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Unprovoked Love

The three groups of people for whom we need agape love are the losers, the winners, and our enemies.

From the editor

Mark Buchanan offers a few twists on a theme we've all preached one time or another: agape love. Perhaps you've preached about fostering a love for "the least of these." But Mark wants to know if you've done the same for "the most of these" and "the worst of these." It's a humbling word, but a profoundly Christological one.


G. K. Chesterton was reflecting on the Christian story and a number of other things, and he was one of the first to notice that fairytales are more than childish capers or juvenile diversions. The best fairytales teach us how to live as grown-ups. They distill virtue and magnify vice. They praise the courageous and scorn the villainous. They teach us a lot of profound life lessons. Chesterton's favorite was Beauty and the Beast. He said, among the many lessons that Beauty and the Beast teaches, this one is preeminent: that unlovely things must be deeply loved before they become loveable.

This is what Paul writes in Romans: "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly … . God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." When we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.

Unlovely things must be deeply loved before they become loveable. Spirituality somehow severed from this crowning virtue of love is ugly. John says, "We love because he first loved us." We know we've passed from death to life, we know we've made that enormous leap, we know we've actually crossed over, if we love each other. Paul talks about putting on love over every other virtue that you can add—like a robe that wraps around them, put on love. In 1 Peter, Peter says, "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins." He says love is the crowning virtue.

Agape love is unprovoked love.

The word that Peter uses for love is agape, a word the New Testament writers made famous. It wasn't really used and didn't even have a particularly positive connotation until the biblical writers got a hold of it and used it, in numerous contexts, to describe the love of God and the love we're to show as we grow in our knowledge and experience of God. Often, agape has been described as unconditional love—love that is without condition, love that is not earned, love that we did not see coming and did not have coming. It is unexpected. It is unannounced. It is unmerited. It just comes to you.

When you think about it, most love that operates in the human realm is conditional. It's an if/then. If you love me back or if you do nothing to forfeit my love, or if you're beautiful or attractive, if you're something, then I will love or continue to love. The way human love (and most love) tends to operate is that there is a feeling of attraction, thankfulness, or some kind of emotion, and the fruit of that emotion is a decision: "Because I feel this way, I will love you." The decision can transcend the emotion, but it's never very far from that emotion. It's the "if" thing: "I feel attraction; therefore I choose to love you. If I stop feeling attraction, my love will maybe shrink in proportion to that."

What agape does is completely reverse the terms of that. Agape is not emotionless; it's just that the emotion follows the decision. In other words, the emotion is a fruit of the decision. There's a choice that's been made: I choose to love. On the basis of that choice, emotion rises. But the choice is fundamental. The choice is a thing that's in place regardless of the emotion. The emotion rides on the decision.

Now here's where agape gets very interesting: It's far more stubborn than simply that I choose to love and therefore feel loving. It actually pursues the object of its love. It is loving even in the face of resistance, even in the face of behavior where another emotion might be more expected. So agape will love in the face of rebellion, in the face of rejection, in the face of rank badness. It's this amazing form of love that has made a decision, and the decision is final. It's set. On the basis of that decision, whether it's met with loving, good behavior or not, it continues to pursue in love.

That's how we normally talk about agape, and that's a good way to talk about it. But here's something that I think is an even a simpler way to understand it: Agape is unprovoked love. Normally, when we hear of something unprovoked, we think of anger, attack, aggression, or violence. When we hear about that unprovoked aggression, we say there was nothing in the victims that in any way had this coming to him or her. We have to ascribe the act of unprovoked violence to the perpetrator. There's something twisted and wrong in them. There's something broken and skewed in them; they're working out this deep anger, and you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's in them. That's how we account for unprovoked violence.

I want to call agape unprovoked love, and it works on the same principle—just in the opposite direction. As with unprovoked violence, when we seek to understand unprovoked love, we look for the explanation not in the object of love, but in the one who is loving. We say there must be something going on in them, something deep down, that accounts for this kind of act.

The Father's an agape lover. The Father is a lover who loves what he loves not based on the loveliness of the object, but on some quality within himself. In a sense, he can't help himself, though he does choose it. He loves, John says, because he is love.

What I want to help us understand today is that there are three contexts where this love—agape, loving as God loves—has to be present in us or else we default to mere human love. The three groups of people for whom we need agape love are the losers, the winners, and the enemies. The Bible uses the term "the least of these" for the losers. I use the terms the "most of these" for the winners and the "worst of these" for your enemies.

