Monday, May 26, 2014

Reflections: Agape

Sunday's sermon follows a series by our new Dean, Penny Bridges, and continues as an example of her excellent preaching style. As she goes up to the pulpit, all eyes turn her way in expectation of another of her fine homilies, and the congregation rightly listens to what she says with attention and in total accord. I’m not polishing the apple; I’m simply stating facts. But praise of Penny, although she warrants it, is not the topic here.

She talked about love, specifically the kind of love that we are commanded to have and exhibit for each other if we love God. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out the distinctions we as humans make between that commandment to love and our emotional penchant to like (or dislike) someone. The distinctions must nevertheless be drawn and recognized; otherwise, we find ourselves in spiritual quagmires.

One of the best descriptions of agape or the kind of love that Jesus commanded, comes from Dr. Martin Luther King’s essay called “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”. The penultimate paragraph:
In the final analysis, agape means recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers. To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself. For example, white men often refuse federal aid to education in order to avoid giving the Negro his rights; but because all men are brothers they cannot deny Negro children without harming their own. They end, all efforts to the contrary, by hurting themselves. Why is this? Because men are brothers. If you harm me, you harm yourself.
You will forgive the non-pc, 1950s language as you glean what Dr. King is saying here. Liking someone or what they do (or don’t do), or the way they act, is not a basis for the love that Jesus commanded. He had in mind community, and as another part of Dr. King’s essay points out, agape is “love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it.” Dean Penny brought this very message to us quite strongly this morning.

High sounding words, but again sometimes difficult to put into action when we find ourselves at odds with someone, have had our feelings hurt, have been insulted of slighted or neglected. We sometimes find hot spots throughout the church community where slights or bad feelings supersede our baptismal vows to respect the dignity of every person whether they ‘deserve’ it or not. People sometimes leave the congregation for what they consider might be more hospitable pastures when things don’t go their way. Sometimes they don’t leave and instead snipe from the sidelines in an effort to see if they can get even somehow. Oh, we are often not very nice people, and despite our baptismal resolve to live in the example of Jesus, we fail, putting our own will and spite and anger at the head of an army of self-serving follies.

The truth is that we aren’t commanded to ‘like’ anyone. Strange, isn’t it? We tend to think that ‘liking’ comes before ‘loving’ and in the romantic world of love, it probably does. But Jesus didn’t command us to ‘like’; he commanded us to engage our will, what John Donne called “your (God’s) viceroy in me” because agape is an act of the will, a determination to come to our better self, to ask the Holy Spirit to “breathe through the heat of our desire thy coolness and thy balm” (Hymn 652).

It isn’t easy. Taking up the cross is not easy. It takes more than we can do by ourselves. It takes patience, practicing forbearance, waiting to think before a reply, being willing to extend love when none comes back, wanting to restore community regardless of cost to our ego, remembering, again from Dr. King, that “The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community.” We can do it. Jesus promises that we can do it with God’s help.

Thank you, Dean Bridges, for bringing us closer to Jesus and the eternal promises of God, for reminding us that regardless of what we’ve done to each other, we are worthy of forgiveness if we but love each other as Christ loved us.

Robert Heylmun

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