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A sermon given on January 20, 2013 at the Alafia River Rendezvous Church Service

Humans owe much to our God. He gave us our sky, our earth, our waters, our very life, and all of the necessary resources to sustain us but God also gave us responsibilities:

  • God gave us “Dominion” over this planet and we each are held accountable for how we use those resources.
  • God also gave us free will. We each can choose right from wrong; we can choose to love or hate.

It is estimated that our warring nature has probably cost 200 million lives in the 20th century alone and maybe as many as one billion throughout our earth’s history, mostly spawned by hatred and greed. Our earthly resources continue to be depleted in pursuit of luxury (just ask the Buffalo) and our freedoms seem fleeting, being eroded by the human lust for power. But God also gave us an instruction manual to go with earth and He also gave us His Son. This morning, let’s look at one of those Biblical instructions, to love, and see what we can apply to our lives today.

There are four kinds of love mentioned in the Bible: eros, philia, storge and agape. Eros is portrayed in the Old Testament in Solomon’s Song of Songs. It is erotic love but God is very clear in his Word; this is the physical love of a proper relationship, marriage, not the erotic lust of mankind. Philia means close in friendship or brotherly love. It is the basis for the name of our early Amercian capital, Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Storge is family love, the bond found among mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. Today, however, we will limit ourselves to agape love. This is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love, the highest form of the four types of love.

Christ’s greatest commandment to us is to love our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength. We often lose sight of this commandment do to the daily pressures of life. But Christ’s commandment went on, Christ also called on each of us to love our neighbor as ourselves. So what grade would you give human beings on our responsibilities for loving God and how are we doing with the “loving our neighbors part? Let’s begin with a few true stories that help us understand agape love.

SusanHaileMemorialSusan Seawell was born December 20, 1817 in southeast Missouri, not too far from where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers converge. She was the seventh and youngest child. Her parents were typical pioneers, moving frequently. After Susan’s birth, they moved back to their roots to eastern Tennessee. On November 17, 1836, Susan, just a month shy of 19, married Richard Haile. Over time, the couple had six children with their two youngest sons born after Susan’s family moved back again to their old homestead in Missouri. Richard and Susan’s older brother John went out to California during the gold rush. After their return, Susan dreamed of living in California. For this next trip, Richard, Susan, their children and other extended family members set out on the Oregon Trail to fulfill her dream. The journey by wagon train was not without hardships and somewhere near the Platt River in Nebraska, Susan succumbed to cholera and died. Richard placed a temporary grave marker on the spot where he buried his wife. Leaving the wagon train, he place his children under the care of an aunt, Martha Seawell, and returned to St. Joseph Missouri with his horses. Once there, Richard sold the horses and used the money to purchase a proper engraved marble headstone for Susan. Unfortunately, he no longer had enough money for horses and a wagon to return to his wife’s grave. Using his remaining few dollars, Richard purchased a wheel barrow and began to walk back to the Platt River, pushing his wife’s headstone ahead of him, somewhere between 250 and 300 miles. When he reached the simple marker he had placed on Susan’s grave, Richard set the new headstone and proceeded to move westward to re-join the wagon train. Richard and his family eventually reached California having left a simple mound of dirt, heaped by loving hands and a proper marker on a knoll 4 miles from Kenesaw, Nebraska. This was his last tender offering to a devoted wife and mother. He never returned to her grave. Numerous sightings authenticated the story on the “Lone Grave” because a formal marble headstone was not common along the Oregon Trail.

This is a love story we can understand. Susan and Richard enjoyed a love much deeper than anything physical. Richard’s long walk must have been filled with sadness, yes, but that painful journey must have also been filled with thoughts of love and admiration for his wife. When people care for each other, when they share a life of sacrifice and dreams, they share agape love. But what if hate is present? Can agape love even exist?

Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, a traitor, named Michael Whitman, was captured. At his trial it was proven that he had given the British army invaluable assistance on numerous occasions. He was found guilty of spying and sentenced to death by hanging.

Michael Whitman was from a Pennsylvania town called Ephrata. Word got back to that town of his imprisonment and impending execution. In Ephrata was a Baptist preacher whose name was Peter Miller. He heard about Michael Whitman’s plight and in the cold Pennsylvania snow, Peter walked 70 miles to Philadelphia to see George Washington.

George Washington and Peter Miller were very close friends. Miller had done a great many favors for the army; he had given them spiritual nourishment and emotional strength during many difficult times. When he came in to see George Washington he said, “General, I have a favor to ask of you.” Washington said, “What is it?” He said, “I have come to ask you to pardon Michael Whitman.”

WhitmanMillerGeorge Washington was stunned. He said, “Pastor Miller, that’s impossible. Whitman has done everything in his power to betray us, even offering to join the British and help destroy us. I cannot be lenient with traitors, and for that reason I cannot pardon your friend.”

Peter Miller said, “Friend! He’s no friend of mine. He’s the bitterest enemy I’ve ever had in my life. For years he persecuted me and harassed me. He did everything he could to hurt my church and to hinder the preaching of the Gospel. He even waited for me one time after church and beat me almost senseless, spitting in my face, knowing full well I would not strike him back. Peter said, “General Washington let’s get this straight—Michael Whitman is no friend of mine.”

