Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4:21-30

The holy gospel according to Luke. 

Glory to you, O Lord. 

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

The gospel of the Lord. 

Praise to you, O Christ. 

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever been to a wedding where they had someone read I Corinthians 13? Or perhaps they had a soloist sing the musical version of it. Seems the perfect place for it, doesn’t it. All that nice talk about love when two people are pledging their love for each other. It can kind of make you all squishy inside.

We used to sing the song regularly at church camp. Quite often, it would be at chapel or at the end of campfire and everybody would end up with their arms around each other’s shoulders swaying back in forth. How could you not, with such nice sentiments. I don’t know if they still do or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do. It’s such a feel good song.

There’s only one problem with using this reading or singing it at camp as a feel good song, It’s not what the verses are about. It’s about love, but not really those kinds of love.

The Apostle Paul’s first letters to the Corinthians would have been written in Greek. The ancient Greek language had eight or nine different words for love, each referring to a different kind of love. The three that are most commonly referred to Biblically are: 

  • Eros, which means romantic or passionate love, the kind that two newlyweds have for each other.
  • Phileo, which is affectionate love, the kind that two close friends or siblings might have for each other 
  • Agape, which is selfless universal love, like the grace that God shows us.

Paul is here referring to Agape love. In context, Paul is writing to a church that is in conflict, with different groups taking different sides on different issues. 

  • They have divided up over who baptized whom and about who is in charge.
  • They have divided up over multiple issues with marriage and divorce, who should and who shouldn’t.
  • They have divided up over whether it’s ok to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols.
  • They have divided up over spiritual gifts with some having them and some not. Some thought their particular spiritual gift or gifts were better than the others.

Paul has written the Corinthian church advising them on how they should approach these issues and others and on what matters and what doesn’t. In the middle of this he throws in three paragraphs about love, Agape love, and its importance.

When we think of love, even when we know the differences that the Greeks defined, we almost always think of the warm fuzzy feeling we might get. Oh, I love Graeter’s Brown Butter Bourbon Pecan ice cream. I love my new phone. I love the way these new clothes look on me. I think I love my new girlfriend boyfriend. I love the Cleveland Browns. 

Ok, that might be stretching it, but I think you get my drift. All these things might make us feel good, people might make us feel good. But the agape love that Paul is talking about is not a feeling, it’s an act of the will. I’m not saying feelings are bad, mind you, but they can change or fade over time. 

The love that Paul is talking about requires action. It is the love that God has for us. It is the love that caused God to leave his place in heaven and to come down to live as a human, from a birth in manger to a death on a cross. We are to love each other in this way. As one commentator put it,

“to love someone is to both adopt a posture towards that person and act in certain ways towards him or her.

So to love is to view the other as someone whom God created in God’s image (no matter how much we think he or she may have blurred that image). To love is to view the beloved as someone whom God loves and for whom God desires the very best.

Yet to love someone is also to act, to work and pray for his or her well-being. Christians love each other when we treat each other as fellow image-bearers of God. We love our neighbors when we work for the welfare of their whole person. We love when we forgive and pray for even those who have declared us their enemies.

So we may not like the people who don’t share our perspective on COVID and efforts to deal with it. But God calls God’s adopted children to love them. We may not like the people who sit on the other side of the political aisle from us. But God calls us to pray for their well-being. Christians may not like our co-workers who gossip, neighbors who let their property deteriorate or enemies who betray us. But God calls us to work for their well-being.” End quote.

Back when I worked at church camp the other counselors and I would often sit around on our breaks or on the weekends and have deep debates about theology and life in the way that only young people who think they have all the answers can. One of the recurring questions was whether it was possible to love someone whom you didn’t like. Does love necessitate liking? I really don’t remember where I stood on that burning issue then but I would tell you now that it is entirely possible. 

The Bible doesn’t tell us we need to like anyone, but it does tell us we need to love others, repeatedly. Love your enemies, love you neighbor, love one another, love the Lord your God, love me; these are all from the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. I don’t think any of us like our enemies, but by golly we do need to love them. And this agape love is not easy stuff. 

Let’s look at the second paragraph and put that into perspective. It says, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

So, worship went long but now it’s over and you are on your way to lunch. You were supposed to meet some friends at the restaurant at noon but now you’re running behind. You’re behind another car as you pull into the right turn lane at an intersection. No one is coming so you expect the car in front to turn on red but they just sit there. You’re in a hurry and frustrated so you give a little tap on the horn to get their attention in case they’re looking at their phone or something. Instead of them turning, they just sit there, but they do acknowledge your presence with a middle finger salute. Your frustration starts growing and you can feel the steam starting to rise. How do you react?

