Loving God in One Another
Long ago in Moscow, there was a cathedral known for its great piety. The services were long and austere. The people took care to do everything by the book, obeying each rule down to the smallest detail. When fasting seasons came, they were sure to abstain from meats and dairy at every cost. But life is a bit like a double-edge sword. With each virtue comes a new temptation for vice, and these pious people got a little too carried away.
I would never have appreciated the word henpecking before, until raising some chickens in Virginia (in my priest’s basement actually, which was a disaster...). You put a dozen hens together and in no time at all, they’ll gang up and peck away at the smallest birds. In this manner, these pious Christians at the cathedral started henpecking one other. Social clicks formed, rumors escalated, and religion became an opportunity for criticizing and judging. Well, God has a better sense of humor than any of us, and at the climax of Lent, on Good Friday, God lead to this church a man known as St. Basil the Holy Fool. He walked right up to the church doors and sat down on its marble steps. Mass ended, the pious souls walked outside proud for fulfilling their religious duty, and there, to their horror, was the holy prophet chomping down on sausage oblivious to their indignation.
The story reminds me of a homily that St. John Chrysostom once preached. He was teaching about fasting, and commended his congregation for their efforts to be upright. But then he warned them: “What does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbor.”
All of us are called to be ascetics: to fast when the church tells us, to set aside pleasures at times, and to stand vigilant in prayer and worship. But in the meantime, we can’t ever forget the whole purpose of fasting. To abstain from meat is just one level of it. Fasting is incomplete unless it also means abstaining from judgment and condemnation. This is the whole point of religion. Not to become ‘better than thou,’ but to simply grow more loving.
Our Lord Jesus Christ reminds us of this over and over. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged,” we heard this morning. “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you…the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:37-38).
If you think about this, it’s staggering.
The way we treat one another is the way we treat God.
Is that how we understand religion?
All too easily, religion can become an escape from the world. You remember the Pharisee who stood upright in the tabernacle and thanked God that he wasn’t like all the riffraff in the streets. It’s an extreme case…but, maybe not so extreme. Sometimes religion is attractive precisely because it can make us feel set apart from others, one step above…the goodly class. But in His words that we’ve just read, our Lord takes that attitude and flips it on its face. True religion is just the opposite. If you want to love God, then you must love the person right in front of you. If you want God to forgive you without any reserve, then you have no choice but to forgive the people around you without any reserve, not just the people you like, but that person who’s most offended you. Heaven and earth are mirrors, in this sense. “The measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
No one says this more clearly than St. John in his first epistle.
“He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light. He who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (I John 2:9-11). As though he hadn’t made his point, St. John continues, “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?” (I John 4:20).
You see, there’s nothing invisible about our relationship with God. Anytime religion become wholly concerned with things above, then it’s no longer religion. Christ didn’t tell us, “The Kingdom of Heaven is up in the clouds, so keep your heads in the clouds…” Christ told us, “The Kingdom of Heaven is with you.” Heaven is here, down with us. This is where we are working out our salvation, here and now, with the people in our lives.
This is religion.
But how are we supposed to walk it out?
It sounds easy at first. In fact, I think when I first heard it I thought, “Wow, that’s great! No big deal. I just have to love my brother.” Well, that was easy for the first few minutes, but then my brother had to say that one thing that always sets me off…he knew I hated that…he must have wanted to push my buttons…and then it’s all over. It’s not always easy to be in the same room with the people in your lives, let alone to have to love them.
In America, we’re all very well trained consumers. If you’re tired of one brand of detergent all you have to do is to come back and get another brand. Sometimes it seems there’s so many that you could spend eternity looking for the better product (sounds like hell – that’s why I hate shopping). We choose and swap, and choose and swap again, and we no longer feel a need to stick through with anything. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with the grocery list. This attitude has boiled down into just about every part of our modern lives. It’s how we treat relationships: hopping from one attachment to the next, like musical chairs…And this too, can become an attitude we take into Christian community, and one of the fundamental temptations that we have to be aware of.
We gather together at church because we were convicted by the Gospel. There’s a lot of beautiful imagery and sublime promises in our faith, and it brings us together. We preach that Jesus Christ has died and resurrected for our sins and aspire to make our lives a testimony to that message. But then, after weeks go by of standing together in the pews, we start noticing the quirks of the people around us. It doesn’t take much. A runny nose…a rumpled skirt…the hair that sticks up over his ear…one thing after another and all the promises of eternity don’t seem so pressing as that annoying habit. So we might go looking elsewhere for a church with less runny noses and rumpled skirts, or perhaps we burry our distastes deep in our hearts, grumbling or condemning others like the people in the church in Moscow. Where is the Christian love? It shatters, and the Church is no longer the Church.
But what’s profound about Christianity is that the solution to the mess is so close by and so simple. It’s in the person next to you. We don’t have to scale a mountain to find a Hindu guru, we don’t have to find a spiritual father with years of experience and profound wisdom, and we certainly don’t have to spend years studying at a seminary. All we have to do is to walk out the faith right here and right now, struggling daily, to love the people around us.
Have you ever thought how ironic Christianity is?
So we aren’t very good at loving one another…so God calls us all together, a bunch of people with different backgrounds, different educations, different quirks and a million pet peeves. He puts us in a room together called church, and tells us to work it out. The truth is, we only learn to love by loving. Christian community is the very answer to our deepest spiritual needs.
Look at the sacraments. Each and every one tells the same story: We draw close to God by drawing close to one another.
It starts with baptism. We all come from a different background or culture. And so the first thing we do to be saved is to go through the same waters and rise up as one race and one people under God.
Meanwhile, we’re tempted by our old nature to pull apart and fracture, and so every time the Church gathers, what do we do? We drink from the same cup and eat from the same bread.
Chrismation, Marriage, Unction…at the heart of each sacrament is an act of drawing together as we draw towards God.
And no sacrament says this more clearly than the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This should be called the Sacrament of Community
When someone upsets us, the temptation is to hold it in and withdraw. That makes sense, right? It’s our fallen human nature to think, “Alright, my brother annoys me. Then I’ll just leave him.” But Christ tells us to do the very opposite. “Leave your gift before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Mat. 5:24). In other words, before we even worship God, we need to reconcile with our brother. This is how important it is to God for us to learn to love. And likewise, when something in the community is driving us crazy, rather than holding it in, Christians are supposed to run to the priest as quickly as possible (even if the priest is the person making you crazy in the first place). We can’t work out our salvation as individuals. We are only saved in community.
The Sacrament of Confession is probably the most misunderstood sacrament of them all. We aren’t suppose to go to confession once we’ve resolved a struggle. “Well, what’s done is done, now I’ll repent.” We run to confession while we’re in the middle of the temptation, right when it hurts most to talk about it, and we’re supposed to go not once, nor twice, but as often as it takes until the real spirit of repentance, forgiveness, and love begin to sink in. The reason for this is simple: we are saved in and through community.
So, when Christ tells us in the Gospel, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:37-38), He isn’t saying this because it’s a nice thing to do, but because it is the very core of everything we believe in.
Christianity is community.
We love God by loving one another.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.