So for the last year, this congregation has been working at discerning what God’s plan is for St. John. We’ve been trying to figure out, what is God’s purpose for us? And I’ve been talking with Council, and talking with the shut-ins, and hearing your stories about St. John and listening to your memories of times when the congregation was thriving––full to capacity, overflowing, even––and stories about this pastor and that pastor, and I’ve even been hearing stories from people in other congregations in Calgary, who started at St. John and then moved to those congregations to help them get going. And it’s become clear to me that God’s purpose for St John in the past was to be a nurturing community that sent individuals out to strengthen Calgary’s other Lutheran churches. At St. John, this was done through Sunday school programs, and church services, and Luther League events, and a lot of social community-building. And this is the story for many big-city congregations that are as old as St. John.
But when it comes to figuring out what God’s purpose for a church is, sometimes we end up confusing the means for fulfilling God’s purpose for us with the end, or the actual purpose. And by ‘we’ I mean Christians in general. Congregations get confused into thinking that our programs and our filled pews and our overflowing bank accounts are the purpose of the church. Congregations spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on church programs, and church consultants, and growth initiatives that are meant to bring people in the door. The purpose of the church becomes one of self-growth and of sustaining the congregation. And then, over time, we start thinking that God’s purpose for our life as a congregation is to continue to exist for a hundred years or even more. And then, as resources dwindle, we start thinking that God’s purpose for congregations––for Christian communities––is that we simply exist. That merely surviving is fulfilling God’s purpose for us. That managing to meet the budget every year is fulfilling. That simply gathering to worship on Sundays is fulfilling God’s purpose for us.
But programs and budgets and Sunday School and youth groups and even buildings are all meant to be tools to help the church to fulfill its actual purpose. And that purpose is clearly laid out for us in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that we heard this morning. The purpose of the Christian community is to love. As Paul says, “If I do not have love, I am nothing.” If we do not have love, we are nothing. We may have flashy programs and filled pews, and balanced budgets, and we maybe be able to carry on for the next fifty years, but if we do not have love, we have nothing.
Now “love” is a pretty loaded word. It’s a shame that in English we only have one word for love, because there are lots of different kinds of love. The love you have for your spouse is different than the love you have for your children, which is different than the love you have for your country, or the love you have for chocolate, and definitely different than the love you have for God. So which kind of love is Paul talking about in this passage? Which kind of love is it that fulfills us and gives purpose to our lives?
Well, we’re lucky that Greek has different words for love. There’s philos, which means a brotherly or sisterly kind of love––the love you have between equals––your siblings or cousins or very close friends. There’s eros, which is a love where you want the person you love, you want them so much that you want to consume them. We often use that word to describe erotic love, but we can also use it to describe the kind of love that borders on covetousness. When you love someone or something so much it consumes your life and you, in turn, try to consume it. Like, if you’ve ever seen a tiny baby and said, “Oh, I just want to eat you up!”, that’s an example of eros love. Eros is more than what we describe as erotic love––it’s any love that is possessive––where we want to grab the object of our love and just hold it tight. If you love chocolate so much that you can’t stop eating it if it’s in front of you, that’s eros. When you fall in love, that starts as eros. It’s not a bad kind of love––the Song of Solomon is full of this love, toddlers and small children have this kind of love for their parents when they demand, “Hug me, kiss me, play with me!”––It’s not bad, but it can certainly become very unhealthy, destructive even, because, in the end, it is love for the sake of the one who is loving, and not for the sake of the one who is loved.
Then, of course, there’s agape love. Agape is a love that is entirely centered on the one that we love. It is, in a way, the opposite of eros. While eros is a love where the lover wants to consume the object of love, agape is a love where the lover gives her- or himself up completely for the sake of the loved. In agape, we give up everything––our selves, our time, and our possessions, we might say––for the betterment of the one we love. Agape is the love parents have for their children, when they encourage them to leave so they can grow and mature and have their own lives, even if it breaks our own hearts. Agape is the love that says, “I’m going to walk to the store instead of driving because it’s better for the environment.” Agape is the love that says, “I will let the other person take credit for that job because they need it more.” Agape, as Paul says in our reading, “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. Agape is patient; agape is kind; Agape is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” That is actually what it says. The “love” in 1 Corinthians is agape love, not eros love. It is a love that puts aside all thought of what I or we want, in order to make room for the other, as hard as that is. It is a completely selfless love, and it is the most difficult and painful love of all, because it runs completely contrary to our evolutionary self-preservation instincts.
