On June 25, 1967 the Beatles played a new song during the first world-wide, satellite broadcast in history. Every country in the world could see the Beatles live in the recording studio at the same moment. It was a milestone in broadcasting history and the song they played for that historic occasion was one of the most simply stated expressions ever made of what is essential in life. They played John Lennon’s song, ‘All you need is love.’ Paul McCartney said at the time that he had no idea what the rest of the words to the song meant with lines like, ‘there’s nothing you can make that can’t be made; nothing you can save that can’t be saved’ but the chorus of the song boldly and clearly stated that there is one essential in life: ‘All you need is love… all you need is love… all you need is love, love… love is all you need.’ Truth is, many people would agree with John Lennon: all we need is love. And to be honest, that sentiment is often supported by quoting the Bible. It was Jesus himself who said in John 13:14 “A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” There is one big problem with talking about ‘love’ though: what do people mean when they say ‘Love?’ It’s so difficult to pin down, at least it is in English. Why, I can say, I love my wife, I love Qdoba burritos, I love the feel of a new razor when I’m shaving and I love having a quiet cup of tea in the morning and it all makes sense to us. Everyone knows, or at least I hope they know, that my love for my wife and my love for a burrito are not the same thing and yet we use the same word. And this one-word-fits-all-feelings business we find in English makes the translation of the Bible from Greek, the original language of the New Testament, into English, really difficult. The Greek language had 4 primary ways to talk about feelings that we use the one word ‘love’ to translate and three of these words are found in the New Testament. The first word is storge (Romans 12:10) and it is the kind of affection you find in a family between parents and children. It’s a rarely used Greek word but we all know that there is something different about the way family members feel about one another. The Greeks recognized this and they had a word for family affection: storge. Next is eros which at its core is a feeling of passion or a desire for intimacy. It’s a sensual word. You get it, I’m sure. We get a number of eros-y kinds of words from it, but it is usually translated: love. Then, there is philia. This word was used to talk about friendship… brotherhood… mutual respect. This word was used when someone wanted to express a deep bond between people. We use this word today: Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love. Then there is the word agape. (ahgapay) This word was used to talk about what we might call selfless love… it is a word that means: to always be thinking of what you can do that is the very best for another person without expecting anything whatsoever in return. This word has an interesting history, (and you’re going to have to put up with my geekiness for a minute) a history that starts when the Jews translated the Old Testament from its original Hebrew into Greek about 200 years before Jesus was born. (They called this translation the Septuagint and that’s another story in itself). What the Jewish translators did was use this word ‘agape’ to describe the kind of love God continually showed to the Jews. The way the Jewish scholars saw it, even though God often got nothing in return from the Jews, he was always doing whatever he could do to give the Jewish people what was best for them. The Jews could see that God’s love for them had been consistently selfless and so they used this word ‘agape’ to describe God’s feelings for them. But, and I think this is really interesting, until recently there were no known records of this word being used in any ancient, secular sources until after the translation of the Septuagint. So, scholars for centuries just figured that the Jews had simply made up this word… that it wasn’t really a word at all… just something the Jews made up… since most people believed that this kind of love was an impossibility and nobody, God in particular, would have loved the Jews like this. So, even though we find agape in the Septuagint a lot, scholars just figured the word didn’t really exist until the Jews dreamed it up as a way to brag about their relationship with God. Well, in the last century a pre-Septuagint secular source was found containing the use of ‘agape’ in the way the Jews had used it and so we know now that the Jews didn’t make it up; they were simply employing a Greek word that was rarely used because, seriously, hardly anyone continually does what is best for someone, constantly looks out for them and shows them great affection without ever expecting anything in return. And yet, and here is where this all gets practical for us, even though we rarely see this kind of love in action in the world, this is exactly the kind of love that Jesus was talking about in his New Commandment when he said ‘Love one another,’ to his disciples… and it is the kind of love that he expects us to show one another… and it’s also the only kind of love that will prove to the world that we are disciples of Jesus. Yikes! Again, who does this? Well, for one: Jesus did it and he gave us a powerful example of this kind of love in action. In fact, one of the greatest showings of ‘agape’ in the Bible had just happened a few minutes before Jesus said these words. Here, listen to what had just happened before Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another?”
What Jesus did for his disciples was unimaginable. Foot washing was the rarely-if-ever-required task of the lowest of house slaves. It’s no wonder Peter didn’t want anything to do with Jesus washing his feet at first. But, this action on Jesus’ part is the core of what he meant when he said, “As I have loved you, you must love one another.” It was as if he was saying, ‘I have set aside every ounce of my position and my privilege as your Rabbi and your Lord and I am doing this for you to show you how deeply I want only what is best for you… and I want you to do this same sort of thing for one another!” And the first thing this screams out to me is this: if I am really going to separate the trivial things in my life from the few essential things… if I am serious about choosing to live a life characterized by the essential, few, important things… the place I have to start is deep in my own heart… I have to eliminate every vestige of selfishness, along with every hint of entitlement, pride and self-aggrandizement. The first voice I must hear is the voice of Jesus who not only commanded us to surrender to the selflessness of agape, but then said the way that the world will know we belong to him is by loving one another in this unimaginable, rarely seen way called ‘agape.’ Here is the voice of Jesus telling us what is essential when it comes to loving others: “To you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36).
