2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Luke 6:31-36
We do not have to know much about the Christian faith to know that love is the central theme. The Savior said that, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” (Jn. 3:16) He also taught that the greatest commandment is: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’… And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-39) As Saint John the Theologian wrote in his epistle, “let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 Jn. 4:4-8)
The love to which Christ calls us is not merely an emotion, but a true offering of ourselves for the sake of someone else. It is a self-less offering in which we put the needs and interests our neighbors before our own. It is a personal offering that builds communion with other people and unites us together as those who share a common life. Of course, the basis of such love is the great Self-Offering of Christ, Who enables us all to share in His eternal life as members together of His Body, the Church, as a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven.
In order to embody such divine love, we must follow St. Paul’s advice to the Christians of Corinth to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” To manifest the merciful love of the Lord is not a matter of merely having good feelings toward the people we are inclined to like. Instead, it is the ascetical journey of finding healing from the diseases of our souls as we become more like God in holiness. St. Paul told the Gentile Christians of Corinth that “we are the temple of the living God.” Think about that for a moment. The place where God dwells must be characterized by holiness. Both personally and collectively, we are the temple of the living God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, we must manifest the holiness of the Lord in every dimension of our lives. Nothing can be off limits.
Nothing reveals whether we are doing so more clearly than how we relate to our enemies. Out of self-centeredness, it is easy to love people who love us. We instinctively like people who are good to us and bring us pleasure in various ways. There is nothing at all remarkable about that, for even the most notorious evildoers of human history rewarded those who did their bidding. Nothing but self-love is at the root of our inclination to be kind to those who are kind to us. To share in the life of Christ, however, is to participate in the love that He showed on the Cross. There He offered up Himself for the salvation of us all who had followed in the way of our first parents in choosing to serve ourselves instead of Him. The good news of our salvation is “not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 Jn. 4:10) As He prayed while dying on the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:34)
The Savior said, “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” In order to obey this command, we must learn to see ourselves as “the ungrateful and the selfish” who have received the mercy of God purely by grace, not as a reward for good behavior. When we do so, we will grow in the humility necessary to love even those who have wronged us and to expect nothing in return for acts of kindness toward them. If we refuse to do so, we will inevitably remain such slaves to our own proud self-centeredness that we will lack the spiritual strength to love our enemies as the Savior has loved us. That is simply another way of saying that we will refuse to embrace our vocation to become like God in holiness.
It is strangely easy to overlook the most obvious truths. The Lord taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matt. 6:12) He also said, “if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:15) If we refuse to show the same mercy to any of our neighbors that we seek from the Lord, we will build an insurmountable obstacle to the healing of our souls. If we remain addicted to the prideful judgment of others, we will refuse to fulfill our calling as “the temple of the living God” and make it impossible “to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit…”
Even as St. Paul called the Corinthians to separate themselves from the many corruptions of their pagan culture, we must dare to reject the false gods of our day that fuel hatred, division, violence, and the refusal to forgive. Whether it is people that we know or those we know of through various media, we must reject the temptation to love some and hate others. Absolutely nothing can keep a human being from being in the image of God, and how we treat or think of even our most wretched neighbor is how we relate to Christ. We must accept the struggle mindfully to turn away from welcoming anything into our hearts that inflames our passions and obscures our obligation to convey the mercy of God to everyone we encounter.
Even as there is nothing more dangerous spiritually than to refuse to love our enemies, there is nothing more spiritually beneficial than to forgive and serve them. When we are tempted to dwell on the wrongs of others, we should immediately focus our attention on asking God to bless them and to forgive our sins by their prayers. Persistently praying for people in this way will inspire love for them. When we are tempted to dwell on their sins, we should mourn our own and offer the Jesus Prayer from our hearts. The more we mindfully cultivate a sense of our own brokenness, the less inclination we will have to condemn someone else. The point is not to obsess about particular sins we have committed. We should find healing for them through Confession and then put them out of our minds. The point, instead, is to embrace the sorrow of those who know their own brokenness and corruption, who know the misery they have brought upon themselves by slavery to their passions. The more we know from the depths of our souls that our only hope for healing as “the ungrateful and the selfish” is in the mercy of the Lord, the less inclined we will be to think that we are somehow justified in refusing to show mercy to anyone else.
As we all know, it is a struggle not to respond in kind to insults and anger. It is a struggle not to return evil for evil, as though two wrongs made a right. It is a struggle not to focus on getting even with those who have wronged us. It is a struggle not to treat people according to whether they bring us pleasure or serve our interests. We must embrace these struggles, however, in order to heal broken relationships with our neighbors. If we speak and act in ways that only perpetuate resentment and division, we will never offer ourselves for the good of our enemies. That means that we will never unite ourselves to Christ in holiness, for we will refuse to pursue the spiritual battle to “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Instead, we must gain the humility to grow in communion with everyone who bears the image of God as we treat them with the same mercy we seek from the Lord. That is how we will learn to live faithfully as God’s holy temple and to participate personally in the divine love which is at the heart of the salvation of the world.