By Will Brown
Today’s gospel contains the “summary of the law,” well known to us because our Anglican forefathers included it at the beginning of our eucharistic rite, urging us to approach the mystery of the Eucharist bearing in mind “what our Lord Jesus Christ sayeth” on this score, namely that “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The order of the liturgy discloses important things to us. It is significant that we begin with the “collect for purity,” asking God to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts” by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in order that we might perfectly love God and worthily “magnify” (or worship) him. And then we move immediately to the summary of the law, learning from the very words of the Savior that to love God and to love our neighbor are the most important commandments, and that they are the two upon which hang all the rest of the law, and everything that the prophets said.
So the placement of this passage from the gospel at the beginning of our Anglican eucharistic liturgy is meant to key us in to a spiritual dynamic: that this readiness to love God and our neighbor is the gateway through which we enter upon the action of the Eucharist, in which we both offer to God the acceptable sacrifice of his son’s body and blood, together with “ourselves, our souls and bodies,” and in which we likewise receive the gift of Christ’s body and blood, and so in which our communion with God is accomplished, our salvation enacted.
Loving God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself is the gateway through which we enter upon this offering and receiving of Christ’s body and blood that enacts and constitutes our salvation.
The fact that the Lord tells us to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our mind is a way of saying that our love of God should be all-encompassing. Two weeks ago I talked about our tendency to think of our Christian affiliation as being one affiliation among many — like how I am a Rotarian, and a Boy Scout, and a member of All Saints too. But I said that this is the wrong way to think about it — because our love for God must be all-encompassing. It cannot compete with other loves if it is to be authentic. Rather, all other loves, all other affinities, must be subordinate to our love for God, and outgrowths from our love for God — subordinate to and outgrowths from what we do in this place.
There is a spiritual paradox here. We might naturally think that if we use up all of our love on God, there won’t be any left for other things and other people. But that’s not so. The truth is that every love that is subordinated to love for God thereby finds its plenitude and becomes perfected. I love my wife better and more when my love for her is subordinate to my love for God. Being a better Christian, being a more faithful disciple of Jesus, will make me a better Rotarian, a better Boy Scout, etc.
We also must remember what Jesus said about the meaning of love for God. He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). This is a teaching the Lord reiterates a number of times throughout the gospels, the association of love for God with obedience to God. That is counterintuitive, and we need to constantly remind ourselves of it.
We tend to think of love as being a gooey sentiment. No, says the Lord. At its core, love for God means obedience. It may come with warm sentiments or it may not. In my experience, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Occasionally I feel rapturous about God, but just as often I seek only to discharge my duty. But the heart of our love for God is doing what he commands us to do. And it is worth noting that this truth lay even at the heart of Jesus’ love for his Father: “I have not come to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:39), he said.
But Jesus also said that doing his Father’s will, loving God in this way, was his nourishment, that it was what sustained him. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34), he said. We will find that is the case for us too. A love for God that shows itself through obedience is not slavish or burdensome. When we embrace it with all our heart, and soul, and mind, we will find that it sustains us — even and especially when we are deprived of all other means of sustenance.
On this score one often hears of Christians finding peace, and even joy, in desperate situations — like Fr. George Calciu, whom I mentioned in a sermon a few months ago. Fr. Calciu spent years in prison under the Romanian Communist regime, in the vilest conditions imaginable. And yet he said that, in a way he could not explain, he experienced a happiness in prison that he never felt when he was free.
That is credible because Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” You have probably known faithful Christians like this, who were sustained through illness or bereavement or whatever by their loving fidelity, who were at peace, who maintained their equanimity and good humor despite their circumstances. Such people are remarkable and inspiring — and now you know their secret.
And what of the second commandment that is “like unto” the first, that I should love my neighbor as myself? Modern psychology would be apt to point out the implied command to love yourself, so that you can then love your neighbor like you love yourself. There may be truth in that. But there is a more profound meaning. The more profound meaning is rooted in the recognition of the unity of all in Christ. St. Paul talks about God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in [Christ]” (Eph. 1:10).
And of course my truest self is the self that I encounter in the person of Christ. But that is true for all people too. And this fact illuminates the commandment to love my neighbor as myself. It means that I am to love my neighbor because my neighbor is myself. Because my neighbor’s truest self, and my truest self, is in fact one self, the person of Jesus Christ. This also shows how the second great commandment flows from the first. I cannot love my neighbor as myself if I do not love Christ. It is impossible.
I want to encourage you to think of ways to love Christ and your neighbor. It’s harder during this COVID plague, but the commandment is not abrogated. Fr. George Calciu found ways of doing it in the bowels of a Romanian dungeon. For the love of Christ, he took care of a fellow inmate who was dying of tuberculosis. How can we love one another, how can we serve Christ more perfectly during this season?
There is a great eastern Christian saint named Silouan the Athonite. He died in 1938. Silouan said: “Blessed is the soul that loves her brother, for our brother is our life. The Spirit of the Lord lives manifest within her, giving peace and gladness.”
The Rev. George Willcox Brown III is associate rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Thomasville, Georgia.