Our Salvation and Perdition Is Tied With The Way We Treat Our Neighbor

Our Salvation and Perdition Is Tied With The Way We Treat Our Neighbor July 6, 2016
Picture by Henry Karlson of his own glass pyramid of St. Antony the Great from the Coptic Monastery in California
Picture by Henry Karlson of his own glass pyramid of St. Antony the Great from the Coptic Monastery in California

He also said, ‘Our Life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’[1]

St. Anthony the Great went to the desert to fight against temptation, to make war against the passions, and yet he knew that all of his ascetic labor was as nothing if he, in the process, did not fulfill the great commandment to love. He knew the truth of the words of St. Paul, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3 RSV). Without love as his foundation, he understood that all his work, all his hard labor, would have been of no avail.

We seek the presence of Christ, to see him face to face, and this is to be done in and with love. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1. Cor. 13:12-13 RSV).  It is in and with this love, more than anything else, we find grace come to us and purifies us, making us ready to truly see the glorified Christ and so to become glorified in him. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3 RSV).

This is why we must be concerned with our neighbor and his or her well-being. For it is in this way we become imitators of Christ, following the path of love.  We receive in and through our love of our neighbor the purification of our mind, body and soul needed in order to receive glorification in eternal life. This is how we gain God. But we will we lose God and sin against Christ when we fail in our love for them. We can puff ourselves all we want, we can make ourselves appear great and spotless in front of others, but if we do not have any love for our neighbor, we sin against God. Without love, when we gain praises from the world for what we have done, we have gained the rewards of vainglory. True glory which awaits us if we love God and the image of God in our neighbor. Truly our life is with our neighbor because Christ is our life, and his image is in them. If we neglect them, if we hate them, we truly have lost our life, because we have neglected Christ who is mysteriously found in them.

Everyone is meant to be our neighbors. Everyone is someone we should seek to love. Everyone, no matter where they come from, what they have done, what they believe, still has the image and likeness of God in them and is to be honored because of it. We must seek their well-being, no matter what. We truly must love them even as God loves them, indeed, even as God loves us. And how did God show his love for us? “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8 RSV). God love us despite our sin, despite all that we have done to separate ourselves from him. All our sin deserves his just wrath, and yet, he came not with wrath to judge us but love to save us. And why did he do so? Because behind all that sin remained the good which he had created. We had not been entirely corrupted. Certainly, we had become spiritually wounded, and our sin covered up the glory of God’s image in us, and if we hold on to that sin, we allow ourselves to be known purely by it. But Jesus came so we do not have to be held by the bonds of sin. He came to cleanse us from the stain of sin and to heal us from the harm it has done to us, so that the original, integral image of God in us can once again be seen and realized by us. And so if we, while we sin, are loved by God, if we, as sinners, find God does all he can to reconcile us with himself, how can we then deny the meaning of love which is to be shown to our neighbor? It is for us to reconcile ourselves with them in the way God has done with us. They are to be our friends, and that means, we are to do all we can, even lay down our very lives, for them, if it will but help them to find their proper place with God. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13 RSV).

The saints often indicate how far this truth is to be taken:  our love for our neighbor should go so far as to seek their well-being, their salvation, even over our own if it were possible, as St Peter of Damaskos related:

If we are not willing to sacrifice this temporal life, or perhaps even the life to come, for the sake of our neighbour, as were Moses and St Paul, how can we say that we love him? For Moses said to God concerning his people, ‘If Thou wilt forgive their sins, forgive; but if not, blot me as well out of the book of life which Thou has written’ (Exod. 32: 32 LXXX); while St Paul said, ‘For I could wish that I myself were severed from Christ for the sake of my brethren’ (Rom 9:3). He prayed, that is to say, that he should perish in order that others might be saved – and these others were the Israelites who were seeking to kill him.[2]

We are to care about them more than ourselves. All our pride, all our accomplishments, all our knowledge and wisdom, is but nothing if we fail to love them. If we seek to gain our life by lording it over them, thinking ourselves to be their better, we lose it, but if we are willing to empty ourselves of all such pseudo-glory, if we are willing to lose ourselves for the sake of the other, we shall truly gain Christ, and so find ourselves rising in and with him in true glory. “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves;  let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him” (Rom. 15:1-2 RSV). We are to represent Christ to them, to be like him, lowly and meek (cf. Matt. 11:29). And it is in this spirit, St. Francis de Sales declared, “Humility perfects us with respect to God, and meekness with respect to our neighbor.”[3] For in our meekness, we are willing to listen to our neighbor, to love them, to do what is needed for them, never once thinking of ourselves. But pride, once it gets in the way, thinks of our neighbor as an object to be used instead of the subject which we are to love, and so turns them against themselves. Indeed, when we do not love them, we find ways to justify this lack of love as we reify their sinful exterior, declaring to others it is who and what they are. Seeing then only in the light of win, we justify our mistreatment of them. We fail them because we seek to use them as a scapegoat for our displeasure instead of seeing in them the presence of the kingdom of God. The entrance to that kingdom is locked so long as we face the other in and through the lens of sin, while it is to be opened by the key of love.

Such meekness, such humility, such love, is to be found in our actions, but also in our words. When bitterness and strife gets the best of us, then our words will show how sin has consumed us. To overcome sin, to overcome the hatred which closes us off from the kingdom of God, we must always see the good in all and to speak to that good in all. Even when we find it difficult to see such good, knowing it is there, and acting on it despite all outward appearances, will help it to become manifest. And so the wisdom of St Basil the Great truly is to be followed:

In affirmation of your love of neighbor, preface your discourse with words of comfort or exhortation. Let such words also find a place in the middle and at the end, and let your countenance be bright and cheerful withal, that you may give joy to him who speaks with you. Rejoice in every success achieved by your neighbor and glorify God, for his triumphs are yours as yours also are his. [4]

If we glorify in the success of our neighbor, we find that our love for them transforms us even as it helps them. And so this is how and why love purifies us and is shown to cover sins (1 Ptr. 4:8), and why, therefore, if we gain our neighbor we truly gain Christ. For he is in our neighbor waiting to be made one with us in and through that love. But woe to us if we neglect them and scandalize them, for in doing so, we find the kingdom of God is closed off from us, guarded by the cherubim with a flaming sword who will not let us in.


 

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 3.

[2] St. Peter of Damaskos,  “How God’s Speech Is Not Loose Chatter” in The Philokalia. The Complete Text. Volume Three. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986). 175-6.

[3] St Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life. trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1955), 141.

[4] St. Basil, “On Renunciation of the Word” in Ascetical Works. trans. Monica Wagner, C.S.C. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950). 27-8.

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