Preached June 6th, 2010
1st St. John 4:7–21
St. Luke 16:19–31
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Love, love, love! Do you see Cupid with his bow and arrow perched on my shoulder up here? When we read a lesson like today’s Epistle lesson, those of us as old as I am may think back to the classic Buddy Holly tune from 1958, Everyday, with the words
Everyday, it’s a gettin’ closer,
Goin’ faster than a roller coaster,
Love like this will surely come my way,
ah, hey, hey.
Ah, it’s June and romance is in the air. — No, romantic love is not the point at all!
Rather, the subject is love in a theological sense, a wholly different matter. It is a subject that most of us find rather abstract and a bit difficult to even discuss because we do not have the proper framework for it. Let us try to lay some of the structure for that understanding.
The primary object of love is always God. We are to love God above everything and everyone else because He is the sum of all perfections and is supremely lovable. Our love for God has both selfish and unselfish aspects. On the selfish side, we love Him because He is where we find our true peace, happiness, and eternal life. The unselfish aspect of our love for God is in always seeking to serve Him, in seeking the increase of praise and glory of God, as in “Hallowed be thy Name,” to place His interest ahead of our own, in the continual promotion of the Kingdom of God.
Because God is not something evident to our senses, it is clear that the love of God is an act of will, even when it is done selfishly. While we tend to think of love as an emotion, theological love is an act of the will. Its object is known only by the mind in faith and in hope.
St. Thomas Aquinas has distinguished three degrees of love which are of particular interest because of the way in which they parallel our breakdown of the Trinity season given last Sunday. St. Thomas says that the first degree is that of beginners who study principally to avoid sin and to resist the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, to avoid doing anything that is opposed to the love of God. This is parallel to the first part of the season that was described as purging our lives from manifest sins. The second degree, according to St. Thomas, is that of those who are concerned to increase and strengthen their love for God, not so much by resisting temptations, something that is now largely habitual, but by seeking out that which is good. This is the second phase of the Trinity season called illumination. Finally, the third degree of love is those who have only one object, to cleave to God and to enjoy Him. This corresponds to the final part of the Trinity season called union. Thus we can see that St. Thomas Aquinas has identified the entire Trinity season as the process of growing in love ofGod, just as we were talking about last Sunday.
Everything I have said thus far has been about each of us loving God. What does this have to do with how we are to love each other? Our Epistle lesson begins with the words, Beloved, let us love one another, so something needs to be said about how that works. We are bidden to love our neighbors, but we may be inclined to ask, “why should I love my neighbor?” We must love our neighbor because of two things:
(1) our neighbor is made in the image of God, and
(2) he is loved by God and is capable of loving God.
Note that this does not require that we like our neighbor, and indeed he may be thoroughly disagreeable and unlikable, but we are still called to love him as one of God’s creatures.
Love of our neighbor in the theological sense is not like ordinary human love at all. It is not driven by a sense of gratitude for past assistance, nor for any lovable qualities whether physical, mental, or spiritual. It is based entirely on the fact of the neighbor being made in the image of God and a fellow object of God’s love. The good that our love wishes for our neighbor is that he, like us, may love God. Note that it is therefore true that no man can love his neighbor if he does not first love God, because to love the neighbor is to desire that he should love God. Conversely, no man can love God who does not love his neighbor, because to love God means to desire that all will seek to love and honor God. Thus the love of God and neighbor is completely bound up together.
I note briefly in passing what it does not include. To love your neighbor does not include issuing “get out of jail free cards.” It does not include an invitation to violate the laws of the land and expect to be treated well for doing so. It does not include a right to offend the moral standards that have guided civilization for thousands of years and then expect to be called “normal and honorable..” This list could go on and on. The point is that what is commonly called “tolerance,” is not at all what is meant by love.
In thinking about how we are to love our neighbors, our Saviour Christ has given us an example in the story of Lazarus and Dives. Apparently Jesus tells this story to a group of Pharisees, and at first glance the story does not seem to fit the situation. The Pharisees were not given to conspicuous consumption, indeed they tended toward covetousness instead of lavish living. But hoarding and squandering, although appearing so entirely different, both come from the sin of putting confidence in man rather than in God. Thus Jesus has chosen to rebuke the sin of the Pharisees using what superficially appears to be an unrelated sin.
The rich man, commonly known as Dives, although the name does not actually occur in the text, is described as living very high indeed, with fine clothes and an abundance of fine food. He is not described as a wrong doer in any conventional sense, not a thief, nor an extortioner, not an oppressor, nor a brutal overlord. Little is told about Lazarus except for his miserable condition in life, lying at the gate outside Dives palace. Nothing is said of his faith, his hope, or his love of God, but his name, assigned by Jesus, is highly significant; Lazarus means “God is my help.” The evil of Dives consists in his ignoring the great physical need of Lazarus. In time, both men die, and Lazarus is carried to a place of refreshment in the intermediate state, while Dives is quickly judged and sent to punishment. It is from these locations that the dialog takes place between Dives and Abraham.
Dives realizes that his condition is very bad, but has been a wealthy man, a man of influence and power. He still hopes to assume that role so he cries out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” still thinking that he can claim his place as a leading citizen among the Chosen People. He does not realize that he has already been judged and sent a place of temporary punishment until the Last Judgment when he will be sent on to Hell itself. Abraham tells him that there is a great gulf between them so that it is not possible to pass from one place to the other.
This teaches very directly the result of failing to love our neighbor. Dives did nothing directly to harm Lazarus, but he did ignore his need, a need that he had to see every day in his coming and going from his palace. It was entirely within the means of Dives to help Lazarus, and yet he did nothing. It is for this that he is judged.
We cannot simply pass by our neighbor in physical need and say, “be well,” or “be full.” It is clearly necessary that we attend to their physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. I don’t think that anybody will disagree about the need to help our neighbor with physical support in terms of food, shelter, clothing, employment assistance, etc. The place where things do become controversial at times, however, is when we say that we must also attend to their spiritual needs. Many people tend to view this as intrusive, or somehow off limits. Actually, for Christians, this is the most important part of helping our neighbor, and if there is a choice to be made between offering physical or spiritual help, our choice should be to offer spiritual help. Fortunately that is rarely the choice, but we must never neglect to insist that spiritual help is every bit as important as material help.
Different people have different ideas about the meaning of the word love. Indeed, it does mean different things in different situations. To understand the love of God as described in our lessons for today, we need to look at love in terms of what it means to love God, God’s love for us, and our love for our neighbor. You may have notice that for a number of Sundays now, the Gospel lessons have been taken from the Gospel of John, and then for today’s Epistle we again heard from St. John as we will again in next week’s Epistle lesson. In one way or another, these lessons have all been about Jesus’ great love for His Church and the sending of the Comforter, the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is the ultimate evidence of the continuing love of God for His people. After sending His Son Christ to suffer and die for us on the Cross, the supreme Sacrifice, having done all of that, one might thing that the Father would say, “well, now, that surely ought to be enough!” But He did not. Instead, the love of God, particularly the love of Christ, is evident in the sending of the Holy Ghost to support the Church in the continuing pursuit of holiness.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.