Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Trinity
And he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus: And who is my neighbor? There is an almost endless number of Scriptural passages where those who already are followers of Christ, or those who wish to become followers, are exhorted to show love and mercy. To focus their lives on seeking and reflecting the divine love that Christ Jesus embodied perfectly throughout his earthly ministry. Indeed, Christians are admonished repeatedly to focus their “faith life” on love as sacrifice and as gift, at the same time.
When the lawyer tried to tempt Jesus to tell him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, the answer was plain and simple: He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Luke10:26-28)
Love as our offering to God and at the same time love as God’s gift to mankind through His people—this must be the core of the life of a Christian from which everything else flows, and without which nothing can be achieved. Yet Christian love seems like an evermore-scarce commodity in the world. In the first two centuries, the apostolic and post-apostolic writers emphasized the transformational power of the Christian faith—for the human person and, through that transformed person, for the world. By becoming Christ-like we call out to others: see, friends, the power of love over hate is real, and it is here, in the Body of Christ, His Church!” Yet this changed. As Swedish pastor and theologian Lars Levi Læstadius (1800-1862) noted,
Christianity was to morally transform the world. What, then, has the heathen nations gained by Christianization? Inquisitions, wars of religion, autodafés. Was not revelation meant to enlighten the world about its foolishness? Certainly, but revelation was not grasped with the heart, but with reason, and as such became first a papacy, then a myth. As soon as religion became a dead letter, as soon as it ceased to be what originally it was, namely a moral passion, the world fell into an even worse state than prior to Christianity. (Dårhushjonet, §§551, 552)
Today, many seek constantly to qualify the words of Jesus, to narrow the divine down to human dimensions, to make it manageable within our lives as we already lead them. More and more of those who call themselves Christian forget about the gospel, reduce the teachings of Jesus to feel-good stories, and redefine love into some shapeless, contentless, aimless and therefore godless worship of human desires and inclinations. Others are so racked by fears and worries—about their lives, about their futures and about society—that Christian love is pushed to the margins of their lives, or perhaps altogether replaced by suspicion and enmity.
This is perhaps especially the case in the meeting with people from other cultures, religions, and countries. But for the Christian, the neighborhood is global, and the neighbor is every child of God on the face of the planet. It is tragic that Christians are so often content with embracing love as an abstraction, while reluctant or even bothered by the application of that principle to real people in the real world. Max Stirner, a mid-19th century anarchist theoretician—who most likely has never been quoted in a sermon in an Anglican church, ever—was lamentably close to the mark in noting that
The Christian loves only the spirit; but when could one be found who [is] really nothing but spirit? To have a liking for the corporeal man with hide and hair—why that would no longer be a ‘spiritual’ warm-heartedness, it would be treason against ‘pure’ warm-heartedness, the ‘theological regard’… pure warm-heartedness is warm-hearted toward nobody, it is only a theoretical interest, concern for man as man, not as a person. (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum)
We would do well to take this critique to heart and ask ourselves: how do we as individuals and churches embody the love for our neighbor that Jesus calls for? The transformational power of faith, transforming our lives—this is our witness to others. Preaching and living the Word of God cannot be distinct; there can be no theoretical love of one’s neighbor. Yet the reality is that often, we are comfortable with the concept of loving our neighbors, but find ourselves challenged beyond our capacity when it comes to implementing the concept. Instead of submitting to Christ with an open heart, we question His reasons and motives for giving us all these difficult instructions. And he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus: And who is my neighbor?
So Christians ask themselves if maybe Jesus was not in fact establishing an ideal that we are to strive towards, but never reach? Perhaps an impossible benchmark to show us how far below His perfection we fall? Or perhaps he is describing something that is only possible for some “spiritual elite”? Friend, these are nothing but attempts to escape our calling by means of intellectual gymnastics. You and I are commanded to love, because he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him (1 Jn 4:16), while he that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love (1 Jn4:8). Could it be any more plain than that? We are commanded to do something with which the world is unfamiliar. This is why St Paul exhorts us to be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Rom 12:2).
In every meeting with other human beings, regardless of who they are, we have the opportunity to proclaim by living. A witness of love is worth much more than a tract or admonishment. And we do not need to travel to the other side of the globe in order to witness to our faith. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning till we close them at night, we are to bear witness to Christ within us. A spouse, children, the next-door neighbor, people at work or in social gatherings—there is no escaping this duty to love.
So what of the practical side of this? How are we to apply this ideal? After all, it is easy to talk about love in the abstract, and good works and mercy—but how do we do it? Again, there can be no difference between theory and practice. Remember, remind yourself, whenever you meet someone—be it a banker or a bum, a housewife or a waiter—that this person is a child of God. This person is someone for whom my Lord Christ Jesus gave up everything. Lord, how can I serve this child of yours?
Time and again, Jesus was able to draw people to repentance and salvation, not by tracts and threats, but by being an example, a living manifestation of Divine Love. It was by example that he showed the way. As we follow in His footsteps, by the grace of God, this is precisely what we are called to do. If we claim to be children of God brought to the light by faith in Christ, how can we do anything other treat our siblings—whether they dwell in light or darkness—with the love that is the be all and end all within the household of God.
May the Lord continue to show us the way of love and mercy. Amen.