The following is a transcription from a recording of a homily delivered by Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe on Sunday 30th September / 13th October at St John of Shanghai Parish in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His Grace’s words were centred on the Gospel reading appointed for the day: Luke 6.31-36.
There is a touchstone to Christian life that is often overlooked — a ‘litmus test’, of sorts, by which a genuine adherence to the life of Christ can be determined. This touchstone is the adherence to the commandment that our Saviour gives in His words today: Love ye your enemies (Luke 6.35).
This is not the commandment that most people would first take as summarising the Christian life. In many ways it feels less significant than other, more ‘obvious’ commandments, such as those that Christ Himself calls the most important elements of the Law: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself (Luke 10.27). There is obvious spiritual depth in those — a profound message of divine love.
But it is in His words today that our Saviour makes clear how these great commandments, the summation of the Law and the Prophets, are to be made of real effect in our lives. Many proclaim, in ages past as in our own day, that they love God and that they love their fellow man — but what, precisely, is the manner of this love? When the Lord says man must ‘love his neighbour as himself’, we forget at our peril that this implies a love of our neighbour that is divine in character. The love we show others, however, is too often based on the very different kind of love we demonstrate in ourselves: love that is selfish, self-serving, hard-hearted, selective. If it is thus that we love our neighbour, we must understand that we are not fulfilling the great commandment; this is not real love, it is debased love — a pretend ‘love’ that draws us closer neither to our brother nor to God.
Nevertheless, living in such a spirit, we have the tendency to shower this so-called ‘love’ upon those whom we believe will repay it, perhaps with love in response, but at the very least in kindness; and if not in kindness, at least in acknowledgement. This is the ‘price tag’ that we put on our love: I will love you, and all it will cost you is to treat me well, to acknowledge my kindness, to show me respect.
To this, however, our Lord says, If you love them which love you, what thank have ye? (that is to say, what reward in heaven?), for even sinners love those that love them. And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? For sinners also do even the same (Luke 6.32, 33). There is nothing noble, much less divine, in treating well those who are already treating us well, or in performing some or another good deed for someone who is already showering goodness upon us. This is not love; this is a transaction; and these are not human relationships and virtues, but business relations — something Christ has explicitly in mind when He says further, if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? Sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again (Luke 6.34).
And it is precisely in response to this kind of behaviour that the Saviour goes on to say the words we have already mentioned: Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return (Luke 6.35). The love of enemies is the summation of Christian virtue because it can only truly be exercised in a Christian manner. The enemy — whom we know hates us and will continue to hate us, whom we know will respond to our kindness with hostility and resentment, who will pour out evil upon us in response to our acts of goodness, and be ever more convinced, even through our love, that we are his foe and someone he must work against — to love this person, on these terms, is to love like Christ. Jesus equates this directly to His Father’s love: Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful (Luke 6.36).
And so this love, and the exercise of this love, is a ‘litmus test’ of a life lived in Christ. Until we discover this love alive in our hearts, we must recognise that we have not yet fully united our lives to our Saviour’s. We have not yet fully tasted of His grace and divinity. Christ Himself says that only when we love our enemies, when we love in this manner, shall your reward be great, and ye shall be the children of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil (Luke 6.35). And so, if we truly wish to be what we are called — sons and daughters of the Living God — we must set our sights on this love. We must love without expectation, without qualification, without hesitation. We must not judge one man worthy of love and another not; Christ did not die for some, but for all.