Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question about which commandment of the Law is the greatest and he repeats something that we hear each and every Sunday at the beginning of the mass:
Remember that Jesus says that he came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Which means that in some way the Law is still in effect for us, even as Christians. The question is how it is still in effect. And the answer is complicated. The moment that we hear the word “law,” our instinct is to think of it in terms of rules that set over and above us that we then have to obey. We tend to think of the law as something that exists outside of us, in other words. Moreover, laws also assume and expect that those whom it binds are able to obey them. The speed limit takes for granted that I am capable of keeping my foot on the gas pedal in such a way as to stay within it, just as the stop sign assumes that I am capable of hitting the brakes. Laws don’t really care how I go about obeying them or how I feel about obeying them -- all that matters is that I do. It’s entirely up to me to regulate myself and pay attention and put forth the effort to follow the rules.
So when Jesus describes these two great commandments on which hang all the Law and the prophets, it’s easy for us to hear them as two more rules that we have to add to the list. Two more laws that stand over us and demand our obedience. The problem is that if we hear it this way, we’ve heard something other than the Gospel. The Good News is that salvation or being in a right relationship with God does not depend on our success at obeying the Law. We are not saved by our own works or by our own righteousness, but by the works and righteousness of Christ. But if the fact that we’re saved not by what we do but by what Christ has done means that we get a pass from the commandment to love God and neighbor -- that we’re exempted from the law and the prophets -- then that would mean that Christ really did abolish the law, at least as far as Christians are concerned. If the Gospel is that Jesus loved God and neighbor so that we don’t have to, then not only does the Gospel become a license to be a rather obnoxious person, but it also is unable to make sense of why Jesus fulfilled the law and why he seemed to think that it was still important that we obey these two great commandments.
Even before Christ came into the world, the faithful believers in the Old Testament were aware of this little dilemma. They had received the Law and the Prophets from God -- indeed, some of them were the prophets! They understood that both as creatures and as the chosen people who had been brought into a covenant with God, there were certain conditions that they were obligated to meet. Faithfulness to God meant obedience to the Law -- specifically the Ten Commandments. But even the most exacting adherence to the Law couldn’t bridge the gap between the Law’s demands over there and those who were supposed to obey it over here. The Law was still something that stood over and against those whom it bound. And it was this impassable barrier between the Law and the people that inspired the hope of the prophets: the hope that one day, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, God would put his law within them and write it on their hearts (Jer. 31:33).
This brings us to our Collect for this morning. Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity. Note first that these three virtues are gifts -- they have to be given to us by God. They are not actions or capabilities that we can acquire on our own. And with these gifts, the Law that Jesus sums up for us today takes on a radically new meaning. Again, this New Law doesn’t replace the Old or abolish it, but with these gifts, it “becomes the rule of love infused by the Spirit” . This New Law is infused into our souls -- it is “written on our hearts.” The demands are still the same -- Jesus still expects his followers to love the Lord your God with all their heart, all their soul, and all their mind, as well as love their neighbor as themselves. But significantly, these demands are no longer inaccessible to us. They no longer are set on the other side of the barrier between us and them, because Jesus has broken it down. Jesus bridges the gap. When we receive the gift of faith, the our life of obedience to the Law is transformed: everything we do as Christians is now centered “on a particular person: Jesus, the Christ.” And our Lord is not just a model for us to try really hard to imitate -- again, that would still put Jesus over and outside of us and put the burden of our imitation on our own efforts. Instead, the gifts of faith, hope, and love establish “a close spiritual communion” between Christ and us .
So this is how our Lord’s summary of the Law is connected to our prayer for the increase of faith, hope, and love in today’s Collect. The New Law is still in effect for us, but because of Jesus, we now relate to it in a fundamentally different way as Christians. To receive these gifts from God is to be brought into a different kind of relationship to God. It’s what Jesus was getting at when he told his disciples that “I do not call you servants any longer…, but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). When faith, hope, and love are infused within us -- when the New Law is written on our hearts -- we are no longer the servants of God alone. Servants relate to their masters from a place of inferiority and separation: the master and his demands stand over and above them. But friends relate to each other as equals: what binds them together is not their obedience to each other’s rules, but is rather the love that they share together. So when Christ calls his disciples servants no longer, but friends, he is revealing that that the relationship of this New Covenant is grounded in the love of God. The love of God that is freely given to us by God.
When we pray that God would increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love, we are asking that God would bringing us ever closer to him. We are asking that God would deepen the love that we share with him. Our Collect this morning is thus a reminder that nothing we receive is our own possession, to be claimed as our own and used as such. To love God with all our heart, soul, and mind requires a love that is nothing less than the love of God. Because only a divine love could properly love God for who he is. We are reminded, therefore, that Christ fulfilled the Law because Christ was the one who was in a perfect and eternal friendship with God. By uniting us to himself through the gifts of faith, hope, and love, we share in that eternal friendship that belongs to him alone as the only-begotten Son of God. As Servais Pinckaers, the Dominican monk whose work I'm drawing from today, puts it, this reminder points us back to “an active receptivity, a dynamic welcoming, a cheerful and willing obedience to the Spirit” . These are the characteristics that result from the love of God and, not surprisingly, are also the very characteristics we need to love our neighbors as ourselves. Friendship with God is the foundation of friendship with neighbor. And the point of the Law from the very beginning was to secure this friendship. So thanks be to God that Christ has secured it once and for all by fulfilling these two great commandments. May God increase us the gifts that he has given us so that we can participate in his fulfillment. Amen.
[1-3] Servais Pinckaers. Morality: The Catholic View.