George Washington was puzzled. He said, “But you asked me to pardon him.” Peter replied, “I have, and I ask you to do it to me as a personal favor.” “Why?” asked Washington. The reverend responded, “Because that’s exactly what Jesus has done for you and for me.” With tears in his eyes, George Washington walked into the next room and soon returned with a paper on which was written the pardon of Michael Whitman. Peter Miller went with Washington to the stockade, saved Michael Whitman from the hangman’s noose, and personally took him back to his own home where he led him to faith in Jesus Christ. Peter Miller and Michael Whitman went on to become close friends for the rest of their days.

What makes this story harder to understand is that Reverend Miller had all of the human reasons on this earth to let justice prevail. But whose justice? Apparently, human justice and Godly justice are not the same. Why would anyone suffer for another who hates them? Here, something special prevailed and overcame hatred.

BiblePagesThere is one more story I must tell you to get to the bottom of this thing called agape love. So I want to look to the life of one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. There are many misunderstandings about his life. One of those misunderstandings is that Jefferson tried to re-write the Bible, leaving most of God’s instructions and Christ out. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Thomas Jefferson was a member of the Virginia Bible Society, who distributed full unedited Bibles to Virginia residents. He also helped finance the printing of the largest Bible of its time, a full two volume set of the Holy Scriptures. However, it is true that Jefferson did write two summaries. In 1804, his first abridged version entitled “The Philosophy of Jesus” was created expressly for the purpose translating, printing and teaching the American Indians about the Gospel. Thomas Jefferson also assisted in the passing of laws to spread Christianity to the Indians and provided both governmental and personal funding for missionaries to reach out to the frontier. So let us for a moment, imagine a meeting between a group of early missionaries and the tribes occupying the Ohio Valley, still part of our frontier back then. Imagine a camp where the chiefs were present from the tribes of Delaware, Miami, Ottawa, Seneca and Wyandot. After pleasantries would be exchanged and the pipe of peace passed among them, the missionaries would have sat down with the chiefs to share the story of Christ. One missionary might have told them that God so loved this world that to save it, He sent His Son to live among mankind. With this news, there might have been real excitement among the chiefs. One chief might have said, “this is wonderful news, to have the Creator’s son present in our world. Tell us more, did you make Him Chief of Chiefs?” What would our missionary tell the chief? “No we didn’t make Him a chief, we beat Him and killed Him.” The council would be silent I am sure. If this story ended here, it would make no sense. No one could understand such hatred, especially against our Creator. But thankfully, it doesn’t end there.

When God gave us our free will, that was both a good thing and a bad thing. Did you ever wonder why God, who knows all, would place Adam and Eve into a garden with a forbidden fruit and then give them the free will to choose to eat it, knowing they would eat the fruit and be cast out forever? Does this sound like the actions of a loving God? You bet it is. Because without free will, we are nothing, life is nothing and love is nothing. Our very nature is to seek to be free, to fight to be free and to die to be free. What greater example of love have we seen than to see our sons and daughters, our fathers and mothers, willing to sacrifice their lives for the people of this country or other countries that, at times, are not even deserving of their sacrifice. Yes, we all have that predisposition to stray from God but what would life be like if your every moment was predetermined and controlled. Could love or joy even exist if no free will existed either?

The “Good News” is that God has always had a plan to counter our free will. That plan is based on the love He has for each and every one of us. And that love is a personal love, an agape love, a selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love that is at the very root of His creation. God’s plan has always included a reconciliation that would bridge the gap between ourselves and God that was created by our free will. God’s plan has always been to bring us into an everlasting fellowship, a glorious and eternal fellowship with Him. So to end our missionary’s story, he would tell the chiefs that Christ’s death was not without purpose. It was the perfect sacrifice to erase the sins of mankind, your sins, my sins, their sins so that our human freedom would not disqualify any of us from the hope and joy of eternal life with God.

When God sent His Son, Jesus, to us, the plan was always to let Christ carry our sins, by suffering for you and me, even though we are not deserving of God’s love. And the plan was always to let Christ die for you and me. This is a sacrifice created out of the greatest story of love our history has ever seen, God’s love overcoming the hatred and sins of all mankind.

Yes, humans were given dominion over this world and we have done a less than stellar job. Humans have been given free will (true freedom) and our people constantly throw it away for a simple promise of “free stuff” or the pursuit of a material life and worldly pleasures. In spite of us, our God, our loving God chose to become incarnate, to become one of us, so that the gap that separates each of us from Him could be bridged once and for all. God gave us what I call “the gift” and like any gift, we have free will to accept it or reject it. But Oh what a gift this is! Because when we grasp the significance of Christ on the Cross, it changes us, it changes our world. We now want to love our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength. God’s gift also makes us want to do “work” for Christ, modeling our lives after Him. This is exactly what Thomas Jefferson saw that he so much wanted to spread throughout this new land. Jefferson wanted us to work together in a selfless, sacrificial and unconditional way. Jefferson saw Christ’s philosophy of life as that way to build a nation based on freedom and love for one another. Jefferson saw in Christ’s life that love always wins over hatred.

So how can you get “the gift,” do “the work” and be assured of “the prize?” First, know that your very sinful nature separates you from God. This is something you cannot fix yourself. Eternity for YOU beings with the knowledge that Christ suffered for YOU and that Christ DIED for YOU. So what is “the prize” offered by Christ? Christ rose from the dead to show us that there is life after death and Christ lives for YOU today. Be reassured that when a repentant heart places it’s faith and trust in Christ, “the work” of life becomes God’s work and “the prize” of eternal life is assuredly yours.

Message based on John 3:16 and John 15:13