Today is the First Sunday After Trinity, when we begin this second half of the Church Year, in which the focus shifts from following in the footsteps of our Lord’s earthly life to growing in our faith. We’ll see the readings become more topical and less seasonal. We’ll see a focus on growing in virtue and battling vice, all with the Lord’s help. In his lectures to the Prayer Book Society on the Rational of the Trinity Season Lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer, Anglican theologian David G. Phillips identified a three-stage growth in virtue that has its roots in 6th Century Christian and Pagan Greek philosophy: purgation of sin, illumination by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and union with Christ. Over the next few months, we’ll see how Trinitytide takes us through that growth in virtue. But first, we set the stage today and next week by laying a foundation in love. In today’s Gospel reading we see the rich man, traditionally named “Dives” failing to love his poor neighbor, Lazarus. In our Epistle, we see St. John expounding on what it means to love our brother and neighbor.
Sometimes we use the word “love” rather sloppily. We often use it so indiscriminately that it loses its significance. After all, when I say that I love my wife it means something quite different from when I say that I love pizza or that I love Star Wars! Indeed, our English word “love” is so broad as to sometimes be confusing. One of the last conversations I had with my late Uncle Claudio was how important it is to properly define love, especially if we’re supposed to be preaching the Gospel. Can we truly speak about the love between newlyweds in the same way that we speak about the love we should have for our fellow man? And how about the love God has for us and the love we’re supposed to have for him? When our Epistle says “God is love” in Verse 8, is St. John speaking of the same thing as the Beatles’ famous song “All you need is Love”?
In the Scriptures, we have three Greek words that can be translated as “love.” On the one hand, we have the word eros, which refers to a romantic or sexual love. In fact, Cupid, the Roman god of love, is known as “Eros” in Greek. Second, we have the word phileo, often referred to as “brotherly love.” This is the affection between friends or family. Thayer’s lexicon points out that it is an emotional love. It is essentially a feeling. Finally, we have agape, an unconditional love. This sort of love is essentially a choice and is a higher form of love than the other two. Sometimes the King James Version uses the word “charity” to translate agape, most famously in 1 Corinthians 13.
Throughout our Epistle reading, the third love, agape, is what we are talking about. God’s love is not just a feeling. It is not a romantic love. Rather, it is unconditional, a choice, and rooted in God’s own nature. The fact that love flows from God’s nature is of utmost importance to our understanding of the duty we have to love God and to love our neighbor. Last week was Trinity Sunday, when we remember that we worship Three Persons who are One God. Not three gods. Not one person acting in three roles. One God who is Three Persons. Each Person is God, not merely a part of God. Each Person is distinct: the Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Spirit. The Spirit is not the Son. Nevertheless, we have One God, not three. The unity of the Three Persons is such that Jesus can accurately say “I and the Father are one,” even while remaining a distinct Person from the Father. This is certainly confusing, but arithmetic doesn’t limit the Divine. It has often been said that we cannot comprehend the Trinity, but we can apprehend the Trinity. That is, we cannot fully understand the doctrine, but we can affirm what Scripture tells us about it.
One of my favorite aspects of Trinitarian Doctrine is the fact that it means that God is essentially relational. That is, he has always loved. The Father has always loved the Son. The Son has always loved the Father. The Spirit has always been that love. This is, in part, what St. John means when he says “God is love.” He didn’t have to create us to have someone to love; he always loved. He didn’t have to create love; he always has been love. Rather, the love he has for us is an overflow of who he is.
As St. John points out in the beginning of our Epistle reading, this has profound implications for how we treat each other. Verses 7 and 8 read:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
In these two verses the word agape or one of its derivatives is used seven times. St. John addresses us as “beloved,” those who are loved. Loved by whom? By God, first and foremost, but also by the Apostle. Because we are “beloved” we are commanded to “love one another.” Only those who are loved can love. Why? Because “love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” Without being reborn, regenerated, by the Holy Spirit, we cannot love with that supernatural agape. But when we are born of God, we will naturally know God and love our brothers with the same love with which God loves us. And if God’s love does not bear fruit in the form of loving each other, the lack of fruit is proof that we do not know God. Why? “Because God is love.”
St. John goes on to show us how we know that God does indeed love us. Verses 9 and 10:
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
The ultimate demonstration of God’s love was the Father’s willingness to send the Son, and the Son’s willingness to be sent, all for the purpose of becoming a bloody sacrifice for our “propitiation.” The word “propitiation” connotes atonement. In the Old Testament, atonement sacrifices restored the relationship between God and his people because his people were prone to stray from him through sin. I’m reminded especially of the Day of Atonement, which had two goats for sacrifice. The first goat was literally sacrificed as a sin offering. Leviticus 16 tells us that its blood was to purify the Temple and the people from the uncleanness of the people’s sins. Hebrews 9 reminds us that “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22). But there is a second goat on the Day of Atonement: the scapegoat who is exiled into the wilderness after the priest confesses the iniquities, sins, and transgressions of the people and lays them upon the head of scapegoat. Jesus fulfills both of these goats: He sheds his blood on the cross to purify us from our sins, and he takes our sins upon himself as he is exiled to the grave, only to rise again as proof that he is greater than the World the Flesh and the Devil, able to atone for our sins.
Make no mistake: this is an act of love of Jesus’ part and on the Father’s part. A traditional reading for the Day of Atonement is the Binding of Isaac from Genesis 22, in which Abraham shows his love for God by being willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac shows his love for Abraham and for God by being willing to be sacrificed, and God shows his love for Abraham and Isaac by providing a ram to be sacrificed in their stead. Abraham is a type of the Father. Isaac and the ram are both types of Christ.
Our Epistle continues in verses 11 and 12:
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
When we are loved by God, that love bears fruit as our love for each other. His love in us allows others to see God working in us. Indeed, our love for each other is proof that God lives in us and has loved us with the perfect love of his Son. Again, the love in this passage is agape, the divine love that is a choice. We don’t love each other because we always feel like it, we do it because we have been empowered by God’s love to choose to love each other. This is a choice that we exercise daily. When we fail to love each other, God calls us to repent and try again, secure in his love for us, confident that he both calls us and keeps us in his love. Or, as the Apostle puts it in Hebrews 12, Jesus is the “founder and perfecter of our faith.”
The amazing thing about God’s agape love is that it sanctifies the often mixed-motives of the other two loves. Our emotional affection for our friends from phileo becomes true Christian brotherhood, singing out with the words of Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity!… For there the Lord promised his blessing, and life for evermore.” The blood of Christ that binds us as his family, as spiritual brothers and sisters, becomes the thickest blood of all.
And God’s agape love takes the eros found in Christian marriage, that fiery love that is so powerful that it sometimes requires a name 9 months later; God’s agape makes that eros a picture of Christ and the Church. Ever since the Fall, the one-flesh unity has been perverted into selfish domination or rebellion. But St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 that a Christian husband loves his wife with the same sacrificial, sanctifying love the Christ has for the Church. That a Christian husband should love his wife as if she were his very own body, being willing to lay aside his life for her sake. And that a Christian wife should submit to her husband similar to how the Church submits to Christ, not a submission of distrust and fear, but a submission born of being loved and loving in return.
This is the love that is big enough to change the world. Indeed, this is the love that has changed the world, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to all corners of the globe. But it’s also the love that is small enough to work miracles in an individual, in a family, in a parish. In Verse 19 of our Epistle, St. John says “We love because he first loved us.” Beloved in Christ, go love your God, and love your neighbor, just as you have been loved.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.