When you gather up all of this: the meaning of agape… Jesus’ command that we love one another… the clear, essential necessity of living an ‘other-centered’ life… these all taken together scream ‘community’ to me. Here’s why: there is no possibility of living out the kind of love that Jesus calls us to in a relational cocoon. We have to be in relationships with others to show this kind of love… there has to be an object of our ‘agape’… it can’t simply be an ideal that we believe in; it has to be lived out in the reality of real life or it is all just words. And the more I’ve thought about this it has become apparent to me that this is the only kind of ‘love’ that will build true community: being friends is good… having a deep bond with someone can give life significance… but love that is selfless… that never seeks its own advantage… that does whatever is necessary to bring the best into someone else’s life with no expectation of the love being returned, now that can change everything. Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a community of people that are all looking out for one another in this way? Can you imagine what it would be like to be always thinking of others and yet at the same moment living in the confidence that there were others in your life who were equally concerned about you and your life? Jesus must not have thought this kind of life is a dream because it is literally what he commanded us to do. This is why we make such an effort to help gather you into small communities... why we are working continually to help you find this kind of agape. We don’t go to the trouble just to make it possible for you to have friends… and that is important… but that isn’t the ultimate goal… and we don’t go to the trouble to create opportunities to learn doctrinal things… it’s important that we grow in the knowledge of our faith together, yes, but that isn’t the ultimate goal of community, either. No, we go to great efforts to help you become a part of a small community of fellow followers of Jesus because it is within these kinds of relationships that we can best obey the command of Jesus: to love one another… agape one another and in the process you, loving others and others loving you in this generally-never-seen agape way, will show the world that you belong to Jesus. I believe that there may be no better proof of the truth of the gospel than seeing the selfless love of Jesus lived out in community. This is why we go to the trouble.
Back when we were creating the Way of Discipleship, someone, I don’t know if it was Dave Rod or Chris Shore or me, but one of us wrote these words about the kind of relationships we know that Jesus calls us to… I think they are powerful. This is right from the Way of Discipleship manual. Just listen and think about how different your life would be if all of this was true in your life: When disciples of Jesus love in this manner, those in mourning are comforted, the sick are healed, the lonely are welcomed, those at odds are reconciled, those under spiritual bondage are liberated, sins are uncovered and dealt with, and the lost are given guidance. Disciples who love others well will experience the joy of a life centered on God’s high priority of bringing wholeness to others. Followers of Jesus know the power of authentic, redemptive relationships to encourage and strengthen one another, as well as to draw others to God. They believe that, to quote John Wesley, “the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion” and they believe it is a Christ follower’s duty to engage others into authentic, redemptive relationships… Their lives are shaped and guided by the example and encouragement of others in the faith, and they foster this community in others. When disciples live together in love, unity, and mutual support, their lives and the life of the church of Jesus Christ will be strong and powerful in advancing God’s Kingdom in this world. Now, that describes something that is essential but to make this an essential part of our life we have to make a choice… we have to choose to live this way. We have to choose to not focus on ourselves, but live focused on the essential of loving one another in the kind of community that tells the world that the gospel is true.
When the word got out that I was preaching this weekend on how love and community are two of life’s essentials, essentials worth reprioritizing our lives around, I started getting emails from a number of people telling me about how they’d found this kind of love in their small group…. I heard about numerous ways that members of various groups, both official Grace groups and other groups of believers who were in meaningful community together, had come around people in the midst of really difficult circumstances… and how groups had helped deliver someone from a self-destructive habit and how one group had become what they called the ‘stretcher bearers’ for one another. This was all very cool and encouraging to hear. And it reminded me of an aspect of my own life. I’m sure that I’ve mentioned this before but when Jennifer and I were first married we were brought into a multi-generational, small group of 4 couples… a group that worked… that loved, at least I believe, in the way that Jesus commanded us to love. Now, we had to work through our differences, we had to apologize and I know there were times that we didn’t love well but through it all we learned to love as Jesus commands us to love. Also, Jennifer and I proactively worked at making that community a priority and boy was it worth it! Even now, though Jennifer and I first joined that group 40 years ago the people in that group are still as close to family for Jennifer and me and our children and now our grandchildren as people can be… we’ve seen each other’s children grow up, marry and start families of their own together… we’ve wept at times of sorrow together, celebrated together in times of joy, we’ve stood in the gap when times were rough together and we’ve even been pall bearers together for one of our members… I suppose that when the group started some of us were only thinking about what we could get out of our time together… making sure that our own needs were met. I’m sure that was what I was thinking. But you know something, over time I really believe that the agape of God took over our hearts and even though now time and circumstances have separated us I still know that there is a community of people where I am loved without any strings. A community that I am looking out for… and is looking out for me. Agape exists. It isn’t something made up. It is essential and it is found in community. We just have to be willing to make it the priority that Jesus clearly wanted us to make it. We have to see loving others well as an essential and be willing to set some other things aside. This is a hard choice to make… it means making hard decisions to move in one direction when there are a whole lot of other things pulling us away from the difficulty of authentic community. That said, we certainly know that Jesus saw loving those in his community as a priority. The way the story plays out Jesus washed his disciple’s feet… he commanded them to love one another… and then almost immediately he was betrayed by Judas, one of his own disciples, he was arrested and then crucified… and before any of this happened he knew all of this was coming. My bet is that he had a lot on his mind that evening and washing his disciple’s feet as an act of love, the kind of love he wanted them to show to one another, could have been way down the list of things that were important to do when he knew the end of his life was near. It was probably hard to settle down and calmly go from disciple to disciple and do this humiliating act of washing their feet. But he did it to show everyone what difficult love, agape, looks like in action. Yes, I’m sure it was hard and yes, he asks us to do the same kinds of hard things…but he will never ask us to do anything more difficult than wash the feet of Judas.
John Lennon was not quite right when he sang, ‘All you need is love.’ There are a few other essentials that we need besides love… but we do need love, we need to give it and receive it… and it is a love that we can define… it is selfless, other-centered, merciful, forgiving and generous… it has no expectations… it is agape. And it is the kind of love that is best lived out in a community of fellow followers of Jesus. And Jesus says that when we do the hard work of making this kind of love and the community of his people essentials in our lives we will change the world.