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September 9, 2018

“The Table of Love-HOW’S YOUR LOVE LIFE?”

Romans 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-8

 

Our Theme continues with God’s table: this week, a table of love-to represent this table of love, we have a kitchen or dining room table. My mother’s table in the dining room, which belonged to my grandparents was often a table of love. It was a table where I felt safe and accepted. The food my mother made for us at breakfast and dinner was an expression of her love for us. She said that she wanted to say “I love you” in all sorts of ways, and cooking for her family was one of them. So love came to us in the form of bacon and scrambled eggs or homemade drop biscuits with sausage gravy or pancakes in the mornings, and fried chicken, pot roast and even homemade pizza for dinner at night. That was one of the many ways my mother showed her love for us. I hope for you, perhaps the kitchen table is also a table of love.

 

Love is a word that is thrown around a lot these days. When you think about it, it is somewhat amazing how many different ways we use the word “love.” For example:

I love to see the sunset at the end of the day.

I love the Oakland A’s.

I love a big cheeseburger at In-N- Out.

I love my wife.

I love my dog, Angus.

I love my children, Sam and Abby.

I love getting a good massage once in a while.

I love to sing.

I love God.

 

We use that one word, “love,” to say all those different things, but do they mean the same thing? Not really. Love is a complicated word. The American Heritage Dictionary defines love as, “ an intense affectionate concern for another person, or a passionate attraction to another person, a beloved person, a strong liking or enthusiasm, and finally “ a zero score in tennis.” Yet even these definitions fail to fully describe this complex word and all of its meanings. This is especially true for us in scripture.

 

In the New Testament, they did not have just one word or one dictionary definition for love. In Greek, they had three different words to describe three different kinds of love. First, they had the word eros. Eros is romantic love, an erotic love, a Valentine’s Day kind of love. Second, they had the word philia. The name for Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, comes from that word philia. A philia kind of love is the love that you have for a close friend or for a family member.

And third, in the New Testament, they had the word agape. This is the form of love missing from dictionary definitions, and in reality is the most important form of love. Agape is unconditional love—the kind of love where you love and care about other people even if they do not deserve that love, even if they do not return that love, even if they do not appreciate that love. Specifically, it is a spiritual love which comes from God to creation.

 

1 Corinthians 13 has become part of our popular culture, the gold standard of the meaning of love, as it is heard so often at weddings. I have preached upon the main passage for this morning at a wedding at least 10-15 times. Many couples approach this passage with the romantic, eros understanding of love, rather than thinking of it in agape terms. Sometimes they will sit down in front of me and mention there was a passage they heard at a friend’s wedding that they really liked, about love, “13 something...” I know what they mean, and wonder how many of them have actually listened to Paul’s description of love. Having this passage at your wedding sets the bar rather high! A Romantic love which is patient, kind, does not envy or boast, is not proud, rude, self-seeking, not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres?- I feel like asking some of these couples-“WOW! Are you sure you want this passage?”

 

 

But Paul is not speaking of Eros love or Filial love. He is speaking about Agape love, and my goal for couples who are unfamiliar with this kind of unconditional love from God is to familiarize them with it. Agape love is much different than Eros love- Two people join hands in marriage, creating a line between themselves. That is often as far as many agnostic couples will go with their love. Their eros flows back and forth between the two of them. They can only rely on each other as the source, the strength of their love, and this is a fragile notion of love at best.

 

Yet the Agape Paul speaks of takes that one line between the married couple and makes it into a triangle. The key is to include God’s love in their own, by connecting to faith in God, spending time in prayer, and ideally joining in study and fellowship with other believers. It is then and there that their line becomes strongly connected to God, creating in effect a love triangle. Their source, their strength to love is no longer dependent upon just the two of them. There is now another source, one which feeds their love with never-ending, unconditional agape. That is the ONLY way, I tell them, to achieve these lofty goals Paul has placed before us in this passage of scripture. God’s agape feeds all other aspects of love and perfects our imperfect attempts to love each other.

 

Today’s worship service is not a wedding, however. And although this passage certainly applies to marriage relationships, it was not originally written for couples about to tie the knot. Paul wrote this letter to a struggling, fledgling church in Corinth that was trying to work and live together.

 

For Paul, agape was the way to unite the body, the way for the church community to work, live and play together. The message Paul had for this small band of followers of Christ some 2000 years ago reaches through the centuries to us today, and its message is just as important now as it was then.

