Thursday, 10 March 2011

This Lent, you must be perfect

You must be perfect. 

You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbour. To love your neighbour only is not enough. The old law is too easy: even the pagans can manage that. I say to you, love your enemies.  You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If only. But even the first law, love your neighbour, the law that Jesus says is easy, seems too hard for us. So we hear reports of elderly patients abandoned to their ailments in NHS care. We hear of 'honour killings,' where not just neighbours but even family betray their sisters, daughters, wives. And even we live only streets away from people living homeless and despised, and seem as a society unable to care for them. To be honest, most of my neighbours - even most members of this college - I hardly know from Adam: so how can I love them? Yet this, Jesus asserts, even the pagans do.

If I can hardly love my neighbour, what chance have I of loving my enemy too? Pray for those who persecute you, Jesus says: if they strike you once, turn the other cheek. If they punch you down, stand up and give them another go. If they take your coat, give them your shirt also. And not just this, but love them! Is this the precept I must follow to be perfect: perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect?

"Behold," says the psalmist, "I long for your precepts. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it."

If only, if only.

If only I did long to turn the other cheek, to love my enemy and my neighbour too. But there's not much in me that wants to be downtrodden and abused. So many of the precepts of the Lord seem too hard for me: I do not long for them - at best, I only long to long for them.

But as I realise my utter inability to do as Jesus commands, as I see my lack of love and come to know that I cannot contrive it, all that is left is to trust in the Lord. So with the psalmist, I can only pray: teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes. For I have not come to love them yet. And as I pray the Lord to teach me, I begin to see that He already has, by His own example. Did His neighbours not become His enemies? Did they not strike Him down?

Christ is risen and lives again. We are baptised into His death, for Him to come and dwell in us. It is not our love, but His that lives again in us, the Spirit of Love that animates the Body of His Church. The Lord does not command impossible things, but the love that he commands, through His action on the Cross He provides.

So do not worry if you personally do not feel love for neighbour or for enemy. The love that Christ has shown us is not the love of sentiment, of feelings or emotions. At times, even He gave it grudgingly, and seemed to resent His Father's call.

Rather, the love He shows is love of action. Action which we, individually, often fail to take. Action which the Church itself has often woefully neglected. But action which, by the new life of the Spirit given us through Christ, is still the Church's true foundation, and still, I think, bears fruit overall.

Notwithstanding his more controversial readings, these are the times I give thanks for St Paul. The Kingdom of love that Jesus heralds and the Body of Christ foreshadows in embryonic form will not be built, he says, by our own efforts, our attempts to keep God's precepts, our faltering love of neighbour, enemy or laws. No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. We build only on that foundation. The loving action we effect is the gift of love He gives. Be perfect, Christ commands: but that perfection is out of our hands. No house is built except that God builds it, on the foundation of love which is not of human hands but the work of God alone.

Incline our hearts to your testimonies, O Lord, and teach us to love your Law. Amen.

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