I wish love was simple and uncomplicated. Jesus talked about it so much because love challenges us, often to go beyond our perceived limits. I didn’t grow up with the best role models when it comes to love. I have no doubt that my parents did their best. Yet, what they communicated to me was that love was conditional, based on following the rules and being “good.” In many ways, the church communicated the same thing to me. Starting Sunday School at eight meant that I missed the basics of preschool and early elementary school. I didn’t learn “Jesus Loves Me,” the song, until I was in college, and by then it was almost too late.
In John’s gospel Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” I wonder if that was hard for those first disciples to grasp. In my mind they were very young men, perhaps between the ages of 15 and 20 by the time Jesus would have spoken these words. They lived in a society very different from ours. What lessons had they learned about love before they met Jesus? Jesus spoke about agape, unconditional love, and it’s possible that no one else really did. Maybe they knew something of storge, affection, or philia, brotherly love or friendship, or eros, romantic love. But outside of the synagogue and the need to be involved in charity, where would they have encountered agape?
I don’t know. Certainly, anyone of them could have had an encounter with God that unfolded the meaning of agape for them. Or maybe being with Jesus for three years was enough for them to begin to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” I’d like to think those early disciples got it, understood it, and went on to live in relationship with each other guided by agape. However, what I remember about early church history indicates that they probably didn’t.
So this leads me to the question of how, when, and where do we experience agape today? If we’re lucky, we learn about unconditional love from our parents. And for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have healthy, loving, emotive parents, then it would be great if the church would step in and fill that gap?
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Maybe we can dedicate the month to communicating the love we have for one another and for all our neighbors. What if everyone who joined our worship services or Bible studies or Sunday Schools heard and believed the message that they are God’s beloved, that they are loved and valued for who they are in this moment? What if we stopped caring about all those things we’ve labeled as sin, and just focused on loving whomever shows up?
How many lives could be saved if we communicated clearly that Queer folx are loved by God? That people with addictions are loved by God? That people with disabilities are loved by God? That people with mental illness are loved by God? That people experiencing homelessness are loved by God? That people who are divorced are loved by God? That women who’ve had abortions are loved by God? That people living in non monogamous relationships are loved by God? No change needed. Right now, whoever you are, whatever you are doing, whatever you are experiencing, you are loved by God. For real. Seriously, how many lives could be saved with this simple message?
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I invite every preacher, every church leader, to make agape the mission and the message. Let’s set aside everything we think makes proper theology and proper church practice and figure out how to embody agape for those who most need to know the saving power of God’s love for the whole of creation.