Epiphany 7, 2017
Along with Genesis 1.1: “In the beginning God created...” and the 23rd Psalm which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” Lev. 19.18: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is probably the best-known verse in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, John 3.16, which begins, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son," notwithstanding, Jesus's repeating “love thy neighbor as thyself” is perhaps the best-known verse in the Bible. For many that one verse sums up the entirety of Jesus’s teaching.
I do not agree that that one verse sums up the entirety of the gospel; the gospel of the coming of the kingdom of God is about more than ethical behavior. The gospel concerning God’s son (Rom1.3) is about the forgiveness of sins and the redemption that Christ secured for us on the cross, the redemption that we access through faith by grace. The message of salvation through faith in the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ is the essence of the New Testament.
But the message of the Old Testament, Jesus said, is summed up in one golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt.7.8), which is another way of saying that the heart of God’s message to humankind handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai is, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” When asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replied, “The first and great commandment is this; Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul, and the second is like unto it, Love thy neighbor as thyself.” In other words, Jesus taught that we show our love for God by showing love for others. Where love for others is absent, there is no tangible love for God.
It is no wonder then that the name of Jesus has become synonymous with love of others. Jesus not only preached "love thy neighbor" but he practiced what he preached. He proved his love by going all the way to the cross to secure our redemption, thus backing up his words with actions, “No greater love has a man than this” Jesus said, “that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15). If we wonder what love is, we don’t have to look far for the answer. Love is revealed fully in Christ on the cross. Christ who in his divine nature possessed everything and was in need of nothing, nevertheless emptied himself of everything in order to share the infinite wealth of his eternal inheritance with us who rejected him and showed ourselves utterly unworthy of anything. We nailed him to a tree. And yet as he took his dying breathe he prayed to the Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He loved us. Despite our lack of deservingness, in order to save our souls from eternal separation from God, he loved us to the end.
And that is what the saying means, “ Be imitators of God as beloved children; and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5.1-2). Those are the marching orders of the church militant. Go into the world like an army and conquer all nations with humble love. Jesus commanded his church on the night before he died, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Anticipating his passion and crucifixion, he was saying to his apostles—the future bishops of his church—“ Watch me and learn, for tonight and tomorrow morning I am going to show you what love is, and I am going to show you how to be my witnesses in the world. For those who torture you pray; to those who abuse you turn the other cheek; when they steal your coat give them your shirt as well; when they insult you and call you all sorts of names, like a lamb before its shearers is mute be meek; and when they pour evil upon you bless them, bless them and do not curse or plot revenge. When life puts a cross on your back, carry it for others, as I will carry it for you, and do not grumble. Be ye kind one to another. Have the patience of a saint. Be aglow with the Spirit. Be good to those who burden you with trouble as God is good to you and by your goodness some will be converted. Then God will smile and say to you, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Come into my kingdom.’”
If we take this message to heart and make it our aim in life to be as loving of others as Christ is of us (1Cor 13.1), which is absolutely how it’s intended, not as an option for some but as a commandment for all, then we begin to see what a serious task God has set before us. Being truly Christian is no easy thing. I dare say many treat it as though it were nothing more than child’s play. But actually, if we recognize the power of temptation and sin that ravages human souls like fire, and how quick we are to retreat when the heat is on, we may begin to see that the army into which Christ has called us holds us to a standard that makes Navy SEALS training seem relaxed. The SEALS have to endure and survive to fight another day, but to be worthy of the name “Christian” we have to “be holy as your heavenly father is holy, be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful, be perfect,” Jesus said, “as your heavenly father is perfect.” In other words, there are no part-time Christians, not really. You’re either in this army or you’re not. You’re either committed to the cause or you’re faking it.
Romano Guardini, a Catholic priest in the early 20th century, who wrote one of the great Christian books of that century, simply enough called The Lord, penned one the most poignant statements about Christian faith and life I have ever read. He wrote, “I “am” not a Christian; I am on the way to becoming one—if God will give me the strength. Christianity is nothing one can have; nor is it a platform from which to judge others. It is movement. I can become a Christian only as long as I am conscious of the possibility of falling away. The gravest danger is not failure of the will to accomplish a certain thing; with God’s help I can always pull myself together and begin again. The real danger is that of becoming within myself unchristian, and it’s the greatest when my will is most sure of itself. I have absolutely no guarantee that I shall be privileged to remain a follower of Christ save in the manner of beginning, of being en route, of becoming, trusting, hoping, and praying.”
In other words if we think we're holy and perfectly merciful, we are not, and until we are then we keep working to acquire the virtue of humble love in our souls, devoting ourselves to prayer as Navy SEALS do their pushups at four in the morning, until maybe we start to understand that being Christian isn’t about us, it’s about Christ living his life in us and us getting out of the way so that he can fully and uninhibitedly do that.
Prayer opens our souls to receive direction and counsel from the Spirit and the great prayer of the church, the Holy Eucharist, is the spring from which the Spirit, like a stream of living water, is poured into our hearts. Those who are most serious about becoming truly loving souls are serious about prayer. They are, therefore, devoted to the Eucharist, that great encounter with the real presence of the living Word. The world is full of people who think they are spiritual. The world is filled with good guys and gurus and wise old souls who serve as spiritual guides. But, Jesus warned, the world is full of blind guides. Genuine spirituality is a gift from God. It is only by grace that we are conformed to Christ. That is not a virtue we just acquire by living. That is a virtue we acquire, if we acquire it at all, by surrendering to the Holy Spirit, who is the bearer of Christ’s love. True spirituality begins in baptism when the Spirit is given and is fueled by the Holy Eucharist in which that gift is renewed. And it is strengthened by suffering. We go into the world armed only with the weapon of forgiveness and shielded by the wisdom of the gospel. We show kindness even to our enemies. What becomes of it? Our love is rejected. What becomes of that? We love even more.
As Teresa of Avila put it in her classic work, The Way of Perfection, “What profit then can come to us from being loved ourselves?...For however dearly we have been loved, what is there that remains to us? Such persons (true Christians) care nothing whether they’re loved or not. …Do you think that such persons will love none and delight in none save God? No; they will love others much more than they did, with more genuine love, with greater passion and with a love which brings more profit; that in a word is what love really is.” In other words, love is nothing, if it’s not loving those who reject you, loving even more when your love is not returned.
Looked at in this way, I’m surprised that anyone would choose to be a Christian. Becoming as Christ is is a tall order. Maybe that’s why so much of the church today has taken a short cut. There are thousands of sermons being preached this morning on the theme of, “Love thy neighbor and join the fight for social justice, be the resistance, welcome the aliens no matter how they got here or what they do and open the borders; love demands it!” That sounds genuine enough, and is often sincere. But when it’s served up, as so many churches today serve it as the main course, it’s nothing but stone soup. The gospel is not a political agenda and simply substituting a canard called social justice for the hard but ultimately satisfying work of being filled with the Holy Spirit is a cheap counterfeit for real spirituality.
We all want America to be great. We want our community to be great again. When the people begin to hunger and thirst again for the Word of God, life will return to these streets. Congress can’t do it; the President can’t do it. The churches have to come to the rescue. The only weapon the church has is the gospel. The gospel is more than enough. But the gospel is only effectively proclaimed by those who take the life of Christ to heart and live it. And his life transcends politics.