. She would respond in a gravelly, smoker’s monotone:. “I want chocolate.” Other times, it was, “I want a cigarette.” That would be followed by, “Can you take me to the store to get chocolate/cigarettes? I didn’t do that. The staff said that chocolate made her sick. And I personally have this thing against cigarettes. Sometimes I DID take her for a drive—or to eat lunch at McDonalds, though.
Session members would sometimes come with me to visit. They were strangers to her, too. We would share communion. Unplugged as she was, I doubt Jackie knew the symbolism behind what we were doing, but we shared communion anyway. When Jackie developed heart problems, the church prayed for her. And we prayed for her soul, when she ultimately died. In a world that is too often, dismissive of people with mental handicaps, that church practiced agape—the unconditional, agape love for a child of God.
And I’ve got another example for you. Karen. Karen was a member at the first church I served. She worked as a nanny for a family in that same church. She was not proud of the life she had lived before finding Christ. She had married and divorced three times—she was the mother of several children, none of whom ever visited, or even spoke with her. In her late 40’s, Karen found Jesus. When that happened, she traveled to India to meet and work with Mother Theresa. I don’t know how long she was there, but that experience: finding Jesus, traveling to India, meeting with Mother Theresa, made her holier-than, well, holier-than-everybody-else in the church. Irritating.. Karen was so exuberant about her faith, that she maneuvered her way onto several church committees. Of course, she knew better than everybody else how those committees should be run. She was relaying directions to us straight from Jesus himself!
And then, Karen needed hip replacement surgery. None of Karen’s children volunteered to be on hand for her surgery or for her recuperation after. Karen couldn’t bankroll her home care.
Our church took over, and not even begrudgingly as far as I could tell. Our Congregational Care Committee put together a care team for this thorn in the flesh; this vexation to our community. The team had Karen covered, day and night during her stay in the hospital. Has that sunk in? Day and night. What church DOES that? For the few days she was in the hospital, we had a tag team—so that a church member was with Karen 24/7. When Karen returned to her apartment, church members were there with meals; drives to doctors’ appointments! On one of MY visits, I brought a bucket, a dishpan, shampoo, and conditioner. Karen lay on her back in her bed, her head hanging over and I washed her hair. Jesus washed feet. I wash hair. That church was practicing agape—unconditional, agape love for a child of God.
I will end with one more story. Years ago a church member shared with me how he came to be a church member. He said, “Well, I didn’t start out being a believer. Jesus? Hah? And where is God? So much ugliness in the world! If there is a God, why is there so much ugliness? I came to this church because I needed good people in my life. This church opened its doors to me. It extended love to me. I still have some doubts, but I’m working on my faith. I DO know this church means everything to me.”
Taken together these stories remind us of a line from Jesus himself: “I was sick and you took care of me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
We care for people, here. We share agape love here. Behold the kingdom of God!
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the (agape) love G26 of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit continue to be with us, all. Amen.