Sermon: The Love that changes the meaning of love

Text: 1 John 4:7-21

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed God’s love among us: God sent God’s one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent God’s Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in God and God in us: God has given us of God’s Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because God first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And God has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.


The Love that changes the meaning of love

I’m going to guess that agape is the most tattooed Greek word on the bodies of non-Greek speakers. No shame— I have Hebrew tattooed on my wrist that I got long before I actually learned to read it. It’s for good reason that agape is found on wrists and forearms and ankles everywhere in America. It is a powerful word. At it’s core, it means love. Outside of the New Testament, though, this word for love wasn’t all that popular. And it did not have the particular meaning that Christians ascribe to it. If you read The Four Loves by CS Lewis or google agape and click on the wikipedia page—which exists—you’ll learn that agape means unconditional, sacrificial love. It is God’s love for humanity through Christ. But prior to its use in letters like 1 John, agape was used sparingly in Greek writing, and was used as kind of an affection for something. Affection that wasn’t sexual. When something or someone was held in high regard or there was a preference based on virtue or morality. For example, if my husband Ed lived in Greek antiquity and ice hockey existed there, he probably would have said, “I agape hockey because it is morally and virtuously the best sport.” Many of us would have disagreed. And that’s not quite the self-sacrificing, unconditional, highest love that agape became.

Christians transformed the meaning of agape by using it to describe a love that language did not yet have the capacity to describe. We read this morning 1 John chapter 4 versus 7-21: 15 verses. Agape is used 29 times in 15 verses. The least used word for love is used excessively here. What’s happening here is that the writer(s) of 1 John is tripping over themselves to describe the invitation and call and movement of God’s love. I read awhile back an earlier draft of Scott’s— a former professor and current friend and mentor of mine—manuscript. And there was a word in it used differently than I am used to reading it. It took on a different meaning than I attribute to it. And the first time it was used, I think there was a footnote explaining what it meant and why it was being used that way. But for a long while as I read, I would stumble every time this word appeared. But eventually, seeing it again and again in context, I began to re-define it in my mind. I began to create the capacity in myself to understand not just a word used differently, but the new concept that it pointed to.

This was the challenge of the church in the first and second centuries. Agape is not the only Greek word Christians transformed— “ekkelsia” (what we now call church), “gospel” were words that had their meanings changed after Jesus. The meaning of love need to be transformed in light of Jesus. The gods were not self-sacrificing for humans. Humans sacrificed for the gods. And love was from duty, from loyalty, from preference, from, perhaps morality and virtue. It was conditional.

But when you read of love 29 times in 15 verses, you start to get a glimpse of what is meant by it. You start to be formed into a new understanding of love just by having the words wash over you. So what is this love that changed the meaning of love…


Immediately preceding our Scripture reading this morning, the writer of this letter talks about discerning and testing the spirits. How can you tell when something is from God? How can you tell when someone is speaking truth? How can you tell the difference between a prophet and false prophet? This was a common anxiety for the apostles and the first generations of church leaders. These communities of Jesus followers, who had heard the stories of Jesus, who had passed down the teachings of particular apostles, who did not yet have a New Testament canon, and there were essential things itinerate preachers and teachers and people claiming to be prophets disagreed on. Paul— whose letters make up most of the New Testament—was really concerned about this. And for good, theological and practical reasons. He’d go to a place, proclaim the story of the Gospel, tell those who were not Jewish that they, too, were grafted in and part of the community of God through Jesus Christ. As they were. No conversion to Judaism, including circumcision, necessary. They, like Jewish followers of Jesus, were saved by grace, by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Then someone else would roll through and tell them that they were not included unless they got circumcised. Now— if you are a grown, Gentile man, you might want to know who is right. You want to follow Jesus and be part of Christian community, but does that mean getting baptized or getting circumcised? Essential question to answer.

At this later date, when this letter was written, we don’t know exactly what the debate was about false prophets versus real ones. It seems there were teachers coming through telling people that Jesus was not fully human, fully God, or was for a time, but the God-part got out of there during the suffering of the cross, some separated flesh and spirit so much as to call the flesh evil, others just less-than the spiritual, true self. Whatever the particular teaching the anxiety was still there. This question for early Christians of how do we know when it’s God’s Spirit or something else continued to be asked. 

If you have followed Jesus, if you have wrestled with Scripture as holy text, if you have practiced prayer and discernment, you have probably asked this question: How do I know when it’s God? How do I know when it’s the Spirit’s movement? The answer given in 1 John is, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” What a weird and seemingly unhelpful answer. This discussion of testing the spirits and listening to God’s Spirit, who acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh leads into our passage today about love. And I think they are connected.

They are connected because at the heart of this entire chapter is: INCARNATION.


