Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8).
Advent, the church’s beautiful season of repentance and preparation, is upon us. As always, it is paramount that we consider for whom or what we are preparing. Today’s epistle and gospel readings help us in this endeavor, but they also reveal that it isn’t focused evil or malice which seduces humanity into the faithless religion of a self-centered, unloving heart. How easy it is to cheer Jesus on as He rides into town—held up and affirmed by the warm press of the crowd. How hard it is to stand by that same Christ as He carries His cross to Calvary—abandoned by the followers who can’t stop living in the darkness of their suicidal sin and fear. In the same way, it is easy to celebrate Christmas; it is hard to dwell with Christ in this cross shaped time of our repentance and preparation. Advent, like so much of the best parts of our inherited tradition, takes seriously the reality of our fallenness; it looks at the actual human record and sees a people who welcomed their Creator with cheers of “Hosanna,” only to betray Him with wood beams and iron nails when He refused to be the God our fallen hearts tell us we deserve. The cheers Jesus received when He entered Jerusalem, a city God carved out of the unholy desert and gave to an ungrateful people, those cheers should be familiar to us because they are the easy praise of those who assume God owes them victory; the cheers of a human race who think God owes them happiness and fulfillment and all the shiny trinkets too big for our coffins. Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem and offered humanity’s representative people a kingdom not of this world and a purified religion by which Man might live and love and die in union with the Messiah who suffered the barbs of our fake praise and the pains of our homicidal madness. Advent tells us this king who rose from the grave will soon enough be descending upon our tinsel covered graveyard of a world to establish forever the perfect justice and love we do not deserve or understand but which is our inevitable human destiny. We desperately need this time. We need Advent to teach us how to live; we need Advent to teach us how to love.
For without a doubt, living in Christ’s new world of perfect love and justice is the most difficult part of the Christian life, but it is this calling to which St. Paul returns again and again in the final chapters of his epistle to the Romans. The apostle frames our very understanding of this alien, divine love with an analogy to debt. This imagery should be familiar to us as it is the same our Lord uses, for example, in the parable of the unforgiving servant, or as we read in St. John’s Gospel, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (St. John 13:34-35). How does one love anyone as much as Christ has loved us? Surely, we see here evidence of a debt both truly unpayable and yet also in need of daily repayment. Here and in Romans, the command for Christians to love their neighbors is shown to be a life-long debt we owe to the God who has shown us the love of the cross, as well as a life-long debt we owe to the divine image bearing human beings that same loving Creator puts in our lives. If we rightly consider that the purpose of our continued existence is to prepare for the return of our king and the new life His return will establish then we must also see that our sovereign Lord will call on us to show our trust and gratitude through sacrificial love toward others. If we are living in the time of preparation, as Advent reminds us, we should be expecting daily, God-sent challenges to bind our broken and confused wills to the perfect will of God. These human challenges, these human shaped calls to holiness and love, will come to us wearing the same broken humanity we wore when Christ looked down from the cross and showed us what real love looks like. The Christ follower is called to love in the same way. This is the love St. Paul is talking about; this is the love that is saving the world and revealing to us all how to actually be humans in the confusion which surrounds us.
There is no exaggeration here: the unique and mysterious love of God is saving the world and daily showing us how to truly be human beings. We may remember that a key part of Israel’s mission to the darkened world was to be God’s light revealing a path back to the broken fellowship of the Garden of Eden, and to fulfill that purpose, God gave His people His law. But, of course, the dead letter of the law is not able to revive or recreate the human hearts necessary to follow it. This terrible reality leads St. Paul to bewail the fallen state of man, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9). But, we must remember, this failure of humanity to live to its purpose does not surprise God; it isn’t as if Israel was somehow a plan “A” whose all too human failure necessitated a plan “B” from God; rather, through Jesus Christ, God the Son comes to our broken creation as an Israelite man to personally fulfill the law and be the light which draws men and women from all the nations of the world to faith, and through faith, life eternal.
It should be clear then that St. Paul is not saying our love for God is the way to somehow earn righteousness, to put God somehow in our debt; rather, we who have been justified by faith in Christ, apart from works of the law, are now empowered to live as the Christ following people who accomplish what the law by itself could never do. Through the unmerited gift of God’s grace, we are now finally in a position to follow the law—for now imperfectly—but always striving toward the perfect, loving life which will be ours in the new heaven and new earth. We are the recipients of God’s righteousness through faith in the blood of Christ, through our trust that our justifiable death penalty has been pardoned and forgiven by the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. This infinite righteousness is given as a gift to God’s people, and it is that righteousness which saves and renews and resurrects.
This love we are called to then makes absolutely no sense outside of the law. There is simply no way to “just love” because without the law and without the God/Man who fulfilled it, the word “love” will always be a cruel shadow of the reality all lesser loves point us toward. Any supposed Christian teacher who tells you we are no longer called to follow the moral law, but rather, instructs you to “just love,” worships a different God than He who says, “If you love me keep my commandments” (St. John 14:15). Anyone who says we can abandon the new way to be human revealed by Jesus and the apostles He chose is an anti-Christ who seeks nothing less than to build their little earthly kingdom with the pain and misery of human failure Christ suffered and died to eradicate forever. The debt of love we owe God and our fellow man is honored through the obedience and trust we give to God before the eyes of the world, and this purpose for our lives is but an humble imitation of the loving obedience and trust our Lord carried to the Cross. This loving obedience and trust between God and Man is more important to the salvation of the world than any nation or war, king or president, and God has blessed us all with the call to participate no matter our strength or weakness, intelligence or beauty. All men can daily kneel and ask God to use them as part of the world’s salvation. All men can love as Christ loved.
And so, St. Paul tells us that the only way to live in this life of true love is to put on the armor of light; our only hope is to put on Jesus Christ and wear the righteousness He has given us as the ultimate protection against the forces of darkness assembled all around us. We are to show no mercy while putting down the small, temporary desires of all our false loves—be they anger or greed or sexual impurity or any of the other fast-food substitutes for God’s love—and we are in turn to focus our lives on the prayer and fasting and charity which train and prepare us for the daily war we face. It is this discipline which gradually reorients our recreated hearts toward the love which truly saves; it is this life of the disciple which makes us ready, loving instruments in the hands of God. St. Paul commands us to put all our hopes for love and joy on Jesus Christ because He knows that our Lord was raised from the dead through the awesome, invincible love of the Trinity, and if death has already been defeated by divine love than there is no evil in our lives which will not flee in terror at the sight of this perfect love made concrete and real in our prayers and fasting and charity. Here is the ultimate importance of the penitential seasons of the church year; here is why we need Advent much more than we need Christmas. Advent calls us to remember the purpose of our lives—to repent and prepare in active participatory love for the return of our king. Advent reminds us that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand” (Romans 13:11).
Let us then embrace this season of preparation, and let us pray that our King will soon return, and that He will find us already living in the love which defeats even death.