For God So Loved the World
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 13, 2009
John 3:13-17 (Sunday before the Cross)
"For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."
It is so simple a message that it is difficult to grasp. In our weakness of mind it is hard to understand how God can love everyone; his enemies, unrepentant sinners and the righteous all the same. We cannot bear to admit that God loves even those whom we cannot dream of loving. Even our enemies! The God we imagine into existence fits our notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and bad so much that he turns into a projection of our own minds, in other words, an idol.
As one Orthodox writer puts it (and I paraphrase), it is better to say that God does not exist than to project onto him our needs, desires and fantasies.
"God so loved the world ..." The whole world and everything that is in it. Every rock, every tree, every blade of grass, every insect, every animal, every spiritual being, every human being and everything that is in the universe. "He considers every sparrow that falls from its nest." He knows the number of the hairs on your head. In order to understand the enormity of this statement we have to let go of our propensity to separate the world into categories, this is good, this is bad, these people are good and these are bad. Evidently God does not do that since on the Cross He opened His arms and embraced everything and everyone without discrimination. The Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers say with one voice, "To the pure all things are pure." God, above all, is certainly pure. We can also say, all things are worthy of love because they exist.
Strange as it may seem, we are not even supposed to hate the devil and the demons. St. Isaac of Syria might scandalize us with his unequivocal statement that the heart of a true Christian weeps even for the demons, but this is only evidence that God's ways are definitely not ours. He does not see as we see nor judge as we judge. If we are called to love our spiritual adversaries, then how can we for a minute think we are not called to love our human ones as well. Whenever any seed of hatred exists in the heart, it will eventually poison the whole person. That is why we must root out of ourselves anything that isn't love.
The fact is that when we do not love we are opposing God. "Love your enemies," Jesus commands, "do good to those who hate you and to those who despitefully use you." "Give expecting nothing in return." "He who does not love his brother whom he can see cannot love God whom he cannot see." Forgive "seventy times seven" times in a single day and the same person if necessary. I could go on and on with words and stories from the New Testament that give this simple message, so revolutionary that we, in our selfishness, cannot see how we resist it; so simple that we cannot see it. "Love one another as I have loved you."
The Lord tells us that there are two roads we can take: the one that leads to life and the one that leads to destruction. It is our choice which one we will travel. Each road is marked by the fruit it produces. St. John Cassian puts this so well as he begins by quoting St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, '"For it is not eating and drinking that make the kingdom of God, but the saving justice, the peace and the joy brought by the Holy Spirit." If, then, the kingdom of God is within us, and it consists of righteousness, peace and joy, then whoever lives in these virtues is without doubt in the kingdom of God; and whoever lives, on the other hand, in injustice, discord and death-dealing gloom, is subject to the kingdom of the devil, of hell, of death; for it is by these signs the two kingdoms are discerned.' To those who find some delight in condemning sinners to hell, St. Silouan declares, "Love could not bear that." Such animosity is part of the rotten fruit of the road that leads to destruction not the pious proclamation of the righteous.
The fruit of taking the broad road that leads to destruction encloses us in the dark confines of a constricted heart, the rigid world of selfishness, calumny and judgment. On this road there is only increasing misery, the suffocation of the human spirit, the replacing of the heart of flesh with a heart of stone. The pleasure one gets from getting one's own way is short-lived for this is an insatiable addiction. Love is the only cure, but that is the one thing the ego-addict cannot bear. They desire to be honored above all men, to have control and power over others, but not to be loved for that would require that they love in return. There is only one destination on this horrible road. A self-inflicted, infinitely lonely hell.
The virtues that characterize the kingdom of God are spacious, open and filled with divine light. Saints are recognized by these qualities. To be in their presence produces the same in us. Although we might not be able to see the light with our physical eyes, the love, joy and peace are felt. They illumine, waken and warm the heart. To be in the presence of one who walks the narrow road that leads to life brings unmistakable joy, light, warmth, peace and freedom. Their efforts for their own salvation reverberate throughout all creation and bring illumination to all. All of us are interconnected. One of the fathers told his disciples, "I have struggled for twenty years for one thing, to see every human being as one." It is so also with creation. As the physicists tell us, "You cannot pull a straw without moving a star."
Both kingdoms take root and grow in the human heart in this life, in this world. What we do in this moment will determine the next. We must be careful to walk the narrow path from one moment to the next, guarding our thoughts from "injustice, discord and death-dealing gloom" and choosing rather the way of peace, joy, light and freedom. The Fathers say, "If you cannot see God in this life, then you will not be able to see him in the next."
The one unmistakable fruit of a life lived for God is the ability to love without limit. This is the way of the Cross and the one thing above all we must nurture in ourselves.