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“The Four Loves of a Healthy Marriage ”
1 John 4:7

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Fourth Sunday of Easter—May 3, 2009

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Our text is one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible, from today’s Epistle Reading: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love comes from God.”

As I was driving around last week, I was on the lookout for bumper stickers that said “I” and then had a heart to symbolize “love” . . . something.  I found everything from “I love poodles” to “I love chocolate.” 

In the English language we have just one word for the concept of “love.”  We use the word “love” to express a fondness for THINGS, like poodles and chocolate.  We also use the same word on Valentines Day to say, “I love you sweetheart.”  And on Mother’s Day next week we will say, “I love you, Mom.”  Even though we use the same word in English, love for poodles and chocolate, love your for your sweetheart, and love for Mom are really different kinds of love.

The English language has just one word for these different kinds of love, but the Greek language in which the New Testament was written has four different words for love: Erao, Phileo, Stergo, and Agape.

Erao is sexual love, from which we get “erotic.”  The word erao does not occur in the New Testament, but that does not mean that sexual love is wrong or sinful.  WITHIN THE MARRIAGE RELATIONSHIP, sexual love is a part of God’s plan, a good gift and a blessing from God. 

Genesis reports, “male and female he created them” and then just a few verses later says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”  That includes human sexuality, which is “very good” when used according to God’s plan, by a man and woman, husband and wife, within their marriage relationship.  Jesus affirms this when he says, “At the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’” 

Many people are surprised to learn that rather than forbidding or discouraging sexual relations, the Bible actually strongly encourages sexual relations between husband and wife, in 1 Corinthians: “Since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.  Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. . .  Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.  Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

So, the problems and pain and suffering that we experience in this world with regard to human sexuality are not because IT is evil, but because humanity is evil, misusing something which God created for our good.

Phileo and stergo are the Greek words for brotherly love, friendship and fondness, the words we would use to say “I love you, Mom,” or on those bumper stickers when we proclaim our “love” for various things such as poodles and chocolate.  Phileo and stergo don’t occur very often in the New Testament.  One example is in Romans where Paul says, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.”

The word which is used most often in the New Testament for love is agape.  Agape is a word we don’t really have an equivalent for in English.  It means first of all an undeserved love; a love which you have not earned nor have a right to expect; a love which is given to you not because of who YOU are or what you have done, but because of who the one loving you is, because showing love is that person’s very nature.  John expresses this aspect of agape in today’s Epistle Reading: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us . . .  for God IS love.”

We humans have a tendency to “love the lovable,” to show our love only to those who earn it in some way, or love us in return.  But, because “God IS love,” because underserved love, agape, is God’s very nature, he shows love to us even though our sins deserve not his love but his wrath and anger.

Agape is undeserved love, and it is also self-sacrificial love, love which shows itself in action, giving up oneself for the sake of others.  In today’s Epistle Reading, John describes the action God took to show his agape, his self-sacrificial love toward us: “This is how God showed his love for us: He sent his only-begotten Son into the world that we may live through him. . .  he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  Paul says in Romans: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  And Jesus puts it this way in today’s Gospel Reading, “I am the good shepherd . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Agape is undeserved love, self-sacrificial love, and forgiving love.  John says in Revelation: “He loved us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.”  Your sins are all forgiven because of God’s agape, God’s underserved, self-sacrificial, forgiving love.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Jesus said at the Last Supper: “My command is this: Love one another as I have loved you.”  We respond to God’s agape, God’s undeserved, self-sacrificial, forgiving love toward us, by showing agape, undeserved, self-sacrificial, forgiving love, toward others.  As John says: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

Erao, Phileo and Stergo, and Agape.  I like to think of those as “The Four Loves of a Healthy Marriage.”  Sexual love; friendship; fondness; and undeserved, self-sacrificial, forgiving love: All must come together for a marriage to be happy.

In the wedding vows we say, “To have and to hold from this day forward.  For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.”  You see, erao, phileo and stergo WILL get you through the better, the richer, and the health.  But, it takes agape, undeserved, self-sacrificial, forgiving love to get you through the worse, the poorer, the sickness.

At our wedding, and probably at yours, Paul’s beautiful words from 1 Corinthians were read: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.” 

In those verses the word for love is agape, undeserved, self-sacrificial, forgiving love: “Agape is patient, agape is kind. Agape does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  Agape is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Agape does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  Agape always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Agape never fails.” 

I think it’s really significant that it’s specifically THIS love, agape, which the Bible says never fails.  Erao, sexual attraction, may mellow over time.  Phileo and stergo, friendship and fondness, that will be enough to keep you together during the better, the richer, and the health.  But, neither erao, nor phileo, nor stergo is strong enough to get you through the worse, the poorer, the sickness.  But, agape never fails.  Because agape is not based on whether your spouse has earned or deserves your love.  Agape is based on the love that flows from your heart toward your spouse because of who YOU are, a child of God; the love that flows from your heart because of GOD’S love toward you. 

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love comes from God.”  “My command is this: Love one another as I have loved you.”  “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”  “We love because he first loved us.”

How will agape show itself in your marriage?  Paul says, in Ephesians and Colossians: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us”; “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds you together in perfect unity.”

Erao, Phileo, Stergo, and Agape: “The Four Loves of a Healthy Marriage.”


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