A. Lent and Love
1. Quinquagesima provides an epistle about love and gospel prophecy about the cross. These two lessons are aptly paired to prepare us for Lent. When Jesus said, “Behold we go up to Jerusalem and all things that are written in the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished,” he was prophesying the ultimate act of love. Our Lenten vocation centers on these two themes. We are called to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus by adopting various spiritual disciplines; the goal is to grow in our ability to love.
2. The purpose of fasting is to remove obstacles to love. We don’t love God and neighbor as we ought because we are too attached to things and to our own self-centered desires. Things become idols that we worship instead of God. We fast, we practice going without things, in order to detach ourselves from them and open our hearts to God in new ways.
B. Charity and other kinds of love
1. Our collect and epistle talk about the theological virtue of charity, which modern Bibles translate as love. The Greek word being translated in 1 Corinthians 13 is “agape.” When the early church translated the Greek into Latin, agape became “caritas.” When the Latin was first translated into English, caritas became “charity.” The word charity was used instead of love (even though the English translators were working from the Greek) because it had developed a formal meaning as one of the three “Theological Virtues” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13 (Faith, Hope and Charity).
2. While the world charity sounds archaic, there is a strong case to be made for maintaining its use—or perhaps for just calling charity by its original Greek, “agape.” There are other kinds of love that all people may experience on some level (see The Four Loves, by C. S. Lewis for a fuller description of these). When people talk about love today, they are often thinking of mere sentimentality. Agape-caritas-charity is distinct from the ordinary human experience of love. Consequently, there is reason to give this kind of love a particular name.
C. Charity vs. mere love
1. The unique meaning of agape/charity becomes clear as we read 1 Corinthians 13. It tells us that agape/charity is all sorts of things that we do not naturally do or possess. It is patient, kind and longsuffering; it does not seek its own good and it never fails. Human love, in contrast, is not a disinterested concern for the good of the other, and it fails all the time because all merely human love is infected by the fall. Ordinary human forms of love may be raised to the level of agape when they are motivated by and infused with this theological virtue. But in their natural form they are necessarily different.
2. We are able to love with agape/charity only after we experience this kind of love from God. In relationship with God, we experience love in a way that we cannot experience anywhere else. God first convicts us of our sin to lead us to repentance; then he forgives us and cleanses us; then he gives us strength to live in a new way. Through this experience of agape/charity, we experience God’s new creation. God brings his order and beauty of our chaos, causing all things to work together for good in our lives. This is the essential experience of the life of prayer.
3. No human counselor or agent can love us in this way. No human agent can forgive us—for only Christ has the power to forgive. No human agent can cleanse us—for only the Spirit can wash away sins. No human agent can give us the strength to overcome our sins—for only God’s grace can enable us to rise above our natural weakness. And no human agent can exercise a sovereign and benevolent control over our lives. Agape/charity is known only as a gift from God.
D. Spiritual gifts
1. When I say that no human agent can do these things, I mean no human agent acting apart from God’s grace. However, the members of Christ’s body, whom Christ has gifted to be agents of his grace, can love as Christ loves using the particular gifts Christ has given us. As Romans says, “The love (agape) of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).
2. Our right use of our spiritual gifts is dependent upon our own ongoing experience of Trinitarian love. We can only give to others what we know and experience. This is the main point of the epistle, which says,
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profits me nothing (1Coritnians 13:1-3).
3. The epistle is really a warning. It tells us that it is possible to exercise our spiritual gifts, perform extreme acts of charity and even die as a martyr in ways that mean nothing to God. Agape or charity is the thing that distinguishes genuine good works from mere religious or self-serving activity. Thus, the central question is not, what are you doing? The central question is, why are you doing it? Are we really motivated by the love that comes from God? Or is our behavior infected by other motives?
E. Lent and charity
1. Honest self-assessment will reveal the presence of mixed motives in all of us. We do not love fully yet. We are learning how to love. Lent is a season of opportunity to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus with the goal of growing in the love that comes from God.
2. Our experience of love begins with our prayer—for we cannot love with the love that comes from God unless our behavior is the fruit of our prayer. Lent calls us to reverse the pattern of our lives. Our natural tendency is to rush into work and business, and then come to God to clean up the mess after we are done. To act with agape/charity requires that we come to God first to receive grace from him through the sacrament and through daily and constant prayer. Only when our behavior is the fruit of our prayer can we begin to love with the love that comes from God. As Jesus said, “He who abides in me and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). As we pray in today collect,
O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.”