Texts: Luke 8:31-43, 1 Cor 13.
Today we observe Quinquagesima Sunday, the Sunday before Lent. Quinquagesima comes from the Latin word for fifty, as we are approximately fifty days before Easter. As with the other Sundays in pre-Lent, we are spiritually preparing for our Lenten season of repentance, generally characterized by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Our Gospel reading begins with Jesus’ third prediction of his death, a reminder that we are to keep the Cross and Resurrection in our sights as we go through Lent. It’s not about fasting, almsgiving, and prayer for their own sakes. No, we do these things and we repent because we’re remembering what Jesus has done for us. As we hear each week in the Comfortable Words, “So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And in our Gospel, Jesus stops as he is heading toward the Cross to heal the blind beggar. The beggar cried out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” and Jesus did so, healing his sight. Even on the way to the Cross, Jesus shows love for his blind neighbor by healing him.
Our Epistle reading is the well-known passage from 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter.” Many of us know this passage because of how often it is read at weddings, which is a bit unfortunate, because the love spoken of in this passage is so much more than romantic love. In fact, you probably noticed that our Prayer Book, following the King James Version, uses the word “charity” instead of “love.” The Greek word used in this passage is agape. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words notes that agape and its corresponding verb agapao are used in the New Testament to describe the love God has for his Son, the love God has for his people, and to “express the essential nature of God.” And having been loved by God, Christians then are to love others. Vine’s notes:
Christian love, whether exercised toward the brethren, or toward men generally, is not an impulse from the feelings, it does not always run with the natural inclinations, nor does it spend itself only upon those for whom some affinity is discovered.
This is why the King James, and our Prayer Book, use the word “charity” in this passage; it hearkens back to an older use of the word that encompasses what we call charity today as well as much of what we call love today.
In the First Book of Homilies, the collections of official sermons in the 16th Century English Church, the fifth homily is “A Sermon of Christian Love and Charity.” It begins like this:
Of all things that be good to be taught unto Christian people, there is nothing more necessary to be spoken of and daily called upon than charity.
It goes on to describe how all acts and works of righteousness are summed up on Christian love, and how the lack of true agape love is the “ruin (or fall) of the world, the banishment of virtue, and the cause of all vice.” The problem is that people follow their own hearts when it comes to love rather than following the truth set before us by God in Scripture. This is, of course, what our culture generally means by love: following your heart wherever it leads. Scripture, on the other hand tells us that the heart is deceitful above all things. Instead, we should look to our Lord Jesus to teach us about love.
First, we see that agape love, the KJV’s “charity” is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We engage our hearts in knowing God, setting our affections on God, learning to believe his word, trust in him, and love him above all else. We love him with our soul, that is, our lives, devoting ourselves to him and his service. Indeed, Scripture tells us that we are to forsake everything else rather than forsake God. As Jesus said, “he that loveth his father or mother, son or daughter, more than me, is not worthy to have me.” We love God with our minds by studying him, meditating on his word, engaging in prayer and contemplation of God. We love him with all our strength by setting our physical members into his service. Our eyes, hands, feet, lips, all belong to him, and should be engaged in obedience to his commandments, those very commandments that we recited at the beginning of mass.
This is, of course, the first and great commandment, the first part of what we call the “summary of the Law,” given to us by Jesus himself. But, as you will recall, this is not the entirety of the Law, or even the entirety of its Summary. No, we are also to love our neighbor as ourselves. Christian charity, agape love, includes both good and bad neighbors, both friends and enemies. Even when our neighbor gives us cause to hate him, we are called to respond with love. This means responding with patience, kindness, and all the other things mentioned in today’s epistle. This is what our Lord Jesus taught us; this is what he modeled.
Remember Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
This was the problem of the Pharisees: they had redefined love to include only those whom they deemed lovable. Like the Pharisees, the default human religion for all of us is legalism. And legalism always redefines God’s Law so that we can keep it and then look down on those who do not meet our twisted misrepresentation of it. But Jesus shines the truth of God’s Word on our hearts, exposing the darkest parts, showing that our love is often conditional, that we would rather hold grudges than reconcile, that deep down we are no better than the tax collectors and Gentiles.
But Jesus does more than expose our lack of love: he models true love. He teaches us what it looks like and shows us what it looks like. Jesus loved his adversaries enough to exhort them, to show them the truth, and (when they refused to listen) to pray for them. Jesus loved his friends so much that he died for them, even when they all abandoned him. And everything Jesus did was out of love for his Father, never seeking his own glory, but always seeking that of the Father.
Jesus said that true agape love makes us children of our Heavenly Father. Christian love is indeed a spiritual thing, something that is beyond our fallen flesh when we are dead in our sins. We need the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit giving us new life in Christ Jesus if we are to have agape love. In his first Epistle, St. John tells us that God is love. One of the chief implications of the doctrine of the Trinity is that God has always had fellowship and love between the Persons of the Trinity. St. Augustine said that the Father is the lover, the Son is the beloved, and the Holy Ghost is their bond of love. When we are united to Christ, we are brought into the love of God. Indeed, God’s love for us flows out of the love between the Persons of the Trinity. And how wonderful a thing it is to become children of God! What more could we wish than to be adopted into his family, made co-heirs with our Lord Jesus?
As we head into Lent, may we remember the love of Christ that is to be our motivation. Remember that we love him because he first loved us. Remember that we are not going into the metaphorical desert to earn his love; we already have it. Rather we repent, we fast, we pray, we give practice charity, so that we can let go of those things that blunt our love for him and for our neighbor. We discipline our flesh so that we will not listen to its self-justifying lies that tell us that we’re doing just fine on our own. We quiet the noise of life so that we can hear from the Lover of our Souls, the God who is love.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.