If you don't understand what agape love is, and you don't allow the love of Jesus Christ to flow into and through you, then you will be fine as long as everything is copasetic. As long as love's coming back to you, as long as you can find beautiful creatures to love, you'll do just fine. But the minute you bang up against a winner, a loser, or an enemy, you're in trouble. You don't have agape.

You need agape for the least of these.

The least of these are the people you're most likely not to notice or, if you notice them, most tempted to avoid. They smell. They look funny. Jesus describes it this way: They're beggars. They're prisoners. They're naked, and their nakedness is not attractive to you. They're hungry. They're needy.

Those are the least of these people. You just want to rush by; you don't want to make eye contact with the least of these. They drain you. There's no gain in loving these, and there's no loss in not loving them. You know you can just go by and you're not going to be punished. Everybody's passing these people by. Nobody's holding you accountable, it seems (until you get to heaven). It's so easy to blow by the least of these. So there needs to be a subversion of our sense of superiority—of our love of comfort, our need for security. We need to overcome this disdain, disgust, and weariness with the presence of the least of these, the losers of the world.

In Brooklyn, New York, there's a Jewish school for children with special needs. Recently, at a fundraising banquet, one of the fathers, whose son She'a goes there, got up and began to speak. He told a story of how he and his son She'a had been walking through the neighborhood of Brooklyn a week before, and they had stopped to watch a group of boys playing baseball.

She'a does not communicate well, but he let his father know in his way that he so wanted to play baseball with these boys. The father thought, Oh my goodness, what am I going to do? So he shambled up to the pitcher of one of the teams and explained the situation. The pitcher just made an executive decision; he said: "You know, it's the eighth inning. We're down by six. What have we got to lose? Come on in; we'll let you bat at the bottom of the ninth." She'a was ecstatic.

Well, they were losing by six runs to this particular team in the eighth inning, but by the bottom of the ninth, things had begun to turn around. They'd gained three runs, and the bases were loaded. If they got a homerun, they'd win.

It came She'a's turn to bat. The father sat there with his heart thumping, because he wondered, She'a has been promised he can bat; will they let him bat? The team realized their predicament, and they had a little huddle. Then, to the father's amazement, they said to She'a, "Come on. It's your turn to bat." She'a was absolutely delighted; he clutched the bat, and he had it all askew, and he was holding it too tight.

Then the pitcher from the opposite team did an amazing thing. He took several steps forward and lobbed an easy one right over the plate. She'a swung wildly and missed widely. One of the players from She'a's team came up behind him and gently wrapped his arm around She'a's. Together, they held the bat. The pitcher lobbed another one, and they bunted it, and it just rolled up right to the feet of the pitcher.

It was an easy out, but everybody was screaming, "Run to base! Run to base, She'a!" The pitcher threw it far and wide. She'a made first, and they said, "Run to second, She'a! Run to second!" The guy out in the field was going to zing it into second, then he realized what was going on, and so he threw it far and wide. She'a made second. "Run to third! Run to third!" All the other players came into home plate. He made third. "Run home, She'a! Take it home!" And just as he hit home plate, the ball zinged in. An uproar from both teams went up, and they mounted She'a on their shoulders and paraded him as a hero.

The father told this story and said: "That day, 18 boys reached their level of heaven's perfection. Because when heaven puts one such as my son on this earth, perfection is measured by how others react to him."

You need agape for the most of these.

There's a second thing that we need agape for. If we don't have it, we aren't going to get very far with the most of these, the winners. The most of these is the person you're most likely to notice and resent. The most of these is a person who does what you do and just does it better. They eclipse you. They leave you in their long shadow. It's your prettier sister. It's your more athletic brother. It's the worship singer that everybody gushes over, and they do it right in front of you, and you're a worship singer, too. The most of these is that person who excels in the area in which you want to excel (and probably do); they just seem to excel a little more.

We are most threatened not by those who are different from us—we sometimes don't understand them—we're threatened by those who are most like us, just a little better. That's the most of these. Where agape has to come in and supplant your feelings of superiority and your love of comfort with the least of these, the Spirit of God has to come in with the most of these and give you freedom from your sense of inferiority and insecurity so that you become their biggest fan.

I think one of the most remarkable biblical stories we have of agape love is the story of David and Jonathan. Saul, the father of Jonathan, was David's rival. He was feeling eclipsed; he was feeling in the shadows. He does what you do when you have a most of these in your presence—you try to throw a spear at them, in some metaphorical or real way. You try to destroy the beauty and the giftedness of the David in your midst, because he makes you feel inferior. That was Saul.

