Dr. Crouse in Convocation Robes, The University of King’s College Halifax
“The practice of Christian love”
Sermon for The First Sunday after Trinity
by The Revd. Dr. Robert D. Crouse
In this was manifested the love of God towards us, because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our si ns. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.
(1 John 4.9-1 1)
In the Christian calendar, in the cycle of the Christian Year, the essential message of the Holy Scriptures – God’s word to us – is set before us in an orderly and supremely logical way. As we follow the appointed lessons Sunday by Sunday, as we meditate upon them, as we open our minds and hearts to understand the pattern and meaning of them, we find ourselves led, step by step, to a deeper and clearer perception of Christian truth, and a firmer sense of our Christian privileges and duties. Although we’ve heard these Scripture lessons over and over again, year after year, always there is something new in them, something which speaks freshly and sharply to our condition, something which illuminates our understanding, something which moves our wills, something which challenges the way we live our lives.
Today, on the First Sunday after Trinity, the Epistle lesson offers us first a kind of summary of what the Christian Year has been about up to this point. The message is very simple and direct: “in this was manifested the love of God towards us, because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.” That really sums up all we have been celebrating throughout the first half of the Church Year, from Advent to Trinity Sunday: the showing forth of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We have celebrated the love that takes our human nature, transforms it, and elevates it to a new spiritual life, making us sons of God by adoption and grace. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
O Love, how deep, how broad, how high
It fills the soul with ecstasy
That God, the Son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortal’s sake.
(15th Century Latin hymn trans. by Benjamin Webb)
This, you see, has been the point of all our celebrations: that we should see, that we should catch a glimpse of the manifest love of God, and be refreshed and elevated, “reborn,” by that vision of what God, in Christ, has done.
“No one has seen God at any time.” For the natural man, God is the great unknown, the great beyond, the mysterious principle of all existence, which finds some sort of recognition in all the world’s religions. To know God in that way, as the infinite power ruling the cosmos, is a noble knowledge, certainly. But to know God as love is something much more, and far different. To know that the eternal principle moving and governing all things is the divine love is a transforming knowledge. To know that God is love is to see everything with new eyes. It is to see “a new heaven and new earth.” (Revelation 21.1) It is to be spiritually “reborn,” as Jesus said to Nicodemus in last Sunday’s Gospel lesson. (John3.7) lt is to be saved from fear and hopelessness.
That belief, that recognition of God’s infinite, all-encompassing love, is the very ground of our salvation. “Hereby we know love, because he laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3.16) The fact that we know love is the ground of our salvation. In love, he gave himself for us. And it is our destiny and vocation to be transformed by that love, to realize it and fulfil it in our lives. That is St. John’s second point in today’s Epistle less on: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” That is our introduction to the long season of Sundays after Trinity. The Scripture lessons for today and for the following Sundays are to be a kind of education in the practice of Christian love. The love of God in us is manifest in our love for one another, in our active good will. It is love which is not just feeling or superficial emotion, not just “in word and in tongue,” but rather it is love which is “in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3.18) Without that active good will, without the deeds of love, our love of God is clearly false: “if a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar.”
The story of Lazarus and the rich man, in today’s Gospel lesson, illustrates exactly that point. What does it mean that the rich man is in hell? It is not some arbitrary punishment visited upon him from outside; it is simply the description of the parched, tormented soul which has rejected the love of God. That is what hell is: nothing more, and nothing less than the practical denial of God’s love.
To love one another, in the sense in which the Scripture means it, is to will the eternal good of one another, to will the eternal good of one another, and to act practically in terms of that will. But how can we do it? Our own needs, affections and preferences, our own fears, keep getting in the way of it. So needful of good ourselves, we can hardly see our neighbours good and will it. But “perfect love,” says St. John, “casteth out fear.” ‘The basis, the starting point, is God’s love for us. “We have known and believed the love that God hath to us.” “Herein is our love made perfect.” It is our knowledge of God’s love for us that enables us to love, that is, to will the good of one another. It is the knowledge that we are loved, however unworthy we may be, at the very heart of our being, which frees us from our own needs and fears. So we must grow in the knowledge of that love.
Finally, St. John speaks of love in terms of commandment; and that, perhaps, seems a strange way of putting it. How can love be commanded?
We’re used to thinking of love as something spontaneous, something that somehow just happens: one “falls in love.” What sense does it make to command it?
But St. John’s approach is more realistic than conventional modern notions about the spontaneity of love. Our loves do not “just happen.” They belong to a character formed by a long process of training and habit-making. And that process always begins with commandment and obedience. Just as our natural life begins with obedience to parents and teachers, so our life in Christ begins with our obedience to God’s word. There is, certainly, a spiritual maturity, when our loves are spontaneously right. That is the condition we call “sanctity” or holiness. But our beginning and our growth are in obedience to commandment. “And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.”