The other day I heard a story of three people who were together. One of these three was a member of the Roman Catholic Church, another was a member of a Protestant Church, and the third was a member of the Orthodox Church. As they were talking they gradually began to talk about faith and religion. They were discussing the various differences between them. Finally one said, "If we really want to understand each other, why don't we each answer this question: What is the chief virtue, the highest virtue, the most important virtue, that we can have in order to attain salvation and enter into heaven?"
They all agreed that that was a good question to ask, and they thought for a minute, and then each one came up with their answer. They began with the Roman Catholic, who said, "According to our church the chief virtue is obedience; you must be obedient." They all thought and they agreed that obedience was important. They turned to the Protestant and said, "What is the chief virtue?" The Protestant said, "That's easy for us; the chief virtue is faith. We must believe." They all said, "Yes, that too is a virtue." Then they turned to the Orthodox Christian and they said to him, "What is the chief virtue?" He said, "Well for us it is easy, because there is no higher virtue than love."
Faith is important, but James tells us that even the demons believe, and they tremble. Obedience is important. But there is nothing, beloved, which is more important than love. This is the highest virtue. It is very interesting to me that in St. John of the Ladder's thirty steps, as we progress on the spiritual journey, the highest rung is love: love for God, and love for each other.
This morning we are celebrating the feast of St. John the Apostle. It is said that when he was very old-he died at the age of 95-he was very feeble and could not speak very much. They would go to get him before liturgy and they would bring him on a stretcher to liturgy. They would seat him on the episcopal chair behind the altar, and he would sit there as the priest celebrated the holy liturgy. Even though he was feeble, he would always insist on preaching the homily. At the very end of his life, when he could say no more than a few words, it is said that he would preach the same homily week in and week out: "My little children, love one another."
In our epistle reading this morning, St. John says that if we love one another, God's love abides in us and His love is made perfect in us. We know that the goal of salvation is communion with God. In our tradition we speak of theosis, deification. The goal of Christ's incarnation, the goal of the sacraments, the goal of our prayers, our vigils and our fasting and everything that we do is to become so united to God that He lives in us, and we are completely given over to Him. John here says, "If we love one another, we experience theosis. If we love one another, God abides in us."
Now it's interesting, isn't it, that the very same church to whom John would speak the simple words, week in and week out, "Love one another," is the very same church to whom Our Lord speaks in His letters [in the Book of Revelation] to the angels of the church in Ephesus: "I have one thing against you, that you have left your first love." He says, "Yes, I know that you are doing everything right. I know and I've heard that you cannot stand the deeds of the Nicolaitans. I know that you are rigidly correct in the living out of your orthodoxy, but one thing is missing, and without this one thing everything else is meaningless. You have left your first love. Because you have left your first love, then I will spew you out of my mouth."
Christians without love make God sick! Love one another, for if you love one another, God abides in you. You say to me, and I say to you, "How is it that we can love one another?" For if we try to love each other we so often find that we are unable to love each other. We find that we fail, that there is so much anger and bitterness in our hearts that the anger sometimes overwhelms us and we reject others and we cannot love. St. John, a few verses later, says, "We love because He first loved us."
We cannot generate in our hearts true love. All we can do, beloved, is keep away from our hearts all those things that are opposite to love: that's our job. Our job is to fight against those thoughts that come. It's a continual fight, and we know it-the fight against those negative thoughts, to not allow into our minds even one judgmental thought of another, because when we entertain a judgmental thought then love leaves. What we must do is make our hearts ready for the love of God. We must not allow our mouths to speak any negative words, because when we speak negative words then love departs. We must not allow our hands, or any part of our body, to do anything that comes from anger or from rage or from jealousy, because when we do love leaves our hearts.
This is what God has called us to do: to clean our hearts of all the anger and the bitterness that is there. Of course we know that that is not done overnight, if you struggle as I do. That is a continuous battle, and Satin is very good-he's the expert at reminding us of why we ought to be angry at other people. He's very good at pointing out to us all of the negative things about other people and getting us so focused on their negatives that we are filled with anger and there is no room for love.
