(Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18)
This sermon is starting with a game. I’m going to read quotes having to do with love from movies and I’d like you to guess which movie the quote came from. Ready?
"Me? I’m scared of everything. I’m scared of what I saw, I’m scared of what I did, of who I am, and most of all I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you." (Dirty Dancing, 1987)
"Love is passion, obsession, someone you can't live without. If you don't start with that, what are you going to end up with?" (Meet Joe Black, 1998)
"I love you. You complete me." (Jerry Maquire, 1996)
"After all... I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." (Notting Hill, 1999)
“It was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up, they meant we were supposed to be together … and I knew it. I knew it the very first time I touched her. It was like coming home. .. only to no home I’d ever known … I was just taking her hand to help her out of a car and I knew. It was like … magic.” (Sleepless in Seattle, 1993)
"Love means never having to say you're sorry." (Love Story, 1970)
"I've come here with no expectations, only to profess, now that I am at liberty to do so, that my heart is, and always will be, yours." (Sense & Sensibility, 1995)
"You said you couldn't be with someone who didn't believe in you. Well I believed in you. I just didn't believe in me. I love you." (Pretty in Pink, 1986)
“What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.” (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946)
“Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine.” (Casablanca, 1942)
“You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love you, I love you, I love you. I never wish to be parted from you from this day on.” (Pride and Prejudice, 2005)
These are the expressions of love that we’ve grown up with. (Hopefully, I’ve provided at least one that was familiar to you.) Romantic love is the most popular form of love that we are exposed to in America. It’s in our movies, our songs, our television shows, our books, and so on. It’s everywhere!
Romantic love is only one type of love, however. There are so many other types of love! Many languages have numerous words for what the English language calls love. For example, there is the Serbian word, mrak, which is “the sense of oneness with the universe derived from the simplest of pleasures.” Or, there is the German word, geborgenheit, which is “the feeling of safety that comes from being with a loved one.” Or, there is the Chinese word, yuanfen, which is “the force that brings us together.” Or, there is the Danish word, forelsket, which is “the euphoria of falling in love.” These are just a few examples of the many words for love that exist in other languages. Love is a rich, complicated, and varied thing.
I could go on and on about the types of love that exist but, for the purpose of this sermon, I am going to focus on one type of love, the type of love that is represented in the Bible with the Greek word agape. The shortest definition of agape is “selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love.” It is the word for love that describes God in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” God is agape. God is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love.
Agape is the type of love that shows up in 1 John 3:16 from today’s reading: “We know love [agape] by this, that he laid down his life for us . . .”. And then comes the kicker: “. . . and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” In other words, we ought to love as God loves: we ought to love in a selfless, sacrificial, unconditional way.
In Jesus, we have been the recipients of divine love. Therefore, we have come to know divine love. We know what divine love looks like, what it feels like, and what it can do. Divine love can heal, restore, renew, and resurrect. We know this, and we are to love in this way: we are to love in a way that can heal, restore, renew, and resurrect. We are to love selflessly, sacrificially, unconditionally. We are to agape.
Agape is not, primarily, a feeling. It is an action, or many actions. Whether or not I feel loving, I am to act loving. Jesus didn’t merely say he loves us; he laid down his life for us. He acted out his love in his own life – with his own life! 1 John 3:17 brings this home for us: “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Whoa! You saw a brother or sister in need and refused help? How does God’s love abide in you? It doesn’t, because you refused to act on your sister’s or brother’s behalf. You refused to help.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a sting of shame and guilt when I read that scripture passage. There are so many people who need my help and I don’t feel as if I have the time, energy, or money to help all of them. As a matter of fact, sometimes I need help! What’s a faithful Christian to do?
The First Letter of John was written to a Christian community. John was reminding the members of this community that they had a covenant with God and each other, a covenant to love one another with divine love. John was not asking them to love every person everywhere with divine love. He was asking them to love each person in the community with divine love.
