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Love and Life
Dr. L. R. TarsitanoóSaint Andrew's Church, Savannah
The Second Sunday after EpiphanyóJanuary 16, 2000
"Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; 
cleave to that which is good" (Romans 12:9). 

These two propositions from St. Paulís Epistle to the Romans put forward the absolute minimum requirements for "Christian love" and "Christian living." The odd thing about them, of course, at least in the terms of this world, is that Christian "minimums" always turn out to be "maximums." The "best" is the least that God will give us, and the best is the very least that he would have us offer him in return. 

The minimum requirements of this world are usually based on the notion of "scraping by." My "minimum tax," for example, is the smallest amount that I can pay to the government without being investigated or audited. My "minimum down payment" is the least that I have to possess in order to qualify to buy a new house. 

God, on the other hand, is only interested in the fullness of life. His Son Jesus Christ has declared it to be his Fatherís will that the life which we receive from him is to be lived, not minimally, but more and more "abundantly" (see John 10:10). 

To aim constantly at abundance, and at the best, and even at perfection may sound impossible, but only if we listen to the defeatist voices of this world. And this world is defeated. It was defeated when Adam and Eve handed their dominion over this world to Satan; and as Satanís ally (willing or not), this world was defeated again when Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter. God, however, is not defeated. He cannot be. He will not be. 

God lives forever in the perfection of life, and that perfection is what God is offering us, not as an impossible goal that will only break our hearts, but as the perfectly achievable goal, with the help of his grace, of those who are brokenhearted before him in repentance of their sins. The choice is between breaking our hearts in loving this world, which will never love us back, or breaking our hearts in loving God, who has always loved us, even when we were the most unlovable. The world will give us nothing but a grave, after it has broken us into ever-smaller pieces. God, instead, will put us back together again, better than we ever were, in the image and likeness of his own perfection, never to be broken again. 

Thus, we should look at St. Paulís propositions for loving and living very carefully. The first is this: "Let love be without dissimulation." True love does not begin with us, but with God. It is his gift, the grace to love him and one another without play-acting, pretense, or hypocrisy. This is the way that God loves us first, without any hidden agenda. Most of us, if we are honest, will have to admit that we "hedge our bets," at least a little. We hold back in loving, keeping a little for ourselves, and trying to figure out the motives of others, lest we get hurt. 

Godís love, by contrast, couldnít be more straightforward. Part of the problem that most people have in understanding God is that he simply tells us what he wants. The Ten Commandments, for example, arenít mysterious at all. Nor is the Summary of the Law that our Lord offers, quoting from the Old Testament. Nevertheless, while God speaks plainly, we often ask ourselves in our minds, "But what does he really want?" 

And if we were really fair, we would stop asking such questions, and simply obey Godís Commandments. We would look at Godís Son, hanging on the Cross, and we would abandon all doubt about what God wants from us. We would see the Eternal Son made man dying for us, and in our place, and we would know that God is asking nothing for himself. We would know that every commandment that God gives us is for our benefit, since believing in him or not, obeying him or not, we cannot make him more or less God. Believing and obeying him, however, can make us more human (as humanity was meant to be) and give us more life (as mankind was meant, from before the creation of the world, to live eternally in the love of God). 

Everything good in life, and an eternity of life, starts, then, with the love of Godóthe love that he gives us and the love that he empowers us to give by his grace. But what do we do with such power? The answer is found in St. Paulís second proposition: "Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good." If Godís gift of the divine love is the power of good living, this is the way in which that power is to be used and to be worked out in a good life. 

It is simply impossible to live a good life without detesting whatever is evil and morally ugly. Evil should appall us. It should make us sick to our stomachs. Evil is always a form of violence, primarily against God, and secondarily against man as the creature made in Godís image and likeness. It doesnít matter whether evil assaults the body, the mind, or the soul of man. Evil should fill us with outrage. 

But even outrage isnít enough, unless we take the next step with St. Paul and do our best to cling to that which is good. Evil is a perversion, but identifying perversion as perversion is useless, unless we embrace something better and hold it up to the world as the proper choice of decent men and women. We should, for example, be disgusted by the image of the perfectly innocent Son of God nailed to a tree. More than this, however, we should also embrace that innocent and glorious Christ, and cleave to the life that he offers us in his resurrected majesty. 

The power of Godís love gives us the ability to see the beautiful, as well as the ugly, and then to live in beauty rather than in ugliness. Our whole lives can be beautiful in Christ, just as our lives can be pointless and ugly without him. And so we work out the power of Godís grace by loving completely and by living completely in the ever-more-powerful imitation of Christ. Like anything else, the more we practice the love of Christ and the more that we practice the life of Christ, the better we will become at loving and living. The more that we conform ourselves to the basic requirements of Christian love and Christian living, the more we will understand how they lead to the perfect hope of our own resurrection at the last day, and to the end of all our strivings. We will cease striving, not because we are "good enough," and certainly not because we will be allowed to "give up," but because God will complete what is good in us and wipe away all evil and the weaknesses that bring tears to our eyes (see Rev. 21:4). 

In the meantime, the defeated world will tell us a million lies, trying to seduce us into sharing its defeat. It will offer us "loopholes" in Godís commandments or "exceptions" to St. Paulís basic requirements for Christian love and life. It will tell us that the good is evil, and that the ugly is beautiful. An especially grotesque example of the worldís approach came late last year, when the Brooklyn Museum of Art displayed what it called a "painting" of "The Holy Virgin Mary" covered in elephant dung and highlighted by clippings from pornographic magazines. 

Religious groups rightfully complained, and the Mayor of New York tried to cut off the museumís funding, until a federal judge blocked him on "First Amendment grounds" (quotes from an AP story, by Donna De La Cruz, © 1999). Then the general lack of outrage over such ugliness finally overpowered a retired teacher named Dennis Heiner. He went to the museum and tried to cover the image with white paint. He was, of course, arrested. 

It is easy to criticize Mr. Heinerís methods, but it is equally easy to wonder at a society so married to ugliness that public funds are used to deface the image of anyoneís mother, let alone the Mother of God. It is easy to wonder how many people who call themselves "Christians" will continue to support or to attend this museum, thinking that they are being "good sports" or "open-minded," when what they are really doing is encouraging evil by failing to abhor it. 

The museum published a statement that its trustees and staff "are shocked and extremely saddened by this incomprehensible act that has attempted to deface an important work of art by a world renowned artist." From this statement, we learn what those trustees and staff members love, what they abhor, and what they cling to. 

It is time for Christians, then, to begin making an equally clear statement about what we love and what we cling to. We will do this, not by breaking into museums, but by living lives that follow in ever-more-precise detail the principles that St. Paul has offered us this morning: "Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good."