Good Shepherd's youth minister and my good friend Micah Towery, was married last Saturday and is now taking a new job in Vancouver. Here is the sermon I preached at his wedding.
texts: 1st John 4:7-11; Genesis 1:26-29
John begins with an instruction that, at least on the surface, everyone can affirm:
"Love one another" is the near universal teaching of every religion and every ethical system religious or non-religious. It's one biblical command with which the whole world can agree. If only we all loved one another there would be no more war, no broken relationships, no partisan politics, no poor people, no depression, no anxiety, no fear...if only we had love.
But John goes on and our consensus wanes: He writes, "for love is of God; Everyone who loves knows God and is born of God." Love has its origin, says John, in God. We've just lost our atheists. But we still have a pretty wide consensus. You can read that verse and check yourself: “I love people, I'm in love, well then there you go, I'm born of God and know God.”
John goes on: "He who does not love does not know God" This flows from the original premise. If God is the origin of love then it stands to reason that those who love have a connection with God and those who don't don't. But who doesn't love? Love is universal. Even the most vile criminal loves somebody. So, still we seem to have a big tent.
But what John writes next is deceptively profound: "God is love." Now we have to get the order of the words right. Love is not god. God is love. I said it is “deceptively profound” because it sounds quite simple and common and easy to affirm. I mean it's on bumper stickers. But the these words express far more than you might think.
First, the word John uses for love is a Greek word that all the Christians here should be familiar with: Agape. There are a number of Greek words for love used in the New Testament.. The three most common are Phileo, Eros, and Agape. Phileo is a feeling of brotherly love, friendship love. It's probably what we had in mind when we said that if we all just loved one another our problems would go away. The other kind of love: eros, is a romantic, passionate, sexual sort of love--we get the word erotic from it. It's the sort of love people generally feel when they say that they fall in love. Many people get married because they experience the feeling of eros. Eros is great –it's an exhilarating emotion. But if you know anything about emotions you know that they come and they go. They're not constant. That's why marriages based solely on eros tend not to last. Eros is always focused on the self. How do I feel about you right now? “Are you making me tingle?”
Agape is a very different kind of love. Agape is a decision of the will, a committed decision to act in love toward another person. To have agape means that you act for another person's good in all things despite you feelings or your circumstances. It is a love that is not focused on the self or on how you feel at a given moment but on the other—it is selfless.
Let's turn back to what John says. Agape is the only word John uses in this text. That tends to put a difficult spin on things. The question in the first two verses is not: do I feel that fuzzy warm feeling for people. The question is, do I consistently decide to act out self-giving love for the people in my life, putting their needs above of my own and serving them even when I don't like them? Agape love is the kind of love that Micah and Jill are going to promise to have for one another. It’s the only kind of love you can promise to have because it is the only love based on a decision.
Let's get back to John's declaration that "God is agape". John is not just saying that God agapes, he is saying that God is Agape. Agape is one of his core attributes. How old is God? He's been around forever. Who made God? No one, God is eternal. That means that he has no beginning and no end. He just is. He exists in an eternal now. How long have we been around? Not as long. How about angels? Are they eternal? No. Okay. So if Agape is a decision of the will to act in self-giving, self-sacrificial, love toward another, we have to ask: how can this quality be essential to the being of an eternal God when his existence precedes the existence of anything else to agape? Agape requires someone to agape. If agape is an essential attribute of God, how was God agape before time began? Who did he agape?
In the very first verse of John's Gospel, John writes, "in the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the word was God." before the beginning of anything, before time and space and all things the Word was. And the Word was with God. That means there was a relationship between the Word and God. They are two, they are distinct Persons. And yet "The Word was God"-They are one. We're looking at the foundations of the Trinity—unity and plurality—God is one and yet within that Oneness, he is three. In John 1, we see the Father and the Son—later John, Jesus, the Son, reveals the third person, the Holy Spirit.
Who did God agape before time began? God agaped God. God the father eternally apaped God the Son, the Word, and God the Holy Spirit. God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, lives in an eternally willing mutual self-giving, active love for himself.
To say that the eternal God is love is to make a Trinitarian confession.
Well that's all very fine and good Matt. I'll come to you when I want to know about the Trinity but this is a wedding and what does this have to do with marriage?
When the bible deals with the purpose of marriage we're given two pictures. One picture is implicit in Genensis 1—you can see it in your first reading. “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply...” Notice the shift from singular to plural. God created “man” in his own image, in the image of God he created “him”; male and female he created “them.” The word “man” is singular and refers in Hebrew to humanity in general. God created “humankind”, in his own image--a single unity--but within that single unity—God created two distinct and different kinds, male and female, who are equally human and yet not one but two. There is one kind of being, a human being, but within that one being there are two distinct types.
Some theologians see this oneness and plurality in Genesis 1:27 and say, God created one humankind both male and female, for the purpose of reflecting of his own unity and plurality into the world—revealing his own nature. And I think they are right.
In chapter 2 of Genesis, God does something even more amazing and brings the woman to the man and “joins them together” in the first marriage and they become “one flesh.” So by the end of chapter 2, God has created humanity and instituted marriage in order to reveal not only his unity and plurality but the ground of the intertrinitarian relationship, his agape, his self giving love.
Every marriage is a picture of God to be revealed to all the world. Micah and Jillian are called to live together in such a way that their marriage reveals God and his divine love to the world.
I said a moment ago that the bible describes marriage as having two purposes. The first is to be a picture of God's own agape for God. The second is a picture of God's agape turned in a different direction. Let's go back to that second reading from 1st John 4. "9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
The Bible teaches that human beings are in bad shape. We were created for the purpose of being in communion, in an agape relationship, with God, but we've broken that relationship. We turned from God our creator to live for ourselves and the things he created. That decision was made by our first parents long ago and it is repeated in each of our lives daily. And, if you think about it, it hasn't worked out for us too well. God made a different decision. God determined that despite our turning away from him, despite our sins against him, his purpose in creation would stand. He decided to agape us—to sacrifice himself on our behalf. So God became man in Jesus. He took all of our offenses and sins onto himself and suffered the consequences for them when he died on the cross. Then, having done away with sin which is the cause of death, he rose from the dead bodily on the third day and then he ascended into heaven where he still lives today.
The effect of this was that all who turn from themselves, repent, and surrender to him—become his forever. He gives himself to whoever calls his name. So that, as John says, “we might live through him”. Jesus makes his home in and with all who come to him—and corporately, the Church, all who are called by his name—makes Jesus manifest in the world. He pours his life into the Church, he agapes the Church, and the Church, agapes, lives her life and conforms her life to his.
This is the second picture of God's love that Christian marriage is designed to reveal—a picture of the agape between Christ and the Church. Micah is to agape Jill and serve her like Jesus agapes the church and Jill is called to love Micah and submit to him like the church loves Christ. The words they speak to each other, the things they do, the choices they make--tell the world the story of the agape between Jesus the Church.
How is that possible? How is agape possible in any relationship?
At the beginning we said, this stuff is easy. “Hey I love lots of people, so I'm good, I'm born of God.” It's a lot heavier than that. On my own, I can’t love anyone with divine agape. Micah and Jill can't either. No one can. This sort of love is impossible for sinful human beings. It cannot be done.
It can only be done if, as John says in the gospel reading tonight, you are abiding in the true vine.
This is why tonight is such a beautiful night. This is why angels are singing and heaven is rejoicing because both Jill and Micah “are born of God and know God”—and so when they come together the love of God will be revealed and the gospel of his love for his people will be made known.