Third Sunday in Eastertide – April 22, 2012 – St. John’s
Our second reading today is taken from the First Epistle of St. John, a short text that focuses on the love of God, in both senses of the phrase, God’s love for us and our love for God. If you have never read it, it is worth your visit, and meditation.
Two things attract our attention today. The first is the comfort St. John offers us in case we should sin. In an earlier passage, he had even stated that everyone sins: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” words which St. Augustine often linked with the prayer Christ requires us to say everyday: “Forgive us our trespasses,” in order to make the case that the Church will never be without spot or wrinkle here on earth. But St. John’s frank statement is not a lesson in pessimism, because at several points in his Letter he offers the sinner hope. Thus today: “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins [that is, he wipes them away], and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.” Later, he offers this comfort for those whose hearts condemn them: “God is greater than our hearts.” And still later: “In this is the love of God made perfect within us, that we may have confidence on the day of judgment.”
Which brings us to our second theme. That last quotation echoes the final words of the reading we have heard today: “”Whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.” This Letter speaks of the love of God being perfected, reaching its height of completion, in us. Here this height is said to be reached by keeping Christ’s word, that is, by obeying his commandments, and he has a sharp statement about it: “Those who say, ‘I know him [Christ],’ but do not keep his commandments are liars, and the truth is not in them.” What these commands are is not said here, but it will be said in a later passage: “His commandment is this: that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.” Faith and love are the two great commandments, encapsulating our two themes today: that Christ is the one in whom our sins are washed away, the revelation that God is greater than our own hearts, and that we should love one another as Christ has loved us. This is the obedience Christ demands of us, without which we are liars if we say that we know him. It is by keeping his word, today’s reading says, that “the love of God is truly made perfect in us.”
The later passage offers another explanation of what it means for the love of God to be made perfect: “In this is the love of God made perfect within us, that we may have confidence on the day of judgement.” The text continues: “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. And whoever is afraid has not been made perfect in charity.” Here a contrast is drawn between fear and love, which seem almost to be in inverse proportion to one another: the more you fear, the less you love; the more you love, the less you fear.
This inverse proportion between fear and love St. Augustine developed often and at some length, including in his commentary on this Epistle. In fact, he anticipated what I just said: “The greater the love, the less the fear; the less the love, the greater the fear.” He recalled the word of Scripture: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and did not deny the usefulness of fear of hell in keeping some people from committing sins, both small and great. But he insisted that such fear is only the beginning of wisdom, and that Christians who obey only out of fear are in a very imperfect state. Someone who refrains from evil out of fear of punishment secretly desires the evil, wishes there were no commandment against it. The motivating force is external to him; his heart remains unmoved and unmotivating. Augustine looked to a marriage for examples. A husband would like his wife to be faithful out of love for him; well then, Augustine said: “Be toward God the sort of person you’d like your wife to be.” What husband or wife would be content that the spouse be faithful only out of fear of being found out? But when husband and wife are faithful out of love for one another, then their love has been made perfect.
St. Thomas Aquinas repeated this view centuries later. Commenting on the verse of St. Paul: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” he hastens to say that, of course, this does not mean that we are not bound by God’s commandments. But he does not stop there, as all too many preachers often do. He goes on to describe what he elsewhere called the height of our human dignity. A free person is one who acts on his own, not because of another’s command, and he makes the application: “A person, therefore, who avoids evil not because it is evil but because of a command of the Lord, is not free, while a person who avoids evil because it is evil is free. This is what the Holy Spirit does: he perfects the mind inwardly by a good habit so that one avoids evil out of love, as if a divine law were commanding this. He is therefore said to be free, not in the sense that he is not subject to the divine law, but because by a good habit he is inclined to do what the divine law ordains.”
This is what the biblical image of the law written on hearts is getting at: that it is not enough to regard divine commandments as external to us, like the two tablets on which Moses first wrote God’s commandments, or to measure our Christianity simply by comparison to the merely external criterion they provide. Progress in the Christian life, growth in it, consists in the tuning of the heart, a work of the Spirit, deepening, internalizing, making God’s law the law of our own being, our instinctive orientation, what we ourselves, in our freedom, wish to do and spontaneously even find ourselves doing. There is no fear in such love; such love casts out fear, and we may have confidence on the day of judgment because the love of God has been made perfect in us.
This is a profound teaching, and one could wish it were better known and appreciated, and more joyfully lived than it is. We shouldn’t be content with a reluctant Christianity, a half-hearted spirituality, a begrudging obedience. This Epistle of St. John describes our relationship with God in terms of love: God’s for us, and ours for him. God’s love was made perfect in Jesus Christ; in Jesus Christ God wishes our love to come to perfection precisely as love. If God has so loved us, how could he be content with anything less? God wants more than fear from us; he wants our love.