And yet it is the love that God calls us to, and the love God has made us for. As Paul says so clearly, if we do not have agape, we are nothing. It’s so strange––agape is a love that calls us to give up everything we are, and yet if we do not love that way, if we hold on to everything we are, then we are nothing. God, in this funny, paradoxical twist, has made us so that we are most fulfilled, we most have life, when we live contrary to our biological imperative for self-preservation. God has made humans so that our supreme purpose in life, our moment of ultimate fulfillment comes not from securing our own life, or ensuring our own survival, but from denying it. God has made us so that our purpose in life is fulfilled when we give that life away for the sake of others. Our greatest purpose in life, our greatest meaning, comes from love––from agape.
So what does this mean for St. John? Well, it means the same thing that it means for every congregation, actually. Paul’s words, you see, are to the church in Corinth––to the Corinthian congregation. They weren’t written to an individual. While it might certainly be read that way, the original audience of Paul’s words about agape were to a church community. And so his words are meant first for church communities––for congregations. And so Paul is saying that if the community does not have agape, it is nothing. If the community or congregation designs programs meant to bring others into itself, and focuses on budgets that support only itself, and uses resources like buildings and pastors only for itself, then the love the congregation has for the world is an eros love. A love that wants to bring others in and consume them for its own sake. The congregation does not have agape. The congregation is nothing. No matter how great the programs, how full the pews, how beautiful the building, how packed the Sunday School rooms are, if it is all for itself, it is nothing. It may be a great place to be, and lively, and a wonderful social support, but it is not fulfilling its purpose as the body of Christ––it is not church. It’s not bad, it’s just not church.
Church is different because church is agape. If we were to describe an agape congregation from with a Lutheran framework, where the community is constantly living and dying for the sake of the other, we might say that the Lutheran congregation lives in agape love for the wider conference, or city, the conference lives in agape love for the Synod, the Synod lives in agape for the National Church––in our case, the ELCIC, the ELCIC lives in agape for the global Lutheran church, or the Lutheran World Federation, the Lutheran World Federation lives in agape for the worldwide body of Christians of all denominations, and the worldwide body of all Christians lives in agape for the world. And so I have to ask––do we do this? Does this congregation or the conference or the Synod or the ELCIC or the LWF or the global church of Christians do this? Do we live in agape love? What would it look like if we did? What would it look like if every congregation and every denomination and the entire Christian body actually lived in this agape existence? What would it be like? What would it feel like to live in agape instead of in eros?
Well, if we believe the words of Paul, it would feel like we are finally and unquestioningly living out God’s purpose for us. It would feel fulfilling, and life-giving, and it would feel Christ-like. We would not wonder what God’s purpose is for us, because we would be living it, and we would feel it. We would not feel anxiety, or fear, or worry––these feelings are signs that we are living an eros existence––how will we survive? How will we make it? How will we continue to live? But if we’re living an agape existence, we don’t ask these questions or feel these feelings. Instead, we feel joy and fulfillment and freedom and peace, asking instead, how can we die for others? What do we have that we can give to the larger church? How can we give away all our possessions and hand over our body, as Paul says, for the sake of the other? How can we be Christ for the other?
Because agape is embodied most fully in Christ. We find our purpose and our fulfillment in agape, God made us to be this way, because this is how God loves us. God does not love us with an eros love, hoping to consume us. God loves us with an agape love, giving up God’s honour and power and glory in order to take on a human body and then, giving that body up for death. God brought creation into being, made humans in the image of God, capable of loving and yearning to be loved and to love in return, because God wants us to be fulfilled. God didn’t create us for God’s own enjoyment––look how much pain and sadness we have caused God throughout the centuries, killing one another, being greedy, being selfish. If God wanted to be happy, God wouldn’t have made us at all. But God did. God emptied God’s self for us, God gave us everything, God gave us God’s own self in Jesus Christ for our sake. That is agape. Living for the sake of the loved. Dying for the sake of the loved. Not so that we can now live lives of eros, but so that we in turn might know the blessing and fulfillment of living in agape. So that we, too, might have the joy and satisfaction of giving ourselves, in turn, for others.
So. What is God’s purpose for St. John? It is the same purpose given to every congregation, from the beginning of the Christian church under Paul until the very last day. To love. Not to survive, not even to thrive, but to love. Surviving is nothing. Thriving is nothing. All that there is is love. “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” For the agape God has given to us, and in which we find our true purpose, we say, Thanks be to God. Amen.