Today we celebrate youth Sunday. Twice a year we take a day to honor the young people among us.
We are so proud of our young people and their many skills and gifts and charming personalities. “Ah”, we think, “I remember when I was young and full of potential and life was all ahead of me. . .” But before you wax nostalgic on your own youth, or start to envy our fine young people their futures, shall I remind you about the ravages of adolescence?
Perhaps you sailed through childhood and adolescence without any unpleasant experiences, but I’m guessing for many of you, your teenage years were at the least. . .complicated. Maybe like me you had a raging case of acne and hideous metal braces from which you are still recovering. Maybe you were beautiful, and so, learned to be valued for that beauty and not for yourself. Maybe you were brilliant and labeled a nerd. Maybe you were not so bright, and stuffed in a locker. Any way you turn it, for most people junior high and high school have at least some element of trauma to them.
Perhaps the most painful experience of adolescence is that of love. Do you remember? Do you remember that first person on whom you had a crush? That consuming desire. You could think of nothing else. When he or she missed a day of school your day was ruined. When he or she began dating someone else, you wanted to weep.
Perhaps you were unlucky in love as a teenager and remained on the sidelines or maybe you were even UNLUCKIER and did fall in love, have it reciprocated, and then had your heart broken.
Do you remember how devastating this was? How it brought up huge philosophical and theological question? What is love if love can be lost? Why should we love if it only causes pain? Why would God make love so painful? Frankly, some adults are still working out the pain caused by an early broken heart.
I thought of these painful experiences as I read our Epistle for today. Both our Epistle and Gospel were written by the Johannine Christian Communities of the very early church. You’ll notice similar themes of abiding in God’s love throughout both readings. The phrase that leapt out to me this week, was the phrase from the 1st Letter of John-“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
This concept, of there being no fear in perfect love, is antithetical to our anxiety ridden culture. Romantic love is inherently fearful, isn’t it? We have hour long dramas like, What about Brian? based on the idea that love is inherently desirable, but difficult to get. On the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy this week, the true love of one character dies immediately after proposing, and other couple resume an adulterous affair. The message: love is risky, and contains great potential for pain.
We are afraid of not falling in love, of having no one fall in love with us, of falling in love with the wrong person, of having that person fall in love with another person, the list goes on and on. Woody Allen would not have a career if love was not a little bit terrifying.
So, what in the world is this perfect, fearless love of which the Johannine community speaks?
First of all, it is NOT romantic love. The New Testament seems fundamentally disinterested in romantic love. The writers are not against romantic love, per se, they have had such profound experiences of God’s love for them, that the writers understand romantic love can only be understood in light of God’s love.
In Matthew 22, some Saducees were trying to trick Jesus and started asking him what happens if a woman has several husbands who die. Who will be her husband in heaven? This seems like a valid question, right? We think of romantic love as an eternal commodity. In our culture, achieving romantic love is the ultimate goal in life. If someone falls in love with us, it gives us value and security. We want to know that we will be with that person for all eternity. Jesus, however, lets us know that romantic love, is not eternal love. He replies to the Saducees, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
Romantic love is wonderful, and is a subset of God’s love for us, but it is not the kind of love that will sustain us beyond this world.
Romantic love begins with us, as humans. Romantic love ends with us.
In these Johannine passages, God speaks of agape-or God’s abounding love. God’s love begins with God, not with us. We often define God as love, but in reality, God defines love. Let me say that again. We often define God as love, but in reality God defines love.
When we project our ideas of what love is onto God, we come up with a warm and fuzzy picture of God that has nothing to do with reality. Instead, our passage today invites us to define love through God’s eyes. And God’s love is not the self centered, anxiety ridden romantic love of our culture, but a love of abundant hospitality. A love that is so secure, so perfect that it drives away any insecurity, any fear.
So, the second quality of agape love is that it begins with God. Only God can generate a love that is entirely selfless and welcoming and abundant. Agape love demands nothing in return.
Agape love moves out from God towards us. Agape love pursues us, rather relentlessly, throughout our lives. This love is so powerful that it fills us and crowds out any fear or anxiety about love that we may have.
The author of 1st John writes, “We love because he first loved us.” What’s wonderful about God’s agape love, is that it redeems and amplifies all other kinds of love.
God does not ask us to choose agape love over romantic love-in fact agape love makes romantic love infinitely easier and more rewarding.
When we experience God’s agape love for us, the experience creates a life changing moment. For the first time we can stop worrying about whether the love we receive is temporary. For the first time we can trust that the Being we love, loves us back. Not only loves us back, but loves us first.
When we know that God loves us, with a powerful and consuming love, we become secure in ourselves in a way we have not experienced before. And when we are secure in the knowledge that we are loved, it becomes easier for us to love others. We stop looking to other people to fill up our empty places. We stop needing approval and affirmation from humans. We stop our clingy neediness because we have become filled. Filled with a love that accepts us and challenges us.
This love challenges us to love in a way that looks out for the good of the other. When we are filled up with this kind of love, we are able to reach out to others, to take emotional risks with our loved ones, to stop protecting ourselves. Agape love makes us generous with our time, money, energy and emotional presence. We stop focusing on our own fears and limitations and begin to celebrate the abundance of God’s love for all of us.
Perhaps the biggest gift we can give our young people is to pray that they might experience the depth of God’s love for them. It is no coincidence that many people come to faith while teenagers. Teens have a special capacity to understand the incredible good news of Jesus’ love for them. They feel love and heartbreak with an intensity that is only a memory for most of us.
An experience of God’s agape love could change the direction of their-and our-lives forever. An experience of God’s agape love could help these teens choose life partners who are healthy and supportive and life giving.
Remember, when you pray and contemplate God’s love for you–Agape is not the limited, fickle love of romance, but the eternal, constant, abundant love of the God who created you and redeems you. And that love can transform the romantic love in your life into a healthy, mutual love marked by hospitality and integrity. And that-is good news.