This Greek word describes the highest form of love. How do you pronounce it?
I am reminded of the story of two women who visited Hawai’i and wanted to know how to pronounce it. They asked a local, “What’s correct? Is it Hawai-e or Havai’e?” He said, “Havai’e.” They thanked him, and he replied, “You’re velcome.”
My contention is that Jesus’s main message wasn’t about being the Sacrificial Lamb (Saint Paul made that up) but about the power of agape. In Ancient Greek, there are four different words for love: philia, storge, eros, and agape.
Philia is a dispassionate, virtuous love and might include your friends, neighbors, and people at work. This love demands something in return. Others have to be friendly back, or there’s no philia.
Next, there is storge, empathetic love shared among family and relatives. It does not demand that we like the other person but that we’ll stand up for that person come hell or high water because they are family. It too needs to be reciprocated for storge to continue.
The third love is eros, a sensual/sexual relationship that also demands a positive reaction or the relationship isn’t much fun.
Then there is agape, which is the highest form of love. It asks nothing in return and is given freely, whether we like the person or not. This is the love Jesus advocated over and over, even extending it to the Samaritans, who were hated by the Jews. I could go on and on about all the lepers of society to whom Jesus gave agape.
There are four cornerstones on which agape is built:
- Agape is unconditional
- Agape offers acceptance
- Agape offers forgiveness
- Agape offers caring
Agape is unconditional, which means we even give it to the Hitlers of our world, mass murderers, pedophiles—and ex-spouses. This isn’t easy. Remember the movie Dead Man Walking about Sister Helen Prejean? This petite nun spent a great deal of her ministry working with the folks on Death Row. I suspect that Sister Helen didn’t like some of her “clientele,” but she gave her best agape to those hard-core prisoners.
Acceptance is the next cornerstone. In our church, there are two things that happen at every worship service. First, we state that Irvine United Congregational Church is open and affirming to everyone as well as the arts, science, Biblical interpretation, and people of other faiths. Then the worship leader says, “We welcome you, no matter where you are on life’s journey.” That means everyone. There are no lists of those who don’t qualify.
Forgiveness is tough because if we don’t forgive, our lives could be consumed with hatred, vengeance, self-flagellation, and negativity. Jesus said that we even have to forgive our enemies. Peter asks, “How many times?” Jesus said, “Seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22),” an infinite number. Not forgiving is a horrific way to live a life!
Caring is the fourth aspect of agape. We have to take care of our bodies, minds, and spirits because we are the Temple of the Spirit of Love (1 Corinthians 6:19). We also must care for others. The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) says it all—a Samaritan man (Jews and Samaritans hated each other) dressed the wounds of a Jewish man who had been beaten and robbed. He then took him to an inn and prepaid his bill. He cared! As Followers, our business is caring. Jesus says in Matthew 25:45: “Do this (caring) for the least of these….” Agape demands giving our lives away to care for others.
Sound easy? It’s not. Agape takes a lifetime of honing our skills, but the payoff is tremendous, giving us a sense of living life to its fullest.
I don’t care how you pronounce the word agape. Just do it!
I’d love to hear how you are practicing agape in your life.