(This was the third meditation for the Lenten Service of Motets and Meditations March 16 and 18, 2018)
1 John 4: 7-12
In the first epistle of John, chapter 4 and verses 7 to 12 we read:
Dear Friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear Friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
The word ‘love’ in the English language has a wide range of use. We can love a good book or good movie. We can love a good steak or a good wine. We can love a sports team like the Broncos or the Rockies and love them especially if they win. One can love a person or a painting or a poem. Indeed, the list of objects to which we attach the word love in English seems virtually endless.
The New Testament authors, who wrote in Greek, also use the word love, but, unlike English, Greek employs four substantive words to communicate the emphases and nuances of love. C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, gives a detailed exposition of these four words, and the extraordinary nature of the fourth love, agape love, which is how the Apostle John describes God in this text when he writes, “God is love”.
To assist us not only in understanding the uniqueness and extraordinary nature of God’s love, I would invite us to reflect briefly on the meaning of these four loves and, in particular, focus our attention on the fourth love, agape love.
We begin with storge love. The Greek word storge might be best translated familial affection. Strong’s lexicon defines storge as, “cherishing one’s kindred, especially parents or children; the mutual love of parents and children and wives and husbands . . . ” Interestingly, it is only storge in its negative sense, astorgos that appears in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul speaks of the unrighteous and disobedient generation as “without familial love, devoid of affection, hardhearted, and unfeeling”. The Bible makes it clear that the family is God’s primary design for nurture, nourishment, security, safety, and love. This is the expression of storge love.
The second Greek word for love is eros. Eros may be defined as romantic love or physical love. Eros contains within it the concepts of drive, attraction, desire, passion, sensuality, and appetite. Eros is found frequently in classical Greek literature but the word does not appear in the New Testament. However, the Apostle Paul’s counsel on marriage in I Corinthians 7, clearly has eros in mind. Eros is part of the human constitution as created by God, particularly between husband and wife, and, therefore, it is good. However, eros can be distorted, misused, and exploited. Drunkenness, gluttony, hedonism, and addiction are all examples of distorted eros. In the words of the Gyorgy Orban motet, “The flesh is tempted by sensuality; Gluttony clings to our senses, it overgrows, it encroaches, it stretches. However appealing the flesh is, it is still worth less than the heart of Jesus.” God calls us to the discipline, moderation, and restraint of eros so that we can celebrate God’s good gift of eros to us in constructive and healthy ways.
The third Greek word for love is philos. Perhaps the best translation of philos is devoted friendship. Philos is used of a trusted confidant, a dear and personal friend, a soul mate. Think of the phrase, ‘band of brothers’ or ‘band of sisters’ to describe a group bonded together by philos love.
Philadelphia, or brotherly love, for which the city was named, occurs several times in the epistles of Paul, Peter, and James. All encourage Christian believers to live in harmony with a brotherly and sisterly affection. Philos is characterized by tender, heartfelt consideration and a kinship of shared experience.
Each of these three Greek words, storge, eros, and philos has its appropriate expression in the Christian life. But what sets Christianity apart is the fourth love, a love which has its source in the nature, character, and acts of God. The fourth love is agape love. This is the highest form of love.
Agape love is selfless, sacrificial, and unconditional. Agape love is also volitional. It is a choice to love in this way, the choice of the highest good for God and God’s creation. Agape extends beyond emotions or feelings or sentiments. Agape love is active love regardless of the outcomes or consequences to the one who loves in this way.
Theologian Anders Nygren, in his book Agape and Eros, states, “Agape love is unmotivated in the sense that it is not contingent on any value or worth in the object of love. It is spontaneous and heedless, for it does not determine beforehand whether love will be effective or appropriate in any particular case.”
If you peruse the choral texts which the Canto Deo chamber choir sings in this service, you will notice the preponderance of references to agape love. Jesus gave a new commandment that we love one another as he has loved us. Agape. Ubi caritas et amor. Deus ibi est. Where charity and love are, God is there. Agape. No human has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him. Agape. Where there is hatred, let me bring your love. Agape. To love with all my soul. Agape. By the love of Christ we have been brought together. Agape.
But perhaps nowhere is agape love so clearly described as in the text of John 3:16 which concludes this service.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Agape.
May God grant us the grace to live a live characterized by agape love, the love that God has for us and for the world. Amen.
Dr. Keith Wells is the Chaplain for Canto Deo and also a Professor at Denver Seminary.