The love of God: sermon on the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dom Guéranger tells us that this Sunday has the fine title of “the Sunday of the love of God”, on account of the answer which our Lord gives to the Pharisees’ question about the greatest of the commandments. The epistle, too, is closely related to love, since its theme is unity. No one attains unity with another except by love, and where there is love, it always brings about unity, or seeks to do so.

We can begin with the epistle. St Paul tells the Ephesians to be sure to walk, that is to live, in a way worthy of their vocation. He is speaking of the common vocation of all Christians, which is holiness: the vocation to live as children of God. Then immediately he starts talking about unity. This is because God’s plan for us is that we achieve holiness, not as isolated individuals, but as members of the mystical body of Christ. Our holiness, therefore is not for our sake alone, but rather is part of the glorification by which the Father glorifies His Son. On the eve of His Passion, St John tells us, after our Lord had prayed, “Father, glorify thy name”, God spoke from heaven, saying, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again”. God continues to glorify His name until the end of time, by sanctifying those who bear His Son’s name, that is, those who in the unity of His Son’s mystical body are called by the name of Christians.

The mystical body of Christ has a unity which can never be lost, since it comes from the Holy Ghost, dwelling within it — so to speak, as its Soul. Without this indwelling of the third Person, the unity of the Church would have broken up long ago. At best, the Church would have fallen into national groups, as tends to happen among the Eastern Orthodox, ever since their separation from Rome in the eleventh century. Or else, the Church would have splintered into an ever-multiplying number of different “churches”, each with its own doctrines, as tends to happen among the Protestants, ever since Luther rejected any authority beyond his own interpretation of the bible, in the sixteenth century. By contrast, the Catholic Church has a unity in faith, expressed in the creeds and in other solemn definitions of popes and ecumenical councils. She has a unity in the sacraments, since the same seven sacraments are given for the sanctification of the whole people. And she has a unity in government, since to be a Catholic one must recognise the primacy of the see of Rome, to which see, as St Irenaeus said back in the second century, all the faithful throughout the world must adhere. Anyone who rejects any of these three forms of unity — in faith first of all, but also in the sacraments and in governance — even if he continued outwardly to present himself as a Catholic, would in fact separate himself from the mystical body of Christ and thus have jeopardised his hope of eternal life.

Yet because the wounds of original sin remain even in those who are the members of Christ’s body on earth, the unity of this Body, though it can never be lost, can be weaker or stronger. Even during the time of our Lord’s earthly life, the unity of His college of apostles was stronger at some times than others. When St Thomas said to the other apostles, before their final journey to Jerusalem, “Let us also go up with him, that we may die with him”, then they were united (although Judas had already separated himself from them in heart). When, a little later, “A dispute arose among them as to which of them was the greatest”, they were less so. So St Paul reminds the Ephesians of the different virtues by which the unity of the mystical body is made strong: “With all humility and mildness, with patience, supporting one another in charity”. Not only is the body as a whole kept one and therefore strong by these virtues, but so also is every cell in the body, such as a family or a religious community. Humility, mildness and patience, which are often despised by “the world” as signs of weakness, are in reality powerful things.

But charity, the last of the virtues mentioned by the apostle, is of course the greatest (it is sometimes called “the mother of the virtues”, since whoever has charity will by that very fact also bring forth the others). And so, when the Pharisees ask Jesus about the greatest commandment, He speaks of love. And, as is His way, He gives more even than what was asked for — even though their request was not made sincerely — by telling them also what the second greatest commandment is, namely, to love our neighbour out of that same charity by which we first love God. 

But what is the connection between our Lord’s answer to the Pharisees and the rest of the gospel, when He asks them about the Messiah, and about how the Messiah can be both son and Lord of David? He had many occasions on which He could have posed this question to them, so why does He do it now? He is adding, I think, a practical instruction to the theoretical one: showing them now how to practice both these commandments, surpassing as they do the powers of fallen human nature. To have charity, henceforth, it is necessary to believe in the incarnation of the Word, the descendant of David according to the flesh, and eternally David’s Lord: but the incarnation itself makes it easier for us to love both God and man. How does it do this?

It makes it easier for us to love God because it brings Him close to us. For as long as God remained unincarnate, the true religion was marked more by holy fear than by love, even though the love of God was never entirely absent from the earth. But once the Word had been made flesh and dwelt among us, the true religion was marked more by the love than by the fear of God, even though the gift of holy fear has always accompanied the state of grace. In Galilee, on Calvary, and in the Blessed Sacrament, God comes very near to us, to make the first commandment easy to fulfil.

But because Christ is also true man, He also makes the second commandment easier, by showing us how it is done. As man, and therefore our neighbour, He shows us how to love our neighbour as ourselves. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And all of us are called to do this, whether slowly or all at once. The Christian charity by which we love our neighbour does not replace the natural forms of love, as of a mother for a child, or a husband for a wife, or of one friend for another; but it purifies and elevates all these. It is not sentimental: that is, it does not exist for the pleasure of feeling an emotion. Rather, it loves the neighbour, says St Augustine, either because he is already a member of Christ, or so that he may become one. All human beings seek love, but outside the mystical body of Christ, no love continues for ever, even if it continues as far as death. But to have charity is to be in the mystical body of Christ: it is to have the only love that never fails, just as Christ,being risen from the dead, can never die again”.