For us, today, that would mean that we, the members of the Canton Community Baptist Church, are to love one another in truth and action, not merely in word or speech (18). Taken in that context, the command sounds doable. We pray for one another, we visit one another, we care for one another, and we have Fellowship Fund monies to support one another financially, when necessary. We feel pretty good about ourselves when we take the command in the way that John gave it, originally.
However – there’s always a “however,” isn’t there? – however, the Christian life calls us to move beyond the boundaries of our Christian community. It would be simpler and easier if we could remain behind the doors of our church and bask in the glow of our love for one another, but that is only the first circle of love that we are to live in. The next circle of love is the community beyond our doors. And the circle after that is the community around our community. And the circle after that is the community around the community that is around our community. And the circles continue outward until they cover the whole world! Our church community is the center of concentric circles that move outward to cover the whole world. We are nurtured – spiritually, emotionally, and physically – in the center of the concentric circles so that we can move ever outward to minister to the world in Jesus’ name and for the glory of God.
I see the command to move outward from the communal center into the world in the Gospel According to John passage that was read today. Jesus states,
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (14-16).
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.” God loves everyone who walks on this earth. God doesn’t only love Christians. God is agape. God’s love is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional. It is impossible for God to not love. It is not in God’s nature to not love. So, God loves everyone, regardless of whether that person is a Christian. I see those who do not identify as Christian as the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Jesus must include them, also. And this means that we must include them, as well, because we are Jesus’ disciples and his body in the world today.
Including those “sheep that do not belong to this fold” means moving outward from the communal center into the world to love in truth and action. The love that we give and receive in the communal center that is our church prepares us to go out into the world to give and receive. We move from the safe, agape center out into the risky, indifferent world, just as Jesus moved from his safe, agape existence with the Father and the Holy Spirit into our risky, indifferent world to love us in truth and action by laying down his life for us. This is divine love; agape love; selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love: to move from safety out into the risky world, from loving concern out into the indifferent world in order to help those in need.
This realization that we must move from our safe, agape center out into the risky, indifferent world brings us back to a feeling of shame, guilt, and overwhelm. How can we answer all the needs we become aware of each day? The answer is, we can’t.
Henri Nouwen, in his book, The Inner Voice of Love, helps us discern to whom and to what God is calling us. In the chapter, “Give Your Agenda to God,” he writes,
You are asked to respond to many concrete needs. There are people to visit, people to receive, people to simply be with. There are issues that beg for attention, books it seems important to read, and works of art to be seen. But what of all this truly deserves your time?
In many ways, you still want to set your own agenda. You act as if you have to choose among many things, which all seem equally important. But you have not fully surrendered yourself to God’s guidance. You keep fighting with God over who is in control.
Try to give your agenda to God. Keep saying, “Your will be done, not mine.” Give every part of your heart and your time to God and let God tell you what to do, where to go, when and how to respond. God does not want you to destroy yourself. Exhaustion, burnout, and depression are not signs that you are doing God’s will. God is gentle and loving. God desires to give you a deep sense of safety in God’s love. Once you have allowed yourself to experience that love fully, you will be better able to discern who you are being sent to in God’s name.
We must keep returning to the safe, agape center – which is this church community – to be nurtured spiritually, emotionally, and physically. This is where we can experience the love of God, divine love, agape love. Nurtured by this love, we will be better able to discern who we are being sent to – both as individuals and as a church – in God’s name. We will avoid exhaustion, burnout, and depression, yet still be loving brothers and sisters in need in truth and action. We are able to show forth this agape – selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love – because we are grounded in and inspired by God, who is love and only love. We do not agape out of our own power, but out of God’s power. As 1 John 3:24 states, “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” God abides in us. Let us listen to God’s voice inside of us so that we may love our sisters and brothers in truth and action as well as in speech and words. Let the words, “I love you,” mean more than, “I feel love for you.” May they mean, “I will act in love toward you and for you, for by this you will know ‘God is love’.” Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, April 22, 2018, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
 The words for love in other languages is from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/words-for-love-no-english-translation_us_562a9f99e4b0aac0b8fd06d8.
 New York: Image, 1996, 105-106.