15th Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on What Is Agape Love?

Today we’re challenged by Christ to “love our enemies” and to “lend without hoping to receive anything in return.”  But before we can begin to understand the “how” of such commands that are so contrary to the way our world works today—the way we’re all trained to think in the world, the way our sinful impulses would have us behave—we have to understand what Christ means bylove.  And there’s a lot of confusion today about what love reallymeans.  

First, we recognize as Christians that true love is only learned from God.  He is the Author of love.  Without that reference to God as our starting point, we could not know what love is because as we see in our world today, from a humanistic perspective, “love” is constantly morphing to mean something different from what the love of God is. The word translated “love” used in this passage in the original Greek is ‘agape.’  It is a word specifically used to describe God’s love that He calls us to as those who are “in Him.” It’s a selfless, giving love, manifested in humility, service to others, and self-emptying—kenosisin the Greek, but one which is inextricably linked to God.  The prime example of agapelove is God’s condescension to us in the Incarnation: God becomes a man in order to enter into our human nature as man and redeem it as God.  This same agapelove is also witnessed in Christ’s willing self-offering of His own life to defeat sin and death on behalf of us and our salvation.  

Agapealways desires what God desires for us and for every human being.  Agapeis not what is pleasing to the senses or the passions.  Instead, it’s the heavenlylove that God, in turn, calls us to exercise if we’re to live in communion with Him and each other, living out our calling as Christians in witness to His truth and life in the world around us.  

Now, “Love” as our culture often understands it, is often actually lust (a twisted form of eros), driven by the passions, as well as ego and pride, a “me-first” attitude instead of a “God-first” attitude.  Love is often seen as something focused on wants and rights, on a self-focused understanding of individual fulfillment or feelings.  Such is not and cannot be agape.  Likewise, affirming others in their rush to see love in such a twisted way is not loving or godly but actually indifference to spiritual sickness we see all around us.  

If love is understood in terms of whatever we decide, apart from God’s revealed will, then it’s no wonder that even some in the Church are confused. It’s no wonder Christ’s calling seems so impossible.  If love is changed into a temporary emotional feeling or a twisted eros, then no wonder so many marriages end in divorce, many seek to legitimize and affirm immorality and debauchery. The further we stray from apage, the more such confusion and lawlessness spreads, just as Christ warns. We remember His warning, “because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved.” (Matt. 12:24).  

Indeed, without agape, the very idea of loving one’s enemies or being generous in our giving, or denying ourselves to “take up our cross” all seem almost ‘quaint’—surely not something to be expected of us modern Christians.  I’m here to assure you that the need has never been greater and that God has not changed His expectations of us or the way that leads to healing and eternal life   Where confusion and hedonism abound, so too does the need for true Christians to live out the Gospel—vigorously, faithfully, authentically, always speaking the truth in love!  

So, rather than putting Christ’s commands aside, relegating such Scripture that is hard to a by-gone era of Church history, we have the obligation here, as we do with ALL the Holy Scriptures, to honor them and strive to apply them and bring the truth of Christ to bear on our lives; there’s nothing unintentional in any of Christ’s commands.  Instead, our Lord is unlocking for us a part of what it means to be in Him, to live for Him to help transform the world around us.  

In the Old Testament, the rule was, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Lev. 24:20).  At the same time, the Law also laid out a vision for something better, fulfilled, saying, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The Messiah comes to interject the Kingdom of God into the Law, as He who is the Law Giver Himself, saying,“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).  The command to “love our enemies,” to “give without hoping for anything in return,” need to be seen in this light: as a supremeopportunity to see the Kingdom of God manifested now, in our lives, in our church, in the world around us—to be part of being Christ’s “light” and “salt,” the hope of a better way.  

One of our biggest impediments to loving as God loves, as God calls us, in turn, to love, is pride in all its variances, especially ego, self-focus, and, therefore, lack of agape.  Indeed, pride is so wrapped up in our modern understanding of ‘love,’ that we don’t even see how it can be separated.  It’s pride that causes us to be so indifferent to the need of others, quick to “virtue signal” that which God has condemned as immorality and self-abuse; it’s pride that makes us easily offended and convinces us in our over-sensitivity to act as if Orthodox Christianity is only ‘my thing’ and not what Christ God calls the world to in His love for us.  Pride keeps us from sharing our faith in embarrassment for the ways that Orthodox Christianity conflicts with the culture around us. Pride keeps us from using our gifts and talents to God’s glory.  Pride keeps us dependent on ourselves rather than on God.  Pride causes us to neglect the divine services, the Sacraments, and daily prayers that grow us in God’s love and truth.  Pride becomes our greatest impediment to trust in God, to grow in faith, in recognizing ourselves, as St. Paul declares in today’s Epistle, to be “earthen vessels,” needing to be shaped by our Creator.  

St. John Cassian says of the prideful man, “He is not to be appeased when one admonishes him; he is weak in curtailing his own wishes, very stubborn when asked to yield to those of others… he is always more ready to trust to his own judgment than to that of the elders.”  The expectation these days is that if you ‘love’ someone you’ll let them do whatever they want to.  Without God, there’s no objective understanding of what is harmful to them or to us, and this is notlove.  Christ, in admonishing us to “love our enemies, to do good, to lend, hoping for nothing in return,” promises us great spiritual reward if we let our hearts put this kind of active agapelove into action, saying that we’ll become fellow victors through Him over sin and death, we’ll have peace in our lives because such virtues are the fruit of life with and in Christ.  

Humility exercised through love in this way is powerful, courageous; it’s a strong witness of the truth of Christ in a world often characterized by enmity, hatred, and pride.  It’s a manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst. Exercising agapelove in our own lives is a uniquely Christian practice that comes by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us.  With God working through us in our striving to model humility and love in our own lives, those around us will be affected and encouraged in the life in Christ as well. Now, this islove.

And so, we pray for the courage and humility to love sacrificially. We continue daily to strive to submit ourselves to God’s will, not giving preference to our own ideas or becoming slaves to our emotions or feelings.  We pray to courageously speak the truth to our culture, unashamed of our faith that is the time-less truth of Christ.  We avail ourselves of the deifying worship of Christ’s Church and the Sacraments—and make time for them.  We give of ourselves and our resources sacrificially.  This is the love the world needs, agape—the love God would give us in abundance, so that we can, in turn, give it to others and love—yes—even those who hate us—and to give—yes—even without expecting in return, knowing, as Christ promises us today, that our reward will be great, and we will be called sons of the Most High.  

Fr. Robert Miclean

Holy Archangels Orthodox Church

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Loving Your Enemies with AgapeLove

Epistle:            II Cor. 9:6-11, Hebrews 9:1-7 (Theotokos)

Gospel:            Luke 6:31-36, Luke 10:38-42 (Theotokos)