I want to turn to John’s Gospel—and the story and teachings that seem to have most influenced the community responsible for this letter—the beginning of chapter 1…skipping around a bit

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world…

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Jesus— wholly God, wholly human; spirit and flesh united—that’s incarnation. That’s the measurement of God’s spirit speaking. That’s the crux of agape love. The love of John’s letter is an incarnate love. A love empowered by the Spirit and embodied. A love that unites spirit and flesh. A love that is from and of God, yet a love we cannot know without seeing it and experiencing it and participating in it with real, embodied people. John, with the one word agape, tears down the the dichotomy of mystic and active; of contemplative and justice-seeking; of personal and social faith. The love of God, John says in this letter, is made complete in us if we love one another. God’s love is not complete without embodiment—embodiment in us.


The love that we are invited to and called to this morning has the potential to make us all a bit uncomfortable. In the dichotomies that agape love breaks down, I find myself most comfortable with the active, justice-seeking, social faith expression of agape love. Love isn’t love unless its a verb. I like the way the NIV translation says that “God lives in us” and “Whoever lives in love lives in God;” it is it is movement and action oriented. And at this time, that speaks profoundly to me. And we need it. We are called to it. We cannot know God’s love without actively loving our neighbors. 

And the discomfort for me is that the contemplative, the personal, and the mystic is essential to this love. Another way to translate the “lives” word I like, is abide. God abides in us; whoever abides in love, abides in God. A stillness. A rooting.

Others of you may find your comfort in the mystic, personal, contemplative love. Your comfort may be in love, not so much as an active, pushy verb, but as a noun, a state of being. Perhaps you, too, see the profound need for this in this time and place. A profound need for us to know deeply our belovedness. To be rooted and still. Because God is love and God first loved us. 

And the discomfort for you will be the active, the justice-seeking, the social. Because whoever lives, moves, tries and fails, walks alongside their siblings in the streets, shows up, lives in God and God in them.

On top of discomfort, there is a cost required by agape love. When we allow Jesus of Nazareth to define this incarnate love, it is clear there is a cost. John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent God’s Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Jesus’ life and ministry was an embodiment of agape love. Spirit and flesh unified. Love incarnate. And the powers and principalities— political, religious, economic, along with a mob, and human sin and corruption, and what the Bible calls Satan, the spirit of accusation—in a word: sin—collective and individual— killed him. Communal embodied fear killed the embodiment of complete love. Human and divine, flesh and spirit— love hung on a cross. That is the pinnacle of love and the pinnacle of love’s cost. We are not called by God to bear guilt, to bear shame, to bear the sin of the world— Jesus has freed us from that in his death and resurrection.

But we are freed to live in the same embodied, agape love as Jesus. And that means to come up against these same systems and communal sins, to come up against this embodied fear, to come up against those things in ourselves, in others, and in the world. To love incarnationally will cost us our pride, as we stumble and ask for forgiveness, will cost us our self-righteousness as we forgive, will cost us our time, our resources, our tribal identity, as we love across enemy lines. It will cost us our vengeance; it will cost us our preferences; it will cost us privileged comfort if we have it.

But in the discomfort and the cost, there is this love that is God. There is unity with God. There is the force that is reconciling all things to God in Christ. There is the love that overcomes sin and death. There is the love that will outlast everything. It is the love that you are already caught up in, and are now invited and called to live and abide in.


I know for being a sermon on embodied love, this has been a bit heady. But I hope that you’ll allow it to sink down into your bones. To help that along the way, I reached back to a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr preached on loving your enemies. Because this gives sight of the cost and the ultimate liberation of agape love. The movement lead by Martin Luther King, Jr. gives us an example of what this complete agape love looks like in context.

Let me lay bare the undergirding concern of this sermon: I am convinced that right now we need Spirit-empowered, embodied love. And for far too long, especially in whiter, more privileged churches and writing and speaking, there have been two paths laid out. To be firmly rooted in God’s love for you, in the sacrifice of Jesus, and in individual devotion to Jesus’ teachings and way in your life is incomplete agape love. To be on the streets marching side-by-side with our siblings in Christ, to embody love to our neighbors in need, to work for justice and healing in our world is incomplete agape love. Both paths are forged with love, both are of God, both are good— but they are incomplete.

Hear these words from Martin Luther King, Jr. on what agape love of enemy looks like:

To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

That is love that drives out fear. That is agape love, empowered by the Holy Spirit, deeply rooted in the beloved child of God, and embodied in the world. This agape love is not reserved for spiritual giants or social movement leaders— it is for and with and in you.


The love we need and are called to at this time— in a fear-filled time, a time of great need, a time of falsehood and false prophets— is the same love that these early Christians were called to by John centuries ago. It is the same love that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached. It is agape love. It is the love incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. It is the powerful love that lives and abides in you and in us. The love that proclaims good news to the poor, that sets prisoners free, that gives sight to the blind, that stands with the oppressed, that cancels debts. The love that heals, that turns over tables, that forgives, that overcomes sin and death is in your and in us.

That is the call on us today: To be deeply rooted in agape love and boldly active in agape love.

May it be so. Amen.