How Do We Love?
1 John 4:13-21
Translating from one language to another is never easy. There are shades of meaning in one language that might not occur in another. Some languages have more than the one word available in others for an idea or concept. Local customs, cultural norms—even weather—affect how language develops to meet the needs of the people using it.
This is true of the English word love. We have only one word for that emotion. What kind of love, who or what the word applies to, the breadth and/or depth of love must all be expressed through context and modifying words. But there’s quite a difference, for example, between “I love apples,” and “I love my wife.” It may be difficult—in English—to express that difference well.
Not true in Greek. Greek has four words for love. The kind of love, and, in most cases, the object of love becomes evident through the word which is used.
Storge is familial love such as a parent for a child.
Philia is love for a sibling, a cousin, or an extremely close friend.
Eros is romantic love—love for a spouse or partner.
Agape is the love originating from God for humankind. It refers to the covenant of love God has instituted with humans, and the reciprocal love of humans for God.
It is agape that I wish to focus on today.
The apostle John must have had a deep, loving relationship with Jesus. No other New Testament writer speaks of love as much as he does. We sense this in his gospel, which seems to come from a different place and present a different Jesus than the other three. But it is in his first letter that love takes center stage.
Almost from the opening verse of this letter we are aware of the love he feels for those to whom he is writing: “My little children” he calls them. The word love appears so often it is almost a refrain. Love is the focus of this letter.
But what kind of love? “My little children” indicates storge. When John says (3:1) “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are,” storge fits perfectly—but not for the whole letter. His love for his fellow apostles might indicate philia, but that doesn’t fit for the entire letter either. Surely he cannot mean eros.
That leaves agape. In today’s reading (4:16b) John says, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” Agape makes sense here, as it does in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Agape. Self-giving love. God gives of himself for the good of humankind. We give of ourselves to God to return his agape. We extend agape to those we encounter in our daily lives. We can use the phrase love for neighbor, but only if we accept Jesus’ definition of neighbor as he illustrates it in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
When we share agape with God we become part of the kingdom of God here and now. God’s realm is alive and well right now, right here. It’s not in some far-off place, in some futuristic time, but here on earth, in the present tense.
See what agape God has given us. Now we give agape to God, and to God’s children. This is how we must love.