As you read that, you might have asked, “what about my own sufferings? I have sufferings too. Can’t I pray for God to relieve those?” Of course, you can. Placing our own sufferings before God is one part of our prayer life. But it is not the only part. Another part is praying that God will end the sufferings of your neighbor…and a part of that is praying that God will use you and me to do that difficult work. And in order for God to use you and me to help change the world so that people of color and the poor and the marginalized can live and breathe and seek the fullness of abundant life that God has promised for them too, we pray that the Spirit will transform us to be people of compassion, empathy and love.
But this isn’t just any love we’re called to be transformed into living. This is agape love. “Agape love your neighbor as you agape love yourself.” Whenever Jesus and Paul talk about loving God and loving neighbor as the core of all the law and prophets, the are talking about agape love. In fact, agape is actually the Greek word for love used throughout the New Testament. Whenever you see “love” in the NT, think agape.
What is agape love? It is selfless love, lose your self for others love, stand in suffering with your fellow human beings love, limit my rights and take on the responsibility Christ gives us to lift up the rights of those who suffer love. We as followers of Christ are called to agape love our neighbors no matter who they are. And today especially we’re called to agape love those whose rights aren’t being respected, especially those who aren’t being treated with justice, especially right now our indigenous, brown and black brothers and sisters. Agape love is the core of following Christ and is seen most fully in Jesus Christ who suffered and died selflessly so that the whole world might be saved from our sin and its never-ending consequences.
This agape love stands against the voices in this world who are telling us that selfishness – focusing only on “me and my own” – is a virtue. These voices of selfishness tell us that our only responsibility is to care for our own selves and our own lives. Other lives are to come second, if at all, and are there for me to use for my own gain. These voices tell us that life is one big game of King of the Hill for scarce resources and that helping and loving others is a waste of our time unless it serves the self.
But for followers of Christ, selfishness is never a virtue. In Christ we are called to self-less love. As Christians, we cannot follow both the voices of selfishness in our culture and the voice of Jesus Christ calling us to agape love at the same time. For these voices are going in opposite directions. As followers of Christ, we listen to Christ’s voice and follow him away from the bandits who would tempt us with selfishness and toward the agape love of our Good Shepherd (John 10). “And I lay down my life for the sheep,” Jesus proclaims in pure, selfless, agape love. That is the love we are called to live.
Even for ourselves we practice a self-less self-love that lives in the promise that each and every person is God’s beloved, created in God’s image. In that knowledge and truth, we care for and love all whom created, redeemed and empowered, other selves and our own, so that we can take this knowledge of God’s love of us to heart and turn it around to love our neighbors.
I close today with an old parable. Jesus was giving a woman a tour of heaven and hell so that she could see the difference between the two. First, they went to a room where a large group of people were sitting around a big table. In the middle of the table sat giant pots of delicious smelling soup. The people around the table had long spoons attached to both of their hands, so long and straight that they couldn’t bend them to reach their own mouths. As Jesus and the woman watched, the starving people bickered, yelled and screamed, raged and fought, bashing each other again and again with their spoons, demanding entitlement to get the delicious soup for themselves without caring about anyone else. The suffering, weeping and gnashing of teeth was horrible to watch. “This is hell,” Jesus told the woman.
Then Jesus took her to another room. A large group of people were sitting around a big table with big pots of delicious smelling soup down the middle. Each person had long spoons attached to their hands, so long and straight that they couldn’t reach their own mouths. But these people were happy, well-nourished, and filled with joy, laughing with each other and singing songs and celebrating life. “This is heaven,” Jesus said.
The woman said to Jesus, “I don’t understand. Why are the people here so happy while the others were so miserable when everything in both rooms is the same?” And Jesus said, “Ah, that’s simple. Here they learned how to feed each other.”
That is agape love. Blessed week to you all, Bishop Laurie