Jonathan, Saul's son, had more to lose than Saul did. He was the prince. He was the one who was actually going to be supplanted by David; he would not inherit the throne because of David's greatness. And Jonathan did everything that David did: he knew the art of war; he knew the art of wooing; he knew the art of leadership. Everywhere that David was good, Jonathan was good and had aspirations. It's just that David was better.

David did it better, yet Jonathan became David's biggest champion. He actually made enormous sacrifices for the sake of advancing David's cause. I'll tell you why: because he saw it as God's cause. This is what you do with the most of these: you ask the question, "What are you up to here, God?" Because it's not about you; it's about his kingdom. You really have to say: "God, what are you doing here? I wanted what this man has, but you didn't give it to me, not in this measure. What are you up to here, God? How can I get on board with what you're doing through that person? And how do I cheer it on?"

Who is your most of these? You already know. He or she is too much on your mind. God wants to give you agape love for that person. He wants to convert your feelings of animosity or resentment or intimidation into enormous favor toward that person. Would you allow God to do that?

You need agape for the worst of these.

Agape is supremely needed with your enemy, the worst of these. The worst of these is that person who—even more than with the most of these—you have cause to despise. They have hurt you. They have betrayed you. They've taken something precious from you. They've exploited you. Unlike the most of these, your enemy has been somewhat intentional about what they've done to you.

You do not need God to love what is lovely. But you so need God—there's no other way—to love your enemy, the worst of these, a person who has deliberately hurt you. Jesus says: You want to know where the real level of heaven's perfection is? You will be sons and daughters of your Father in heaven when you love those who have in every way forfeited your love for them, because they actually set out to hurt you in some way.

A couple of years ago, I was having lunch with Regina King from Rwanda. She spent several months living by her wits in the jungle of Rwanda, running for her life when the genocide broke out. She told many amazing stories, but the most amazing for me was the story of a woman whose son was killed in the genocide.

This woman had nursed bitterness, grievance, and thoughts of vengeance; she just wanted to find her son's killer and bring due punishment. But one night she had a dream, and in the dream she was going down this street and saw a house, and she knew it was a house of her enemy. She heard God say, "Go into the house." She said, "I don't want to go into the house." She went into the house, and God led her through many rooms and then to the stairs. He said, "I want you to go up the stairs." She said, "I don't want to go any further in this house." "I want you to go up the stairs." She went up the stairs, opened the door at the top, and found it led into heaven. She had a revelation that the path to heaven must go through the house of her enemy.

Two days later, there was a knock on her door. A young man was standing there shaking. He said to her: "I am the man who killed your son. I place my life in your hands; whatever you want to do with me, I accept it. I have had no peace since I did what I did. And I will accept whatever. If you want to kill me, you can kill me. If you want to turn me in to the authorities, turn me in to the authorities. Whatever you want, my life is in your hands."

Because she had had a revelation from God, she said: "I will not do any of this. But I do have one request. You must now become my son." She took him in and fed him at the table where she fed her son. He was the same size, so he wore his clothes. He actually moved in and became a son to her, because heaven passes through the house of the worst of these.

This boy is still living with her. God has given her such favor that she now has a national ministry in Rwanda. She travels all around, and she's helping the whole nation deal with the issue of reconciliation, because heaven passes through the house of your enemy.

Who is your enemy? Who's the person who hurt you? Would you believe that heaven goes through their house? The reality is, you cannot love that person except that God does something in you. But if you want to know the perfection of love, find unprovoked love for that person when they've provoked everything but love.


You know what the opposite of love is? It is not hate. It's fear. John says this in 1 John 4:18: " … Perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." Fear will block the love of God infusing you and coming out of you. Fear has to do with punishment. Fear has to do with: "You don't measure up. You're not worth it. If we really knew you, we wouldn't like you." That's fear. Yet the reality is: "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" Jesus Christ went to Calvary: "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly … . God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

Do you not know how loved you are? You are not loved because you deserve it; the agape lover has loved you and loves you. You have no cause for fear. If you have said "yes" to that love, you have no basis for fear; you can let it go. You can let love flow into you and let that fear get cast away. As you experience the fearlessness of being loved by a holy God, you will be able to do what is otherwise humanly impossible: love the least of these, love the most of these, and love the worst of these.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism")

Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.

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Sermon Outline:


Unlovely things must be deeply loved before they become loveable.

I. Agape love is unprovoked love.

II. You need agape for the least of these.

III. You need agape for the most of these.

IV. You need agape for the worst of these.


As you experience the fearlessness of being loved by a holy God, you will be able to do what is otherwise humanly impossible: love the least of these, love the most of these, and love the worst of these.