Agape Love

we are nothing without love

January 30, 2022
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany | Year C
1 Corinthians 13:1–13 (NRSV)

SR Garcia, “Finger Hearts”

TL;DR

  • Our favorite wedding scripture is actually one of Paul’s most brutal disses
  • The four ancient Greek words for love: Storge, Philia, Eros, Agape
  • As Christians, if our gravest convictions and activities do not embody agape love, then we are liars
  • Agape love grows like a fruit

Today’s scripture reading is best known to us for its usage in weddings, perhaps the most used scripture passage in weddings ever, and we can understand why. The way the scripture describes love is poetic, delightful, and heartwarming. 😌

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

While this passage sounds like a perfect fit for a beautiful wedding, the truth is that today’s scripture reading is part of Paul’s continued criticism against the Corinthian church. In fact, I would say Paul’s words here are more confrontational than his words prior.

To refresh your memory, what is happening in the Corinthian church is its singular preference for the gift of speaking in tongues over many other gifts. This resulted in ignoring the diversity of God’s gifts and damaging the unity of the church. To this very situation, Paul reminded them in Chapter 12 that there is one spirit but many gifts, and the church is one body with many members. Paul also listed twice the examples of different spiritual gifts other than speaking in tongues, to remind them that speaking in tongues is not all there is in the life of the church.

In today’s Chapter 13, however, Paul goes even further. He tells them that all these gifts, services, and abilities are absolutely nothing without love. He previously explained how all these things are for the upbuilding of the whole body and for the common good. But now Paul is explicit. He basically writes, if you speak in tongues but do not have love, then you are just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If you have various powers or knowledge or even faith to move mountains, yet do not have love, then you are nothing. And if you do all the charity or mission work but do not have love, then you are nothing.

You may know a hymn titled “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” This hymn describes what Christians are all about, which is love that encourages the communal life, where we walk hand in hand, work together, and praise together. This hymn references the scripture from the Gospel of John. Jesus told his disciples after the last supper (John 13:34–35),

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This love for God and for one another exemplified through Jesus’ life and ministry is what we call agape love. This agape love is different from sexual love eros, brotherly love philia, or familial love storge. This agape love is “for God so love the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). This agape love is “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). This agape love is Jesus laying down his life for us (1 John 3:16). This agape love is what motivates Christians to participate in Jesus’ commandment to love God and love one another.

Paul is pretty much making an accusation that the Corinthians are not real Christians and that they are not real followers of Jesus Christ. Because they are everything that agape love is not. Paul echoes the words of the Apostle John, “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” (1 John 4:20). And this is where this beautiful description of love comes in, which is really a painful portrayal of the Corinthian church.

Paul says love does not envy, and it was the Corinthians who were envious of Paul. Paul says love does not boast, and it was the Corinthians who boasted how they had superior wisdom and knowledge and how they were given the superior gift of the Spirit. Paul says love is not arrogant, and it was the Corinthians who were so puffed up with their successes and accomplishments. Paul says love is not rude, and it was the Corinthians who were rude to the least of these by humiliating them at the Lord’s Table and humiliating those without the same gift as theirs. Paul says love does not insist on its own way, and it was the Corinthians who were seeking their own advantage. These are the very characteristics of the Corinthian church described throughout the letter, and Paul is basically saying this church is everything that agape love is not.

Paul then describes how agape love is everlasting and everything else is not. All these gifts, services, and abilities come and go. These are temporary and partial. Even when we think we have everything and even when we think we know everything, the truth is that we do not. The Corinthian Church thought they had it all figured out, that they had unlocked the secrets to the kingdom of God through their wisdom, knowledge, and spiritual gifts. They were so convinced of themselves that they had no regard for those standing in their way. But the truth is, until we see God face to face, everything we see is a mere dim reflection. We do not know everything, and we still have a long way to go. If we all know that we still have a long way to go in our faith journey, how can we then claim that we know everything? Paul calls for humility and vulnerability, that it is okay to not have all the answers.

