True Love

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd

The Twenty-third Psalm is experienced by many as a reassurance of a relationship with God and the feeling is one of comfort. However, the Psalm was likely a song of defiance written by David as he led a rebellion and unified the tribes of Israel. Think about it this way, David is up against a powerful force of entrenched power. That power with the ability to keep a population under control kept David running. Yet, he sings that he doesn’t need the power to tyranny. He shouts at his enemies, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Regardless of the power of his enemies, he was safe, he was renewed in strength, and he had the weapons needed—“the Lord is my rod and my staff.” Further, even if he went down into the valley of death, he was fearless—he was saying, “Beware enemies I am not afraid of you.” What more did David need? Nothing, he had the God of Israel with him, he had been anointed, and he was strengthened by that knowledge. This was his war cry and after singing this psalm stood and shouted, “Here I come, Get out of the way!”

We don’t associate this beautiful poem with a war cry. Because Jesus changed the tone of the psalm by using the symbol of David’s shepherd as self-description, the shepherd, Jesus, is the source of a different strength. It is an inner strength in the knowledge that God will never abandon any who do the will of God. Jesus said to his followers, “I am the good shepherd.” His words meant he not only cared about lost sheep but also the entire flock. The good shepherd (the owner of the flock), unlike the hired hand, willingly lays down his life for the sheep of his flock. In other words, It is the ultimate expression of love.

In English the word love is unclear. What exactly do we mean when we say we love someone?

The Christian Scriptures were written in Greek to an audience that understood the nuances of the language. A particular Greek word, agape, is blandly translated into in English as love. Agape is the fourth Greek word for love—the others are: eros, passion; storge, family love; and, philial, brotherly love. Agape describes a love that is changeless, self-giving, and makes no demands or expects re-payment. It is love so great that it can be given to the unlovable or unappealing. It is love that loves even when it is rejected. Agape gives and loves because it wants to—it gives because it loves, it does not love in order to receive.[1]

For English speakers, being confused by the word love is understandable. If I say, “I love you” what form of love am I expressing? When a man says to his wife, “I love you”, he may be speaking of eros, or storge, or philia, or agape. Which is it? Well, it may be all four. he loves her with passion. he loves her because she is the matriarch of the family. She is a human being and worthy of love on those grounds alone. Then he loves her unconditionally; that is, he loves her for love’s own sake.

Back in the 1930’s and 40’s the movies, especially musicals, had a handsome boy meet a pretty girl and within seconds he

Musical of the 1930s

Musical of the 1930s

was in love with her. The feeling was mutual and joyous. Then there was a misunderstanding and they would fall out of love. Finally, they would reconcile and fall back in love again, and the movie ended happily ever after. Of course this was unrealistic. A recent Face Book post is more like life—it read, “Marriage is like cards. In the beginning all you need is two hearts and a diamond. In the end you want a club and spade.”

John defines love, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”[2] We learn from John’s words that love isn’t merely an emotion, an inward feeling. Love to be authentic must be demonstrable—the ultimate demonstration of love was Jesus on the cross. The Apostle Paul seconds John’s words in his letter to the Romans, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”[3] Further, Paul teaches in his Letter to the Ephesians there can be no submission to another unless love is expressed as Christ love the Church.[4]

We spend most of life looking for love in all the wrong places. Too often, we have an innate ability to pervert the true meaning of love, and pursue all kinds of things under the guise of looking for love.

John, in his letters, was writing to instruct the Church how it should behave. First, the Church (the followers of Christ) is to care for those in need always remembering love is a verb not a sentiment. Agape begets agape; that is, from love comes love.

His words were aimed at the people of the Church. Their behavior was to be a reassurance of the truth they had discovered in Christ. Therefore the agape he wanted expressed was primarily to be among the people of the Church. Jesus taught the Church to love its enemies and those who hate it; [5] unconditional love for the world. John, however, called the Church to first love itself without condition. He asked, if the people of the Church cannot love each other how can they claim to be followers of Christ?

Fresco of a female figure holding a chalice at an early Christian Agape feast. Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome

Fresco of a female figure holding a chalice at an early Christian Agape feast. Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome23

Again, agape is demonstrated best by sacrifice. In fact love has its costs. At weddings, for example, one of the suggested readings from the Old Testament is from the Song of Solomon. That Scripture equates love to death when Solomon pronounces, “…love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.”[6] Solomon wrote a poem of passion we can probably associate to eros, but the same can be said of agape. While we may not die, love in any form often makes us feel like we are dying.[7]

Paul seconds the idea that love is demonstrable not merely a sentiment. In his letter to the Philippians. He wrote, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”[8]

When in the same mind of Christ, truth prevails, there is no condemnation, and there is reassurance of a profound relationship with God. This is the outcome of the love about which John is writing. This is the love of the Good Shepherd. This is the love of Christ Jesus who laid down his life on the Cross so that humanity can know the value of agape.

[1] David Guzik Commentary on the Bible; http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/guz/view.cgi?bk=61&ch=3

[2] 1 John 3:16.

[3] Romans 5:8.

[4] Ephesians 4:25.

[5] Matthew 5:44.

[6] Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) 8:6.

[7] Guzik, Op. Cit.

[8] Philippians 2:1-5.

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