15th Sunday after Pentecost
The words we hear in today’s Gospel reading are an encapsulation of the entire Gospel message. A lawyer attempts to test Jesus, saying to Him, ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?’ And Our Lord replied to Him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’
This is the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel message and the great challenge to our fallen human inclinations. Our Lord, boils down all the law and the prophets into two sentences. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
These two commandments are really one, for we cannot say we love God if we do not love our neighbor, and we cannot truly love our neighbor if we do not have the love of God within us. The holy Apostle John tells us in his Epistle: ‘If someone says “I love God” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him; that he who loves God must love his brother also.’
The Christian life is a life of self-sacrificial love, just as Christ’s life was a life of self-sacrificial love. There’s no way out of this… We cannot reduce our faith to lofty religious feelings or to a formula of moral duties or to engaging philosophical abstractions. Christ calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.
That path of following Christ takes us into the realm of His beautiful teachings and His miraculous healings. It also takes us into the realm of the reality of His having nowhere to lay His head, to His sufferings and His crucifixion. And, if we can go there with Him, then we may also follow this path to the glorious light of His resurrection and ascension.
That path is the path of love. Love, not as defined by this world… Our modern culture’s perception of love is one of self-satisfaction, of self-fulfillment, of self-pleasure. We love that which pleases us. And if we make the pursuit of this kind of self-indulgence our focus, all that stands in the way of what pleases us becomes the source of our greatest misery, frustration, and sorrow. This is the recipe for disaster in our lives and, unfortunately, it is epidemic.
The love that Christ calls us toward is precisely NOT self-seeking. Let us recall the description of the Apostle Paul of what true love is: ‘Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.’
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ… the love which Christ calls us toward is nothing short of a crucifixion of our selfish desires. It is a prioritization of God first, others second, ourselves third. The foremost commandment of love is a practical, moment by moment exercise in keeping God first in our lives and striving with all of our heart and mind and soul to follow His way of love – as just described.
It is not for the weak of heart. It requires tremendous self-discipline on our part. And yet, the more we exercise this self-giving and generous love, the greater becomes our deepest interior joy. It is a joy which comes not from seeking what we think we want, but from giving of ourselves to God and others. This is the mysterious and counter-intuitive paradox of life… the more we entangle ourselves in the vanity of seeking our own happiness, the more miserable we become from all the inevitable obstacles that stand in our way. The less we indulge ourselves and the more we extend our attention and energy to loving God and others, the greater becomes our interior peace and our true joy. A life lived in love is a life of great grace and joy!
Last Sunday we celebrated Sts Peter and Febronia and the Day of Family, Love, and Fidelity. It is precisely in the context of family… whether that family is your spouse and children; your parents and siblings; your monastic brothers and sisters; your parish family; or whatever gathering of fallen human beings you have been placed with… it is in that context where we must exercise this challenge of self-sacrificing love. Striving to be patient and kind; not jealous or boastful; not arrogant or rude; not insisting on our own way; refraining from being irritable or resentful; never rejoicing at wrong but rejoicing in the right; bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things; and never giving up!
This is the spiritual contest which is set before most of us. It is not the stuff of romance and drama… We might fantasize about the lives of saints and monks and martyrs, but the reality of the Christian struggle is right before us in our day to day lives: saying our prayers with attention and feeling; being patient and kind to those around us; and living in the conscious presence of God Who is everywhere present and fillest all things.
May God grant us grace and strength to love Him with all of our heart and soul and mind and to love our neighbor as our self. For it is in this self-giving love that we receive treasures beyond description!