This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/10/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
What is love? Is it a feeling, an attitude, a mood?
In our culture, love is often defined as a romantic impulse, a desire to have, be with, possess the other. We sometimes even apply the word love to inanimate objects that we would like to possess or keep. “I just love those shoes!”
So it’s understandable if we get a little bit confused when reading the New Testament, which was written in the street-Greek of the first century Roman Empire. These texts were composed in a foreign language in a foreign culture in a land far away, two thousand years ago. And now we’re reading it in modern translations into English, a language that didn’t even exist yet, in the days of the early church.
It’s easy to read the English word “love”, translating the ancient Greek word agape, and think we know what the ancient writers were talking about. But agape is a much more specific word than our catch-all English word. The Greeks used agape to mean the care, honor, and appreciation felt towards spouses and close family members – as distinct from eros (lust or desire) and philia (affinity or friendship).
To make matters even more confusing, the early Christians expanded the meaning of the Greek word agape, applying this kind of family-love to the whole adopted family of the church. The people who had once been strangers to one another had become a household in Christ Jesus. Those who before could, at best, hope to encounter each other with the eros or philia of lovers and friends, now found themselves to be family members – brothers and sisters – in Christ. So the love we read about in the Bible is this family-love. It’s the lasting, unconditional love that a parent has for a child, or a sister has for a brother.
Jesus and the early church were very concerned with what this kind of love looked like in action. Because this was a new thing that God was doing among Jesus’ followers. People knew how to handle agape love inside of a traditional Greek or Roman household. There was a clear, patriarchal structure, where authority flowed down from the pater familias, the senior male in the household. This patriarch, it was hoped, administered the family in bonds of concern and agape love.
But the pater familias of the early church, this new kind of family that the disciples were discovering, was the resurrected Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God – the ultimate Pater. This was entirely unprecedented. Every other ancient family had a human lord, a patriarch; but the early church had no clear head honcho besides the Holy Spirit.
To many in the ancient world, this surely seemed disordered. But one thing that the authors of the New Testament are quite clear about is that the love they were experiencing was one of order and peace. It was one that structured the community into a circle of care, of justice, of right relationship. The love that Paul talks about in Romans 13, the love that “fulfills the law”, is a love that blesses and builds up others. The love of the gospel is one that inspires the individual to lay down their own ego and prioritize the needs of brothers and sisters who are held together in agape love.
Of course, we all know that this is easier said than done. The history of human communities is a history of conflict. When we come together in community, even a community gathered by God – it’s not a matter of if, but when, we’ll come into conflict.
And so Jesus, being very practical in our reading from Matthew 18, specifically addresses for his followers – and for us today – how we are to order ourselves as a spiritual family in the face of conflict, in the face of hurt, in the face of sin within the agape community. In Matthew 18, Jesus lays out a pretty straightforward process for resolving disputes. He says that if a brother or a sister sins against us, there is a certain order of operations we need to follow:
First, the person or persons who were directly impacted by the sin should speak to the offender privately. See if they’ll listen and grapple with what they’ve done. If they seek forgiveness, great; the process needs go no farther.
But if the private meeting doesn’t result in reconciliation, if the offender is unwilling to listen, then we proceed to step two. To put it in Quaker terms: At this point, it goes to a committee. Jesus tells us to still keep things quiet, but bring some more people into the conversation, so that it’s mediated and witnessed by others.
If we still have a problem after this conversation, if the wrongdoer is still not listening to those harmed and to the committee members who have come alongside, then it’s time to take the matter to the whole church. For us at Berkeley Friends Church, that would be the Monthly Meeting for Business.
Finally, if we get to that point, and the person who had sinned against against others in the church is still unwilling to listen to the whole Meeting, the whole assembly of brothers and sisters, then at that point Jesus says that we should let that person be like “a gentile and a tax collector” to us.
That sounds like a pretty bad outcome, doesn’t it? Hopefully it doesn’t get to that point. Hopefully we find resolution and forgiveness and healing in the process. But if all else fails, Jesus tells us, it’s OK to release someone from participation in the community. If someone is adamant about breaking fellowship with the church, at a certain point we have to honor that.
So what do we do with that? What does love look like when fellowship is broken? What does love look like when we recognize the lack of trust and agape between us and one of our brothers or sisters? What does love look like to those we relate to as “gentiles and tax collectors”?
Well, the good news is that Jesus gave us plenty of examples about this. Jesus was notorious for being associated with all the wrong people. Jesus ate with tax collectors and stayed in their homes. Jesus met with gentiles and blessed them. The early church went even farther when the Holy Spirit welcomed the gentiles into the church. Peter, Paul, and many other early disciples found that to practice the agape of Jesus meant welcoming those who were outside the circle. The Holy Spirit could choose anyone to be part of the family of God. Even a tax collector like Zaccheus. Even an occupying Roman centurion like Cornelius. Even a murdering religious zealot like Paul.
It’s telling that Jesus’ instructions to the church about how to deal with conflict are preceded by a long passage in which he warns that little children and lost people should be welcomed. Immediately before laying out this process for gospel order in the church, Jesus talks about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one lost sheep who has gone astray.
This is what Christian love, agape, looks like: It is the shepherd who seeks out the lost, wayward sheep, even when it is a challenge for the 99 “good” sheep. The Christian community that is faithful to Jesus will always be seeking the good of all people, even when we are in conflict with them. Even when we have to admit that we are out of fellowship with them. Even when they choose to wander away.
We are called to love the gentile and the tax collector. We are called to seek after the lost sheep. We are commanded by Jesus to love our enemies. That’s what Christian love looks like. Everything we do as Christians – especially when we are in conflict – must be to seek the good of our brothers and sisters.
And sometimes the medicine feels tough. Sometimes, love means telling a brother that they hurt us. Sometimes, agape means insisting that we won’t allow wrongdoing to continue in our midst. Occasionally, conflict may reach a point where we can’t pretend that there is fellowship anymore.
But the love is still there. It must always be there. If we ever wanted to follow Jesus, if we ever really did become family in him, we don’t get to abandon one another. Like our good shepherd, Jesus, our love is that which seeks after the lost, standing ready to welcome the prodigal back with open arms and kisses and tears.
What is love, real love? Love is being real with one another. Love is bearing burdens. Love is refusing to allow wrong-doing to continue. Love is also a refusal to give up on people. Love means that the door home is always open.