“Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you. We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” I John 3:13-18
Last week we saw that the New Testament, indeed the whole Bible, is portable library, who’s who purpose is to reveal Jesus’ life-story, Jesus narrative, to his Church. We know that Jesus’ narrative is the narrative of the God who is God. As I have said before, Jesus’ life-story enfolds your life story — in fact, Jesus’ life-story enfolds the life story of single human being who has ever existed or every will exist and that inclusion in Jesus’ life story bestows ultimate meaning upon each person, as well as the bestowing ultimate meaning upon the whole creation. The way our stories become entwined, the way his story becomes our story, is through the grace of Holy Baptism. Baptism, in addition to folding our life-story together into Jesus’ life story — baptism also infuses in us the necessary supernatural grace to appropriate his life story so that we may existentially make his story our story. Whether people like it or not, it is completely impossible to disentangle one’s narrative from the narrative of Jesus Christ. The Anglo-Catholic rejoices in our entanglement with Jesus because the Anglo-Catholic has been grafted into Jesus’ perfected human nature and infused with Virtues from Heaven — she has been regenerated as the very offspring of God the Father. Your narrative has become part of God’s narrative. Your autobiography has been assumed into Jesus’ autobiography and you are responsible and equipped to appropriate his virtues and to transform our many stories into one great love story that we offer up to the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is because all of this is true that St. John, the Beloved Disciple writes to his little parishes scattered about Asia Minor so emphatically, so decisively, so utterly black & white:
“Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you. We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”
We are the children of God whose destiny is to love the whole creation and especially to love one another back to life. When we do that, when we habitually love one another, we are making Jesus’ narrative our narrative and so naturally the world hates us just like it hates Jesus. But looming larger than anything is the divine love of God that has been shed abroad in our hearts by the gift of the Holy Spirit given to us at our baptism. The word John uses for love, agape or some form of agape, is used 52 times in John’s little epistles. In other words, one-fifth of the occurrences of this word, which means divine love, in the whole New Testament are in John’s epistles. How little are these epistles? John’s three epistles make up one-fiftieth of the New Testament. So in one-fiftieth of the New Testament we have one-fifth of the usage of the word agape — divine love. The word is rare in classical Greek and it is mostly a colorless and banal expression. But Christians took “agape” and infused it with our narrative and gave it an intense, radical and quite specific meaning — especially in John’s Gospel and Epistles. Agape is the Church’s culture, our milieu, our way of being in the world, and our destiny. Love, true love, is the gratuitous, creative love that flows from God to every Christian and from every Christian to every other Christian and from us to whole creation. True love is the desire, within the will of the Christian, for the good. Agape is so totally divine in origin that twice John declares: “God is love,” that it is no mere characteristic or attribute of God, because God constitutes the very being of love itself. God is not dependent on love — love is love for absolutely no other reason than because that is way God is. No wonder St. John the Divine is also known as the “beloved disciple” and the “Apostle of Love.” By the way, “St. John the Divine” simply means “St. John the Theologian” because the old word for “theologian” was “divine.” Works of theology used to be called a “Body of Divinity.” I want to make one other point: John was more than a theologian; he was an Apostle, which means that he was a “Tradition-bearer.” Mary was the Theotokos – the God bearer. John, like the other Apostles, had the burden of bearing the Tradition of the Word made Flesh; a burden like the mantel of a prophet but easy as the yoke of Christ, and needful as the light of the Sun for the life of the Bride of Christ. And so John’s emphasis on love comes straight from the teaching and example of Jesus himself and it is our way of life and no other way of life is acceptable.
I want to understand and to communicate how different we are from Christians of the past — specifically when it comes to true love, Christian love. Now, I’m not gloomy and pessimistic by nature. But the more time I spend at the Altar and the more time I spend in the Word of God trying to understand these tiny communities scattered all over the world in John’s day, the more I fear we have wandered far, far away from home. My worry is that we are so removed from in time — and now, in our day, the Scriptures and the Liturgies have been translated and revised over and over again; parboiled, plucked and rendered so inoffensive and utterly vapid, cliched, and ugly. The doxological shock, the liturgical slap in the face that might awaken us is no more than half-hearted, badly written and badly delivered poetry that is dedicated to navel gazing. We ought to be scandalized by the life Jesus expects from us. After all, the initiatory rite of the Catholic Church, Holy Baptism, as pretty much a funeral! As I said last week this requires our intentional appropriation of the gifts God has bestowed upon us and that requires being attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible to God and to one another. When we bow to one another at the Altar, when the thurifer scenes you with frankincense, the scent, the fragrance that is strictly associated in both the Old and New Testament with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And as the thurifer bows to you and you respond by bowing to him, you are acknowledging that you belong to Jesus and your life stories have been caught up into Jesus’ life story and you have a role that only you can play, and that is a role that involves your participation in ultimate reality — in light of that reality one should realize that one can work against reality or one can work with reality which is another way of saying that we human beings are empowered to transform our life stories, to turn life into something beautiful for Jesus and for one another. In light of all that we have to ask how a Christian ends up in the sorry situation that John is describing in his epistle?
“Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
John is almost certainly reporting an actual event in which Christians know, as a matter of fact , that a member of their own parish family is in genuine need of goods or services necessary for life and they turn their back on him or her. John says that they do not merely “see” this situation, but they behold, they gaze, they know the situation. Furthermore, the Beloved Disciple says, that those who turned their backs on their brother actually possess more of those goods necessary to life than they personally need. And to top it off, John accuses those who have turned their backs on their sibling of consciously and intentionally shutting down their natural feelings of compassion and sympathy in order to play the villain. There are three things going on here: First there is the desire of those who turned their backs on their brother. What kind of desire provokes one Christian to ignore the needs of another Christian when it within one’s power to provide those needs? Secondly, it was necessary for the Christians who turned their backs on their brother, in order to successfully turn their backs, to resist and eventually to shut down their interior feelings of compassion for the needy brother. Thirdly, their was the action itself — the actualization of their desire.
What kind of desire leads a Christian to perform a disordered action? What kind of desire is powerful enough to bring a Christian to ignore and shut down his own, natural as well as his infused supernatural feelings of compassion. I say natural because unbelievers universally experience genuine compassion in similar situations. But John is addressing the baptized who have been infused with the heavenly virtues, those who have been grafted into Christ, those whose own bodies have, by grace, been sculpted into Temple of Flesh in which God is said to dwell through Holy Baptism. Which is the very concrete reality that John returns to — how do God dwell in such a temple?
“But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
We will stop here. Over the next few will we will explore the meaning and the function of human desire and will. As we explore human desire we will come to see why the Sixth Ecumenical Council was so deliberate, so, like John, black and white on their insistence that in the Incarnation, in his death and his resurrection, our Lord Jesus Christ possessed and healed the faculties of human willing and human desiring.
St. Augustine, in his Confessions, underlines the strategic importance of desire and in particular he underscored the wounds of the Fall with regard to our will, our volitional life:
“The enemy,” he wrote, “held fast my will, and had made of it a chain, and had bound me tight with it. For out of the disordered will comes disordered desire, and the service of disordered desire ended in habit, and habit, not resisted, became necessity. By these links, as it were forged together — a hard bondage held me in slavery.”
This will be our discovery, not only a clear and godly diagnosis of our wounds, but also, to discover, to apply to appropriate for ourselves and for one another the sacramental medication that Christ has given to his Church.