In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul declares that there is one thing that matters above all else, without which everything else is meaningless.
He calls it the “more excellent way”, the way of love.
Now Paul would have known that Jesus, in his own ministry, had taught that love for God and for one another was the single most central truth of the Gospel.
All the commandments, Jesus said, were gathered up by, and expressed through, the divine principle of unconditional love.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
The love which Jesus says is the very essence of our relationship with God, and of all our human relationships, and the love in action of which Paul speaks, is agape love.
When, in the Greek New Testament, we come across this word agape, we know that it has a particular meaning and emphasis.
Agape love is the love with which God loves us.
God’s love is sacrificial, self-giving, unconditional love.
It is the love that is exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Paul uses this word agape in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, thereby declaring that we are to love one another with the same love with which God loves us.
The apostle John helps us to understand that God is present in every person who loves in that way.
God is present wherever unconditional love is offered and expressed.
If I were pressed to identify one verse in all the scriptures that for me expresses the very essence of my faith and life and ministry, this is the verse I would choose:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (I John 4:16)
In his book, Unconditional Love, Jesuit priest John Powell writes:
“Giving the gift of myself in love leaves me with a deep and lasting satisfaction of having done something good with my life.
“I live with the sweet memory of having contributed a gift of love to the lives of others.
“Likewise I am left with a sense of having used well the gifts which God has invested in me.
“Love takes time, demands a history of giving and receiving, laughing and crying, living and dying. It never promises instant gratification, only ultimate fulfilment.”
Love is either conditional or unconditional. There is no third possibility. Either we attach conditions to our love, or we do not.
To the extent that we do attach conditions, we do not really love.
We may say we do, but we don’t.
We deceive ourselves when we think we can love conditionally.
To love conditionally is not really to love at all.
Unconditional love accepts people as they are.
Unconditional love expects nothing in return.
Unconditional love endures despite disappointment and even heartbreak.
Unconditional love does not judge or condemn.
Unconditional love leaves people free to change.
Unconditional love forgives again and again.
Unconditional love requires that we also love ourselves.
Unconditional love is not wishful thinking or sentimental dreaming.
It is the love with which God loves us.
It is the love with which Jesus loved.
It is the love declared to all the world through his death and resurrection.
It is the love with which we are to love one another.
It is the love that is actually lived.
It is the greatest gift of all.
In this truth lies the real meaning of Christmas.