 

 

Paul spoke about agape to address the need for mutual concern and consideration within the community of the church. He asks the same question today that he asked the Corinthians back in the first century, “How’s your love life?” That is, “How’s your Agape?” How do our own actions and relationships within our congregation express, or fail to express, Agape for one another? Agape is not just about our love for God, but it is to be directed towards others. Agape has to do with how we use and reflect that love to others here in the church, as well as outside these doors. In reflecting upon this passage, Theologian Richard B. Hayes says that “Agape is the criterion by which we should assess ALL that we do.”

 

There are two areas of life in the church that I would like us to assess under the light of agape love. The first has to do with our church community life. If Agape is the ground of all meaning within the church community, then without that agape, all of our activities, our meetings, our events become meaningless. If I preach in angelic tones but do not have love, I am nothing more than blah blah blah…. If I come to a session, committee, or deacons meeting, and have a faith strong enough to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I serve others by providing shelter for the homeless during the winter in Calvin Hall, help with the Community Dinner, or go on a mission trip to a faraway place and do not do it from a place of agape and gratitude for the unconditional never-ending love God has for me, I gain nothing and might as well just cook for myself, serve no one and take a vacation to Maui. If what we do as a church body is not grounded in love, we might just as well call ourselves a social club with inspirational speaking, group singing, and nice potluck meals.

 

As a church community, we must show that in each and every activity, we are grounded in agape love- In whatever meetings we attend, we are called to treat one another with unconditional, never-ending love-Why? Because this is the way in which God loves us, and if we have that love as our source for loving others, then it will shape our interactions, our words, our emotions with others.

 

 

This leads us to our second, and more important focus for this morning- our individual selves. Agape Love requires the formation of our individual character. Paul describes the attributes of Agape in verses 4-7. Paul calls each Corinthian church-goer and us as well to be patient, kind, not envious, boastful or rude, not self-seeking, or easily angered, not keeping a record of wrongs. Paul uses this list because he has seen impatience, he has seen people treat others harshly, has seen envy, boasting about position within the church community, rude behavior, seeking positions of status and power over others, anger, has heard that some are keeping mental lists of perceived slights, mistakes, or personal attacks. All of these behaviors are mentioned and addressed elsewhere in 1 Corinthians. Paul challenges us today to have Agape love in all aspects of our individual lives so that our church community life together might be strong and united as one functioning body of believers.

 

This letter was of course written to a specific church many centuries ago. Do its admonishments really fit our congregation? Well then, what kind of letter would Paul write to this church today? What would he see? What behaviors would he notice? What phone calls, emails, mental lists or conversations in the social hall would he take note of? Would it include some or all of the above-mentioned reproves in 1st Corinthians? Paul challenges us to look in the mirror, individually and corporately.

 

Now we cannot just magically embrace all of these ideals of Agape. They take time and effort. Many years ago, a wise person once said to me at an Engagement Encounter with my then-fiancee’ Paula- “Love is not an emotion, it is a decision.” You and I must decide each day that we will root all of our congregational and personal activity in Agape. In the early days of Christendom, there was a discipline known as “the examen.” The idea was that on a regular basis—weekly or preferably daily—believers would review what had been happening in their lives and evaluate how well they had lived out their faith in the midst of those circumstances. This passage is particularly helpful in that regard. We can take each facet of agape love as it is described in the chapter and see how it is reflected in our own lives.

 

 

For instance, this past week, have we been patient? kind? Were there times we were envious, boastful, or arrogant, or began a mental record of wrongs others have done to us? How do we measure up? What changes do we need to make? In time, with work, we will find learned patterns of behavior that emerge, and as we try to model this behavior, others in the church community will as well. Together, we must learn patience. Together, we must be taught how to let go of our lists of perceived wrongs or mistakes. Together we must learn how to speak the truth to one another in love; not in anger, envy or rudeness. As we model together what love is supposed to be, we will demonstrate that example of love to the community of Ashland, and throughout the Rogue Valley.

 

So... how’s your love life? What I mean by that is, how’s your agape? God sent Jesus into the world to model for us agape love. There is another table of love here with us, God’s table of communion which reminds us of that agape love. It is a table where I hope you too feel safe and accepted. It is a table that echoes back to Christ’s last supper before he died for us, to free us from sin and bring new life. That is the kind of ultimate, sacrificial love that God has shown to us-unconditional and never-ending. That is the kind of love that God hopes we will show to our sisters and brothers in this church community, and to our neighbors outside these doors as we leave this place. Just as in a marriage relationship, there is only one way to love others in the lofty way Paul has described in the church community. The one way, the more excellent way, the only way is Agape. Alleluia! Amen.

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