Love is a five letter word. Did you think four letters enough? Five letters are needful for this particular love, agape. Five-letter agape is the love encompassing the other loves. Agape makes best sense in reference to God in Jesus Christ. Put aside for now agape as the love of God with his own. This piece focuses on agape as God’s love shared between his own. Since the apostle Paul urges us to ‘let all that you do be done in agape’, celebrate with me three of agape’s winning features: agape love comprehends (1) mutual subjection, (2) mercy/kindness, and (3) loyal commitment to death.
First, five-letter agape love entails mutual subjection. ‘To be subject’ to another person is to render oneself dependent on; to place oneself under or in a lower position to someone; or to put oneself at the service of another. The thought of being ‘subject’ to another carries a negative connotation in our society. It smacks of being deprived of freedom or in bondage to another. Early Americans were ‘subjects’ of Great Britain’s King George. As his ‘subjects’ we rebelled against King George’s goal of ‘absolute tyranny over these states.’
There is a much talked-about tussle of dominance and subjection between men and women. G. K. Chesterton was skeptical of Women’s Rights talk that ‘men are the rulers and masters and women the menials.’ Jokes abound parodying the opposite, ‘When she wants his opinion, she gives it to him.’ Subjection carries a negative connotation.
What if husbands in the above relational equation decide to be subject to their wives? What if, further, wives determine to place themselves under their husbands? This is exactly what five-letter love agape envisions: mutual subjection! ‘Be subject to one another in reverence of Christ’ says the apostle Paul (Ephesians 5: 21).
Eighteenth century writer and pastor Jonathon Swift thought this an extraordinary oxymoron. How can two equal persons both be subject to one another? Being subject to another is only due from inferiors to those above them: a subject to a prince. Nevertheless, there it is! For the believing Christian community, mutual subjection is the rule. Be subject to one another! Regardless of gender, rank, power, or prominence, put yourself in the service and at the disposal of others: husbands to wives and wives to husbands! Let Jesus Christ be your model. Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You call me Lord and Master…for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, wash your feet, how much more ought you to wash one another’s feet?’ Living at the disposal of others in mutual submission is a win-win aspect of five-letter love.
Consider a second aspect of five-letter agape love. ‘Agape is kind.’ The word ‘kind’ in the original New Testament language is ‘chrestos.’ ‘Chrestos’ is bearing good will to someone undeserving. It is being suffused with a gracious, generous spirit toward the unworthy. Jesus Christ is kindness. He was dining at a Jewish leader’s table. A woman crashed the party. She positioned herself at Jesus’ feet. Bursting out in tears she anointed his feet with ointment from her alabaster jar. The Pharisee leader was horrorstruck. ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him,’ he said under his breath. Jesus answered the Pharisee, ‘I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.’ Turning to the woman he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven…your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ (Luke 7: 37ff). Jesus treated this public sinner with ‘chrestos’ – a spirit of generous mercy. The Pharisee rightly reckoned her behavior wrong. Though Jesus agreed, he met her repentant heart with sweet benevolence. Jesus became so identified with ‘chrestos’, heathens called him ‘Chrest’ rather than Christ and Christians ‘Chrestians.’ Imagine persons, even yourself, at every level and in every walk of life – politicians, citizens, teachers, students, doctors, patients, executives, merchants, husbands, and wives - carrying on with chrestos!
Jane Austen’s heroine in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Bennett, is pretty, smart, and self-possessed. She dared turn down the marriage proposal of the area’s most eligible bachelor, the noble, handsome, and wealthy Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. In the meantime, Lizzie’s sister Lydia had an affair with a ne’er-do-well rake, Wickham. Lydia and Wickham’s improper relationship disgraced Lizzie and her family. Lizzie felt her and her sisters’ eligibility for marriage was gone.
Unbeknownst to Lizzie, Mr. Darcy secretly intervenes. Looking past Lizzie’s snub and Lydia’s scandalous behavior, Mr. Darcy has compassionate mercy on the Bennett family. He uses his influence and wealth to insure Wickham marries Lydia. The disgrace hanging over the Bennett family is removed. Later, when he has the opportunity to reaffirm his love for Lizzie, she wholeheartedly accepts his renewed offer of marriage. Would marital relationships be less fragile and brittle if ‘chrestos’ prevailed in spouses’ hearts?
Five-letter agape love is mutual subjection, kindness, and, lastly, loyal, committed love. I call it to-the-death love. I felt badly for actress Bo Derek. Bo, having starred in the iconic movie ‘Ten’, was with her husband John Derek when he was asked by an interviewer the following question, ‘If Bo was in an automobile accident and her face was horribly scarred, would you still love her?’ I felt for Bo because John did not answer with a resounding ‘Yes’! Five- letter love is loyal, committed love that goes to the death for your lover. Agape is ‘for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health...till death do us part’ love. Agape love does not jump ship…does not bail….does not walk away. It says, ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; where you die, I will die.’ Period. Psychiatrist F. Scott Peck said, ‘Commitment is the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship.’ His long psychiatric practice taught him that where commitment is absent, psychiatric disorders are present. Look around. Would you not like to be loved with loyal love?
To-the-death love is best revealed in Jesus Christ. The God of the universe ‘proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ Five-letter love is defined by Jesus’ willingness to remain steadfast and go to the death for those loved. One can hardly find a better contemporary example of to-the-death love than Robertson McQuilken’s. He was a university president. In his fifties, he had finally attained his life-long dream of running a university. His wife Muriel was skilled in tutoring college students and graciously hosting the president’s social events. Then Muriel developed Alzheimer’s disease. Robertson faced a dilemma: care for the university, or care for Muriel. Foregoing his presidency, he tendered his resignation to the university to take care of Muriel. He cared for her until her death. McQuilken knew his Master Jesus Christ loved the church by sacrificing his life for her. McQuilken felt it his privilege to love his wife Muriel ‘till death do us part.’ Five-letter love is to-the-death love, kindness, and mutual subjection. Love is more than a four letter word. Are you ready for it?
Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July. Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house. Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University. Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.