And the only thing we can know for sure in this long faith journey is agape love. The Apostle John writes (1 John 4:11–12),

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

God is love; thus, this agape love is eternal and everlasting. Only agape love will not be rendered obsolete in the end.

We are currently living in a world of absolute certainty. Everyone is operating under their gravest convictions. We all claim we know what’s best for ourselves. We all claim we know what’s best for our children. We all claim we know what’s best for our community. We all claim we know what’s best for God’s kingdom.

Displaying our slightest doubt means showing our weakness in today’s world. So, we all pretend we have all the answers, claiming we have done our own research. And we disregard and despise everything that stands in the way of our claimed convictions.

If our gravest convictions and activities ignore the diversity of God’s gifts and damage the unity of the church, then we are liars.

If our gravest convictions and activities ignore the common good and damage the upbuilding of the whole body, then we are liars.

If our gravest convictions and activities do not embody agape love — the selfless, self-giving love for God and for one another, then we are liars.

Despite how many times we read the Bible, attend weekly worship, pray daily, tithe monthly, give money to charity, volunteer at homeless shelters, or preach from the pulpit, but do not have agape love, then we are nothing. Jesus said himself, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). The will of the Father is agape love.

The question we must ask ourselves and to others, however, should not be, “Do you have agape love?” For this agape love is not something we can just have or give.

Rather, the right question is, “What are we doing to foster agape love in us?” Agape love is something we grow, like how we grow plants in the garden. It takes time, patience, persistence, and discipline. Perhaps, this is why the Apostle Paul described love as a fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is something we harvest after a long period of time.

In the Gospel of John, there is a fun story where our English translation cannot do justice to its full meaning. In Chapter 21, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Do you love me,” and he asked with the Greek word agape.

Peter answered, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you,” but using the Greek word philia. In other words, Peter’s response was, “Yes, you know I love you like my dear brother.” And Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus then asked a second time, “Do you love me with, again, agape love?” Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you like my dear brother,” again responding with philia love. Jesus responded, “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus asked Simon Peter a third time, “Do you love me?” But here, Jesus switched to philia love instead of agape love. And by this questioning, Peter was hurt. Was it because Jesus asked the same question three times, or was it because Jesus switched agape love to philia love in his questioning? Nonetheless, Peter responded, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you with philia love.”

And this is what Jesus said to Simon Peter: “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

After this Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”

Jesus knew that even for his own disciple, agape love is not something that can be displayed easily. And as Jesus explained, agape love is a sign of maturity or fruit of discipleship. That’s what “growing old” means, not our aging in numbers, but our maturing as Jesus’ disciples. And this maturity comes with following Christ and feeding his flock. This maturity comes with constant worship and service.

If Jesus asks us today, “Do you love me” with agape love, our honest answers are most likely be like Simon Peter’s, “Yes, Lord, we love you not with agape love but with philia love.” Otherwise, we would most likely be liars.

But hey, the good news is that Jesus is okay with it! “No worries,” he says, “I understand, so continue to feed my flock and follow me! One day, you will get there and put an end to your childish ways. But until you get there, continue to feed my flock with humility and follow me with vulnerability. Until you get there, know that you don’t have all the answers and the only thing that matters, in the end, is my agape love. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Agape love… May this be the muscle in all that we do and all that we say and all that we pray.

Agape love… May this be what we strive for with humility and vulnerability.

Agape love… May our church body becomes a harvest field that plants and fosters and grows this fruit of the Spirit.

Agape love… May we be able to answer Jesus’ question one day that we also love him with agape love.

Agape love... May we remember, today and every day, that this is how we are loved.

In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Minoo Kim is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, currently serving in the Virginia Annual Conference. He will very much appreciate it if you like and follow his Medium profile. Peace!

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ex-lectionary preacher / minoowkim.com

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