Thursday, January 8, 2015

What is Agápe?

At a management seminar I once attended the instructor had everyone in the class tie air filled balloons around our ankles with a one foot piece of string. He then told us that anyone who still had an inflated balloon attached to their ankle at the end of two minutes would win the exercise. The second he yelled to begin the room became a frenzy of foot stomping people desperately trying to flatten another’s balloon without having theirs flattened in the process. Within a minute there were no inflated balloons to be found as those who could not keep their balloon safe ganged up on the few who remained.

The instructor gathered the class together and asked, “What did you have to do to win the exercise?”

“Keep our balloon from being popped.” someone answered.

“And who told you to pop the other balloons?” he then asked.

We all stood around giving each other dumb looks. We could all have been winners if we had done nothing more than stood still for two minutes. Given the competitive nature with which we have been raised it was not enough to just have an un-popped balloon – we had to pop as many as we could in the process. In order to be successful we had to make others fail.

This is often the same approach we take with God. We try to make ourselves look better by making others look worse. We try to justify our shortcomings by comparing ourselves to those who have much greater shortcomings, at least in our eyes.

“The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ “  - Luke, Chapter 18, Verses 11 and 12

We silently echo the words of that tax collector in our minds as the bells ring during the presentation of the Sacred Blood immediately following the consecration of the Holy Eucharist during Mass.

“God, be merciful unto me, the sinner!” – Luke, Chapter 18, Verse 13

The truth of the matter is that there is no competition in God’s eyes. He loves Mother Teresa the same as he loves Adolph Hitler. God IS love, and not just any type of love, but agápe.

The English language is at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to the word love. We have one word that has been given a dozen different meanings. I love my wife. I love my pet squirrel. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. One word, many different meanings.

In Greek, the language of the New Testament, there are many different words for love that each has specific meanings. One is Éros from which we get words like erotic. It refers to a physical love of an intimate nature. Another is Phillia from which we get words like Philadelphia, city of brotherly love. That is exactly what type of love Phillia is – brotherly love, affectionate regard or friendship.

The last word for love that I will talk about is Agápe. This is an unconditional, sacrificial type of love that does not hope to be returned. It is the kind of love that is placed before all else. To better understand the New Testament try substituting the word sacrifice where you see the word love.

God is love – God is sacrifice – God is agápe. God has power, God has knowledge, but God IS love.

Let’s look at probably the most used passage at any Christian wedding and substitute the word sacrifice for the word love:

“Sacrifice is patient, sacrifice is kind and is not jealous; sacrifice does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” – 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verses 4 - 7

That is the kind of love God has for each and every one of his creation, his children. That is the kind of love that we are called to have for each other. It is definitely the kind of love that is needed to have a successful marriage or to be a good parent and it is the reason why there is no competition with God. He loves us all the same, unconditionally, sacrificially, agápe. We cannot get him to love us more by getting him to love someone else less. He loves us all completely and wholly.

If I want to find favor with God I do so not by competing with, but by serving my fellow man. I am called to be the one who sacrifices my balloon so that you can win the exercise. If we all were willing to sacrifice for each other we all win together.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” – Luke, Chapter 10, Verse 27

This is what agápe means.

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