The Fourth Sunday in Lent

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  May I speak to you in the name of the one God: Lover, Beloved, Love. Amen.

The English language is sometimes quite limited in its vocabulary.  There are instances when we could use more than our 171,476 words.  For example, yesterday, as we got some weird precipitation mixture (that I couldn’t quite describe), I must admit I wished I knew Inuit—a native language that has over 50 words for snow.  There are so many times this ski season, when a larger array of words for that fluffy white stuff would have been helpful.  And considering the Inuit’s location in the frigid North American wilderness, no wonder they needed a larger vocabulary to describe their wintry white environment.  For example (please don’t judge my attempt at Inuit), tlapa means “powder snow.  Otlacringit means “snow that is crusted on the surface.”  Otlamo means “snow that falls in large wet flakes.”  Or tlatim means “snow that falls in small flakes.”  And my favorite on the list (especially considering my mountain man of a husband): hiryla, which means “snow in beards.”

There also have been moments in my travels, my many pilgrimages across the globe, where I wish I more aptly could describe my wanderlust.  Because no journey is quite like the other.  Yet I have found the German language offers more word choice options for my traveling vocabulary.  Like the word fernweh, which is “a strong desire to travel and visit far off places.”  The literal translation is “far-sickness.”  Or the word waldeinsamkeit, which means “the feeling of being alone in the forest.”  And I loved the term zeitgeist, since I am a self professed medieval history dork.  For all of those flack-back moments in old cities, it is a word that means “the feeling of a certain era.”

Yet what irks me the most about our English language, is not the lack of lingo for snow or for travel, but the scarcity of vocabulary for love.  Sanskrit has 96 words for love, ancient Persian has 80, and we have one!  We love pizza and we love our new car.  We love our spouses and we love our friends.  We love our dogs and we love our cats.  We love to read and we love to ski.  And it sounds like we love all of these things equally!  But I sincerely doubt that’s actually our reality.

Even in our Gospels we find more than one word for love.  In ancient Greek there were four terms commonly used.  There is storgē which is an empathy bond—like the love between parent and child, an innate affection and obligation for one another.  Then there is philía—like the basis of the the name “Philadelphia,” the city of brotherly love.  This word refers to the bond between friends, between companions on the journey together.  Then we have erōs—the root of our English term, “erotic.”  Which is exemplified in the passion—physical, emotional, and spiritual—shared between partners, significant others.  And last we have the Greek word, agápē.

This word is used in our readings this morning—located both in the letter to the Ephesians and the Gospel according to John.  And it is found throughout our New Testament.  Like Mark 12:30-31, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’…. and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  Or Luke 6:35, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”  Or the agápē meal, the love feast of Maundy Thursday, 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 agápē is a transformative, liberating, life-altering word.
For agápē means unconditional love—a gift freely given to us by God—unmerited, unearned, and undeserved.  But it is also all-consuming, all-encompassing, and all-powerful.  Consider our Gospel passage for today (especially John 3:16, this most famous of Scripture verses):  “For God so loved the world.”  God loves the whole world.  Not just some,  not a small group, not a select chosen few, but God loves the whole world, the entirety of creation, every man, woman, and child who walks upon this earth.  God loves us all, each and every one of us, unconditionally.  And it is so unconditional that no matter how broken or sinful we are, God’s love is not meant to condemn us but to save us, to liberate us, to bring us into a new way of living.  God’s love is so awesome, so amazing, that is has the power to transform our lives, to change our existence, to alter how we continue to walk this pilgrim journey.

Yet us human beings, even though we are offered this agápē love, this unconditional love, this no restrictions, no strings attached, no if ands or buts kind of love, we still find it difficult to offer agápē to others.  We even see it happening in today’s Gospel.  This text has been preached time and time again to exclude those who did not believe in Jesus.  In this passage one moment God loves the world and did not come to condemn the world, and then the next God is judging those who do not accept Jesus.  It’s like the text is flip flopping back and forth—can’t quite make up its mind.  One second I want to shout, “Yes! You’ve got it!  God is love!”  And the next sentence I just want scream, “boo” and “hiss!”  It represents the distinct human touch on a divinely inspired Scripture.

The Johannine community—from which this Gospel came—, they felt like outsiders.  They were Jewish Christians who had been kicked out of their synagogues for believing in Jesus Christ.  They wanted to be included and instead they were excluded from their faith own tradition.  They understood God’s unconditional love, but the they put their own pain and suffering on others.  In this text some were excluded so that they could finally feel included.

My friends, like this early Christian community and like the church in ages past, we fall short of offering God’s unconditional love to others.  The only reason everyone does not experience God’s love, is because we as human beings have failed to take part in it.  We have excluded others time and time again, because of creed, because of race, because of gender, because of sexual orientation, because of whatever makes you different in this world.  We as the church have fallen short of loving unconditionally, of loving the whole entire world, of loving every other human being just as God loves us.

And thank God, God never, ever, ever stops loving us.  As our reading from Ephesians reminds us, God loves us so much that time and time again God offers us grace—the opportunity to return to God, to follow a different path, to be an agent of that agápē love once again.  We then must actively make the choice to have faith, to accept God’s presence in our lives, to bask in the glory of agápē.  God’s love is there waiting for us.  We just have to be willing to accept that generous and gracious gift.  Such acceptance of such a great gift is eternal life—not just life after this, but the life here and now transformed, a life projected outside of ourselves, a life void of selfishness and egotism, a life filled and overflowing with love.

For if we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are made in the image and likeness of love.  Love is our innate identity.  Love is our existence on this earth.  Love is our reason for living.  Love is who we are and what we do.  Love is our past, present, and future.  Love is our relationship with God, with our own selves, and with others.

The Beatles were right when they sang, “All you need is love.”  All I need is agápē.  All you need is agápē.  All the world needs is agápē.  All we really need is God’s unconditional love.

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