In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Truly we are to love one another as Jesus loved us. Last Sunday I spoke about Christian unity – we were reminded in last week’s Gospel lesson that true Christian unity is not something we create, and it is not a feeling. Rather it is a mystical participation in the unity that obtains in the holy Trinity. Our unity as Christians is ours only by grace: because the Son gives to us the divine unity that he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as we are reminded at the end of every Collect, are one God, now and forever. And true unity comes only from that unity. Indeed it’s the only unity that is robust enough to last forever, come hell or high water – because it’s the only unity that HAS always obtained, since before time began.
In the words of the Gloria Patri… “as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.” The great and unique gift of Christianity is that God gives us everything that he has and everything that he is. Christianity isn’t about placating God; its not an elaborate system of moral and ritual rules that, if we observe them faithfully, will ensure that God won’t punish us. Christianity, alone among the religions of the world, is about God giving himself to us. Giving us everything that he has and everything that he is. And because God is one, he gives us his own unity, and we heard about that in last week’s Gospel lesson.
In this week’s gospel lesson we are told to love one another. And just as in last week’s lesson where we saw that our unity comes from God, so in this week’s lesson we see with what love we are to love one another: with God’s love. Our unity as Christians comes from God; our love, as Christians, comes from God. Jesus said to Apostles: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” Even as I have loved you. Last week I emphasized the need for every Christian to be united to Christ – first, in order to be saved, but also in order to be one with every other Christian: like spokes on a wheel, the closer the spokes get to the axle, the closer they are to one another. But this also means that unity is not merely or primarily a feeling. It’s a reality. Likewise with love, and with the love with which we are to love one another. It is not merely or primarily a warm feeling or a pleasant disposition we have with regard to one another. Rather divine love is a reality rooted in the very essence of God himself – a reality that God gives to us, because it is what he has and who he is: and remember that the essence of the Gospel message is that God gives us what he has and who he is… the message of the Gospel is that God gives us himself.
The epistle of 1 John states that “God is love.” And in John 3, the Evangelist tells us what God’s love for us looks like, how it manifests itself. God loved us so much, it says, that he sent his only and eternal Son to save us. That is part of what it means for Jesus to be called the Incarnate Word of God. Because Jesus is God’s own self-utterance, God’s own intimate self-expression, enfleshed, incarnate. When God speaks himself, he speaks Jesus Christ. Jesus reveals this God who is totally beyond all human thought or conception. Jesus shows us who this God is. Jesus shows us God perfectly, and completely. There is nothing else about God yet-to-be revealed, nothing that is not already revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. “I and the Father are one,” the Lord said in last week’s gospel lesson. And in the words of the Athanasian Creed: “the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.” What the transcendent God has and is, he reveals in Christ. 1 John says that God is love: therefore the love that God has and that God is, he reveals fully in Christ.
Another theme I have been harping on lately is the theme developed by St. Paul who said that in Christ God reconciled us to himself, and entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation. All of God’s qualities and all of his activities are manifestations of, and inseparable from, his nature. So our reconciliation to God in Christ is inseparable from God’s love – inseparable from God himself, who is love. To put it another way: the love that God is, is a reconciling love. A love that is not content to leave us separated from itself. The essence of the Gospel is that God gives himself to us, in the person of his Son. And this gift of God’s very self, in the person of Jesus Christ, is a gift of love, a gift of reconciling love… a gift that, in the act of being-given, draws us to itself. That’s why the Lord said, referring to his crucifixion: “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to myself.” Because all that God is, is revealed in Christ; and all that Christ is, his very self, his very life, he gives and pours out completely for us on the cross. And that divine gift pulls us into itself. Christ is lifted up on the cross, and draws all men to himself. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Do you see how it works? God gives himself to us, and what he does is inseparable from who he is. So in giving himself to us, he gives to us what he does. He gives us the ministry of reconciliation, because this is what he does, and who he is. He gives us unity, because he is one, and his unity unites. And the ecstatic outpouring of love on the cross, is a gift of the divine act of love. In being washed in the blood shed by Christ on the cross, we receive God’s activity of love, because everything that he does is inseparable from who he is. So when, in an act of love, he gives us his love, he is giving to us something to be divinely enacted within us. “Just as I have loved you, so should you love one another.”
So… On the cross God gives us himself, and he is reconciling love. And in the act of being-given, this reconciling love draws us to itself, to be enacted within us. The only source of this reconciling love – the only source – is the cross of Christ. Because that is the only place that God ever poured himself out to death for us. What happened on the cross, in the flesh of Christ, is historically unique. That’s why St. Paul says: Far be it from to glory in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which I have been crucified to the world, and the world crucified to me.
In this passage from St. Paul we see an aspect of God’s love that needs to be emphasized in today’s cultural climate: the reconciling love of God enacted within us means the death of the world as far as we are concerned. And it means our death as far as the world is concerned. But what does that mean? That means that whereas we were slaves of our passions and appetites, slaves in other words, of sin, we are now children of God, and under the dominion of the Holy Spirit. In Christ, the Holy Spirit does for us what our passions and appetites formerly did. St. Paul says in Galatians: those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. God loves us in such a way that he desires to draw us to himself. Thus when we love another with the divine love, we love her in such a way that we desire her to be drawn to God. Because in Christ, we are loving that other person with Christ’s love. The love with which we love everything, in Christ, is a love that desires the reconciliation of all people – and indeed the whole creation – to God. This means, preeminently loving the love of God in others. If we truly love them, we see that they are made in the image of God, who is love. And we love that divine love in them. And that love desires their reconciliation to God. Therefore, as Christians, we cannot love people as the world often does – with the sort of love that is akin to apathy, whose motto is live and let live. Because the love of God in us is coterminous with the poured-out, reconciling life of God in Christ. Which means we are placed in the difficult position of loving others such that our chief desire for them is that they be crucified with Christ, so that their life may be hid with Christ in God.
This, again, is a difficult message for people to hear. For some reason, people these days often say they want to be left alone. And yet these days debilitating loneliness is one of our main problems. I think one of the best ways that we can love others is to be with them, and to pray with them. The opposite of sin is prayer. And, as awkward as it is, we need to offer to pray with people, because it will get them to orient themselves to God, even if only for the few moments that we are praying with them. This isn’t something that comes naturally to most Episcopalians. But maybe that’s part of the reason the Episcopal Church is in such sad shape. We’ve got to get over ourselves. Remember that love has very little to do with how you feel about someone. If it did, it would be impossible to love your enemies. Love is a divine orientation toward another, a certitude that the other is made in the image of God, because God told us that she is so made, and we believe what God says. When we realize this, it becomes possible to allow Christ’s love to be enacted itself within our hearts, loving the image of God in the other, who may be very difficult to love on her own.
So turn constantly to Jesus in prayer – especially in the Mass; let the Mass, the Sacrament of Love, as Pope-emeritus Benedict once called it – let the mass be the source of your prayer – and make a conscious effort in your day-to-day life to help other people to turn to God in prayer too. Many people these days are confused and hurting and lonely, and it would be a great relief if they could realize that God is always with them, and that he is always calling them to himself, the source of their life and love. Help others to realize that. That’s what it means to love others as Christ loves us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.