In today’s Gospel passage, we hear the greatest definition of the Christian life ever given by anyone. One of Jewish lawyers asked our Lord: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And Jesus replied: “‘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.” St. Augustine later summarized this answer even more succinctly: “Love, and do what you want.”
It might seem at first glance that our age, more than any other age, has embraced this greatest of all commandments. Everywhere around us, we hear love praised and hatred abused. We hear compassion extolled, and condemnation derided. The Lord in His answer rebuked the legalism of the Pharisees — and never has legalism been more unfashionable than it is today! From all sides and from all people, we hear a resounding echo of the words of that great luminary of the Church, St. Augustine: “Love, and do what you want.”
And yet how horrified St. Augustine would be to discover how these words of his are now used! When he first spoke them, he meant quite literally the exact opposite of what people today have come to mean. Let us listen to the passage of his sermon from which these words come:
…we find people made fierce by love; and by wickedness made seductively gentle. A father beats a boy, while a kidnapper caresses him. Offered a choice between blows and caresses, who would not choose the caresses and avoid the blows? But when you consider the people who give them, you realize that it is love that beats, wickedness that caresses. This is what I insist upon: human actions can only be understood by their root in love. All kinds of actions might appear good without proceeding from the root of love. Remember, thorns also have flowers: some actions seem truly savage, but are done for the sake of discipline motivated by love. Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will.
How much sorrow has been visited upon the world because we do not understand what love truly is! How much grief we have brought upon ourselves because we do not understand that often “it is love that beats, wickedness that caresses.” How often do we not desire love at all, but rather caresses, and in choosing caresses reject Love Himself: Christ our true God!
One of the great theologians of love in our own times was the late Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory). In a talk entitled “The Violent Love of God,” he spoke the following words:
I can tell you that being loved by God, and loving Him in return, is the greatest joy given to creatures, and that without it there is no real and lasting happiness for humanity.
And I can also tell you, alas, that such loving is always a violent, brutal and bloody affair.
The God who is merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, who gives us his divine life and peace and joy forever, is first of all the Divine Lover who wounds His beloved, and then hides from her, hoping to be sought and found. He is the Father who chastens and disciplines His children. He is the Vinekeeper who cuts and prunes His vines so that they bear much fruit. He is the Jeweler who burns His gold in His divine fire so that it would be purged of all impurities. And He is the Potter who continually smashes and refashions and re-bakes His muddy clay so that it can be the earthen vessel that He wants it to be, capable of bearing His own transcendent grace and power and glory and peace.
I learned that all of these terrible teachings of the Holy Scriptures and the saints are real and true. And so I became convinced that God’s Gospel in His Son Jesus is really and truly God’s final act on earth. It is the act in which God’s Word is now not simply inscribed in letters on pages of parchment, but is personally incarnate as a human being in His own human body and blood. And so I became convinced of the truth of all truths: that the ultimate revelation of God as Love and the ultimate revelation of humanity’s love for God, are both to be found in the bloody corpse of a dead Jew, hanging on a cross between two criminals, outside the walls of Jerusalem, executed at the hands of Gentiles, by the instigation of his own people’s leaders, in the most painful, cursed, shameful and wretched death that a human being — and especially a Jew — can possibly die….
Theology is stavrology and Orthodoxy is paradoxy: the almighty God reveals Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and absolutely ruthless and relentless lover of sinners. And men and women made in His image and likeness must be the same. Thus we come to see that as there is no resurrection without crucifixion, there is also no sanctification without suffering, no glorification without humiliation; no deification without degradation; and no life without death.
Fr. Thomas speaks here of “earthen vessels,” a phrase taken from the Epistle lesson we have just now heard, and which by no accident is paired with today’s Gospel reading:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed — always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.
My brothers and sisters, let us never forget that true love cannot be found anywhere in all the wide world except on the Cross of Christ. Any “love” that we think we find anywhere else is a counterfeit, a forgery, a cheat, and it will lead us — and all those who choose it — directly and inescapably to Hell.
The same Lord who said in today’s Gospel passage that on love hangs all the Law and the Prophets also said this: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
To say with St. Paul that “love is the fulfillment of the law” does not mean that we no longer need the law. It means that the law has been given in order to show us what a life of love really looks like. Because the sad truth is that without Christ and His commandments, we fallen human beings have absolutely no idea what — or rather, Who — Love truly is. Those today who claim to be fighting for love — and make no mistake, nearly every enemy of the Church believes that love is precisely what they are fighting for — fulfill in themselves the words spoken by Christ in the Apocalypse: “Thou sayest: ‘I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,’ and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.”
“Love, and do what you want.” Such a simple commandment — and yet how hard it is to understand, and how infinitely hard it is to put into practice! It costs us nothing less than everything, including even our very life itself. It is as our Lord said: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And let us never forget the words which immediately afterward followed from His most pure lips: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.”
To quote again from Fr. Thomas Hopko:
According to the Gospel, therefore, those who wish to be wise are constrained to be fools. Those who would be great become small. Those who would be first put themselves last. Those who rule, serve as slaves. Those who would be rich make themselves poor. Those who want to be strong become weak. And those who desire to find and fulfill themselves as persons deny and empty themselves for the sake of the Gospel. And, finally, and most important of all, those who want really to live have really to die. They voluntarily die, in truth and in love, to everyone and everything that is not God and of God.
And so, once again, if we have learned anything at all in our theological education, spiritual formation and pastoral service, we have learned to beware, and to be wary, of all contentment, consolation and comfort before our co-crucifixion in love with Christ. We have learned that though we can know about God through formal theological education, we can only come to know God by taking up our daily crosses with patient endurance in love with Jesus. And we can only do this by faith and grace through the Holy Spirit’s abiding power….
And so we come to another conviction: The Church — the communion of faith and love (as St. Ignatius of Antioch defined it), the community of saints who are Christ’s own very “members” as His body and bride — is essential to our human being and life. We cannot be human beings — still less, Christians and saints — by ourselves. We need God and his wise and faithful servants. We need God’s commandments and living examples of their fulfillment. We need the Church’s scriptures, sacraments, services and saints. And we need one another. As Tertullian said centuries ago, “One Christian is no Christian.” And as the Russian proverb puts it, “The only thing that a person can do alone is perish.” Like it or not, we are “members of one another” in God. If we like it, it is life and paradise. If we reject it, it is death and hell….
Thus, if we have become convinced of anything at all as Orthodox Christians, we are convinced that human beings are not autonomous. The proclamation and defense of human autonomy is the most insidious lie of our day, especially here in North America, and in the Western and Westernized worlds generally. Humans beings are by nature heteronomous. Another law (heteros nomos) is always working in our minds and members. This “other law” is either the law of God, the law of Christ, the law of the Holy Spirit, the law of liberty and life that can only be recognized, received and realized by holy humility, or it is the law of sin and death. (cf. Romans 7-8) When the law within us is God’s law, then we are who we really are, and we are sane and free. But when that law is the law of sin and death, then we are not ourselves, and we are insane, enslaved and sold to sin.
Let us fervently beseech the Lord of Glory to implant in us all the “perfect law of liberty,” the law of love, the one law that has the power to make all those who obey it into nothing less than gods. To Him be all glory, honor, and dominion, together with His Unoriginate Father and His Most-holy and Good and Life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.