Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Call of the Gospel: Love

We come now to the heart of the Gospel. In the famous John 3:16 that we cited yesterday, as the offer of salvation to those who believe, the reason for our faith and hope is given: “For God so loved the world…” The Gospel is essentially a testimony to God’s love for us, as well as a call for us to return that love and then spread it around.

There are many commandments and counsels in the Scriptures, but only one is called “the great and first commandment” (Matthew 22:38). This is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (other evangelists include: “and with all your strength”). Jesus immediately says that the second great commandment is like the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” These commandments of love fulfill the law and the prophets, just as Jesus Himself does in his own person and teaching.

Love is thus meant to be all-embracing, all-pervading, demanding all our attention and effort: all your heart, mind, soul, strength. Whatever Jesus said or did (even his severe reproaches of the Pharisees) flowed out of his everlasting love for those He came to save. Jesus does not appear “loving” in the Gospels in the way that many people today are “loving.” The word has been terribly abused and distorted almost to the point of meaninglessness in many cases. It is not loving to be blindly or lazily tolerant of evil, to condone sin for the sake of smoothing out conflicts, or to act as if human happiness can be achieved by acceptance of or indulgence in that which jeopardizes one’s eternal salvation. That is why Jesus’ love is “tough” love: He came to save us, to preach the truth that leads to salvation, and He would do whatever it would take so that we would hear the word of God and keep it—that’s how much He loves us. He even gives us extreme examples to show how utterly important it is to prefer nothing to the Kingdom of Heaven: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).

Jesus calls us to love as He loves: loving unto salvation, unto truth and righteousness, not the phony “love” that is emotional excess, lust, misguided tolerance, or any other aberration that contradicts the word of God or endangers one’s (or another’s) immortal soul. Read St Paul’s magnificent hymn to love in First Corinthians 13 for some practical applications (patience, forgiveness, endurance, etc), and then remember Jesus’ words: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Christians who hate or fight or denigrate or condemn one another are a scandal to the whole world and a counter-witness to the Gospel.

To love another is to will the other’s good, ultimately to will the other’s ultimate good: salvation from sin and the gift of eternal happiness in Heaven. Lesser goods should be willed only insofar as they serve or work toward (or at least do not contradict) the ultimate good. Among the most important "lesser goods" are those which our brothers and sisters need just to survive on this earth: food, clothing, shelter, basic medical care, etc. Christian love is manifest in a special way through sacrificial and compassionate service to the poor. Love and sacrifice are two sides of the same coin. It is a prominent theme in the Gospel: Jesus' preference and love for the poor and those of no account in the empires of man.

To love is one of the most natural and at the same time one of the most difficult things to do. We tend more easily to love those who love us and do good to us, but Jesus says: What credit is that to you? Even sinners do as much (Luke 6:32-36). The call of the Gospel is to love even our enemies, to do good to those who do evil to us, to pray for those who persecute or slander us. This is loving as Jesus loved, for He prayed, “Father, forgive them,” as the nails tore through his flesh. He dramatically manifested at that moment these words: “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1Peter 4:8). St Peter declares at the beginning of that verse: “Above all, hold unfailing your love for one another.” Indeed, the Gospel is the Good News of love: God's and ours, or better, God's in ours.

We have much reflection to do, probably much repentance as well, much to resolve and to change if we are to live as Jesus’ disciples and friends. To believe is necessary but inadequate. Faith must work through love, says the Apostle (Galatians 5:6). Love God wholly; love others as Jesus loves. It will take you to the Cross, but it will also take you to Paradise.