Psalm 22:26-28, 30-32
1 John 3:18-24
St. John in the reading today writes about our hearts condemning us. Is this an experience that you have? When you reflect back on something you did does your heart condemn you? It can be something slight or something very serious but when we remember it is for a moment we cringe. We go through life accruing memories, some good and some bad, but worst of all are the memories of something we did or something we fail to do that when we recall our hearts condemn us.
To be condemned by your own heart is on one level a good sign. It proves that we know the difference between right and wrong. There are some people, it seems, who have done great evil and yet their hearts do not condemn them. That is a most pitiable state. To look back with regret and sadness on your own past proves that you are not defined by what you did. It proves that there is something within you that knows better.
Brothers and sisters, if your heart condemns you, remember what St. John tells us: “God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.” If your heart condemns you, God can still forgive you. He knows everything, so there is no need to come to God with excuses or explanations. He already knows. He knows what you are feeling. He knows what you were afraid of. When we come before God, it is only sensible for us to drop every pretense and disguise. He sees through them all anyway. When we are judged by God we will know that we have been judged absolutely justly. Everything will have been taken into account, and when we hear the judgment we will have to admit that it is exactly right.
Since God will not condemn us but rather forgive us, we can move beyond the ways in which our heart condemns us. It is not only these negative memories that have power. It is not only our sins that are true. There is something else that is true and creates positive memories that we can rely on, memories of love.
“Children,” St. John writes to us, “let us love not in word or speech by in deed and truth.” We all acknowledge that love is good. We all acknowledge that we should love one another. But that is not enough if we do not actually love. And how can we love, if we do not know what love is? Love is not a feeling. There are feelings associated with love, but love is not a feeling. God commands us to love, and he cannot command us to feel he can only command us to act. So love is an action. Blessed John Paul II taught in his book Love and Responsibility that love consists of three actions. We are commanded to love others so we should do these three actions.
The first action is seeing the good in the other person. We cannot love another person without seeing the good in them. Love begins with this act of seeing. Sometimes this is easy like love at first sight where all you can do is see the good in the other person. Sometimes this is extremely difficult, such as when loving an enemy or someone who has hurt you. Nevertheless, since God made every person it is always possible to see the good in them. We have to look at them the way God looks at them.
The second action of love is the most obvious: we have to do good for them. The action of loving a person requires willing the good for them. We come to someone we love as a servant, the way Jesus came to us. “What can I do for you?” That question is the essence of love. It implies that we are placing ourselves completely at the service of the other person.
The third action of love is to allow the other person to love us. Love demands an openness to being loved. This requires making ourselves vulnerable enough to be loved. We do not go to the person whom we are loving as an alien or a superior being who only comes to offer love. We come as a fellow human being equally in need of love. God himself allows us to love him.
These three actions provide a specific definition of love. This is true whether we are speaking about loving a spouse or loving a stranger. Let us consider this definition with the spouse. You look at your spouse and see the good in them. You see their beauty. You know them and all of their skills and strengths. And you see someone whom God has made. So you do good for them. You care for them in sickness and health, in good times and bad. You give your self, your work, your body, to them. This gift of self between husband and wife is so complete that it is an image of how Jesus Christ gave himself to the Church. And this relationship would be absurd and unreal without the third action: you allow your spouse to love you in return. You are completely vulnerable to them, allowing them to see you, to know you, to serve you.
Let us consider this definition with the poor stranger who asks you for help. You look at them and see them and see the good in them. You see someone whom God has made. So you become their servant. You do good for them. Not necessarily everything they want because they are not perfect, but neither do you do for them something that comes entirely from you and your plans, because you are not perfect. You try to discern together with them but God's will for them is and then you do that. And through all this, you allow them to love you, because you do not come into their life as someone above them doing a good deed but as another human being just like them in everything except circumstances.
When love is broken down into these three actions, it becomes clearer what we should do in order to love everyone, but there is still the question of how. Loving not merely in words but in deed and truth requires an enormous energy. We can never do this on our own. The energy to love comes to us from the one who loves us unconditionally.
This is what it means, the parable of the vine and the branches. Just as the life of the branch comes from the vine, so too the love that we do comes from remaining connected to God. Without God, we are like broken branches drying out in the sun, brittle and useless. But if we begin by loving God, seeing how good he is, giving him our complete self, body and soul, to serve him in worship, and then allow him to love us in return, we cannot be detached from the vine and the infinite life-giving energy that comes from God will fill us and overflow in our love of others.