He does this all the time and we are not even aware of it. How many of you have been driving your cars and seen someone walking along the side of the road? Perhaps they're not dressed appropriately, perhaps they look at little bit off. How many of you have allowed in your mind a thought that is negative about that person-you know, the thought, "Why don't those people take baths? Why don't they dress a different way? Why don't they get a job?" How many of you have allowed yourselves to say that to the person in the car with you? It can be very simple; it can even be the color of our next door neighbor's house. If we can allow ourselves to entertain negative thoughts, to speak negative words, if we judge, then there is no room for love. We must reject those thoughts. We must not allow ourselves to entertain those negative thoughts about our children, those negative thoughts about our spouses, those negative thoughts about our bosses, those negative thoughts about our fellow employees.
Beloved, we have been called to love. And if we want God to dwell in our hearts, then there is no room for division, there is no room for judgment, there is no room for bitterness and anger. When God comes into your heart, the entire world comes with Him, because God's love has encircled and taken into Himself the entire world. You cannot say, "God, come into my heart, but don't bring that person with you" because when God comes, everyone comes with Him. To the extent that we reject even one person, to that extent we have asked God to leave. John puts it very straightforwardly in his epistle, as we heard last night. If we say that we love God, and yet hate our brethren, we are liars, and the love of God is not in us.
I was talking to someone the other day and sharing that amazing quote of St. Macarios the Great. You know, we have a tendency to think that holy people sit and judge the world, so there were some monks who wanted to get St. Macarios the Great to think that they were really good monks. They ran to him with stories of other monks who were doing these bad things, thinking that somehow having mutual enemies would make them better friends. They went to St. Macarios and told him about these monks who were living scandalously. He looked at them and said, "I don't understand what you're talking about."
They looked at him and said, "Father, we just told you. Surely you must understand." He said, "No, I really don't know what you're talking about. My children, you have to understand, I've never seen a sinful man." Think about it. How does a holy man, a man who is so pure that God dwells within him and he within God, honestly say, "I've never seen a sinful man"? There's that one line in the epistles: "Love covers a multitude of sin." Love makes excuses, love covers over and pretends not to see the offense of the other. Love forgives.
There's another story of Elder Paisios, who died in 1994, one of the holiest men of the 20th century. He was living on Mt. Athos, and people would bring him stories of what was happening in the world. One of the stereotypical exchanges that goes on between a visitor and an Athonite monk is that the monk will ask, "How goes it in the world?" So Elder Paisios would ask his visitors, "How goes it in the world?" because with no radio, no television, no newspapers, he doesn't know. People would come and say, "It's horrific, Father. Men and women are divorcing each other left and right, there's anger, there's hatred. It's awful, Father."
Elder Paisios would begin to weep and he would begin to say, "It's my fault! It's my fault!" Of course, these people from the world did not know what to do with this elder, this holy man weeping puddles at his feet and saying, it's my fault. They would ask, "Father, what do you mean it's your fault? You're here on Athos? How can it be your fault what's happening in the world?" He would excuse their sin by saying, "If I was a better intercessor, if I prayed more purely, if I could pray with more strength, then none of this would be happening. It's all my fault! Those poor people who are left as sheep without a shepherd, those poor people who are left without someone to intercede for them. It's my fault, it's my sin. God have mercy on them, and charge their sin to my account."
Do you see love? You should, because that is the voice of love. Our Lord Jesus, as He looks down from the cross on those who had hammered the nails into His hand and into His feet, as He saw all of those who had brought false accusations against Him, saw the Romans with whips who had mocked Him and spit upon Him and placed the crown of thorns on His head, as He was in agony, struggling to breathe and the reality of His own death crashing upon Him, said, "Father, forgive them all, for they know not what they have done."
Our Lord on the cross made excuses for those who had crucified Him. How can we not make excuses for our children, for our spouses, for our friends? How dare we condemn them? How can we not love those for whom Christ died and gave His life?