Now obviously, they are not practicing agape love in this situation. The question is can you? And if so how? I know many of us would just politely sit there and wait, but if we let our frustration grow into anger and curse or demean the other driver under our breath, we are not really practicing love, are we?

Practicing agape love is not easy, but without it we are nothing but noisy gongs or clanging cymbals gaining nothing. Twice a month this congregation provides food for the hungry at First Lutheran Church downtown. In December we donated a lot of clothes and coats to First Lutheran to give out. Every month we donate different household and healthcare items to Jeremiah’s Letter. Every month we donate lots of food to the Neighbor to Neighbor Food Pantry and we’re doing Souper Bowl collection of food for them this month. These are all wonderful things to do, but if we donate to them out of a sense of pity or a feeling of the need to give back or because everyone else is doing it so we should too, or any other reason except out of our love for the recipients, we gain nothing.

In catechism, we are going through the Old Testament this year. If any of you want to be impressed, ask Rowan Linch to recite the books of the Old Testament for you. But I digress. The Old Testament is chock full of stories of people who have screwed up and bad things have happened. I bet that 99% of those screw ups wouldn’t have happened if those involved had just practiced agape love with each other. Even if they had practiced philio or affectionate love with each other, things would have gone much better for them.

  • Cain would not have slain Abel.
  • The Israelites would not have been slaves in Egypt.
  • There would not have innumerable wars between Israel and the Philistines.
  • The Israelites would have taken care of the poor and the widows and would have avoided 70 years of exile in Babylon.

Our failure to practice agape love also creates us no end of hardships to our lives. If all of us would practice that kind of love with each other it would be, well, heavenly.

Fortunately for us, agape love is what God is all about. If it wasn’t for God’s grace and the mercy that flows out of that grace, would probably have been blotted out of existence a long time ago, probably right around the time Adam and Eve took a bite out of the forbidden fruit. For whatever reason, God just loves us and he has shown that love time and time again.Most notably he showed that love for us through the death and resurrection of his son, Jesus. In Romans, Paul writes “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” And, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” 

Think about that. He did not wait for us to act. While we were still his enemies God reconciled us with himself. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God did that because God loves us with a deep and abiding love that nothing can break or change or separate us from. Not death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. This is agape love as practiced by God.

This story is from another commentator. 

In his book, Caring and Commitment, (Harper and Row, 1988) Lewis Smedes tells the story of James Ettison who fell in love with a gentle and lovely woman named Alice. When they married, they settled into a life largely characterized by happiness.

But just two years after their wedding, Alice’s car skidded on a stretch of ice and into oncoming traffic. Though Alice survived, Smedes says she did so only after tilting “toward death for a year.”

She was, however, never the same again. Alice was basically paralyzed from the hips down. Her memory was both spotty and selective. Alice spoke a language that James had to learn as if learning a very difficult new language.

As the months grew into years, the past made its way in fits and starts back into her memory. Yet while that might sound to us like good news, Smedes says it in some ways made life harder for Alice. It made her that much more aware of her other disabilities. Most days Alice bore this with the grace of a saint. But she sometimes for weeks and months on end slipped deep into depression.

Alice’s husband James quit his job after her accident and basically devoted his entire life for caring for his dear wife. Smedes says he never heard his acquaintance complain about his new job. He turned out to be what Smedes calls “a world-class keeper of commitment.”

When Alice died nearly fifteen years after her accident, someone asked James how he had done it all so patiently. How, they wondered, had he given Alice so much when she seemed to give him comparatively little in return?

James said he’d never thought to ask, though he sometimes asked God why Alice was stuck with living that gave so little back to her. Yet when his friend pressed James a bit, he simply answered, “I just loved her.”

This is agape love as practiced by humans. Would that we practiced that same kind of love with everyone we meet.

You know, maybe this is a good verse to read at weddings, but not because of some false, soft romantic sentimentality, but as a warning of the hard work which lies ahead if love is to last for the newlyweds and as a reminder for the rest of us that without this kind of love for our enemies, our neighbor, one another, and the Lord our God, we are nothing.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Amen, come Lord Jesus.