Love and Transformation
Rev. David A. Fisher
You are to love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. - Deuteronomy 6:5
He answered, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. And you must love your neighbor as yourself." - Luke 10:27
The Call To Love
Our Lord in the Gospel of Luke adds to the teaching of the Mosaic Law; that not only must we love God but also our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, Jesus reveals to us through his Holy Cross and Resurrection that the Hidden God, who taught his chosen people to be ethical, is the God who loves and is Love. That God is Our Father, who did not spare his only Son, and has given us the gift of his Holy Spirit, so that we might have life, and life in its fullest. God in his eternal being, who is the Holy Trinity, is Love who offers us “love beyond all telling”; the transformation of our being.
The First Letter of John says, “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” The first Christians realized that the call to love like Christ, was more than a conversion of feelings or emotions, but a transformation of being that overflows into one’s total character and disposition towards others. It is the indwelling of the gift of the Holy Spirit, forming believers into the living Body of Christ, the Church. This is why the Church is Eucharistic, it never ceases to give thanks to the Father, and recalls and relives constantly the actions of its Lord at the Last Supper. The First Letter to the Corinthians gives us the earliest written proclamation of the Eucharistic words of Jesus:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. - 1Corinthians 11:23-26
Early Christians spoke of this transformation of their lives and being as theosis; becoming like the divine, becoming god-like, becoming Christ-like. This does not mean of course taking on God’s nature but growing too full stature as human beings created in the image and likeness of God.
Death and Theosis
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 6:23
For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the first-fruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for “he subjected everything under his feet.” - 1 Corinthians 15: 22-27
Scripture tells us that sin results in death, but death has been defeated by Christ. Sin at its core is a two-fold rejection, that of God (Love) and of our divine created image and likeness (love). Sin is the refusal to be transformed by the Father’s Holy Spirit, to become men and women constituted by love. Sin is the hell we can create for ourselves even in this life, by entrapping ourselves within the false ego of self-sufficiency, and being unwilling to “love our neighbor as yourself”. Sin and the hell in which it entraps us is a denial of the example of love that Jesus taught his disciples when he washed their feet at the Last Supper; “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
Jesus shows us the way to the fullness of life, that death is not the final stage of our lives, but this path involves us taking up our cross and following him. It is the path of theosis; the path of self-offering, self-denial, the path of the holy martyrs, the path of love. Scripture tells us that in the end “now these three remain: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13)
God is present always and everywhere, the fire of his love can melt away our self-centeredness, our false self-sufficiency, our prejudices, our hate and bigotry. For those who through faith are refashioned like gold in fire, for them the Kingdom shall be an eternal “theosis” in the flame of God’s love, and for those who choose not to love, God’s love shall be a flame of torturous loss and isolation.
The Wisdom of the Syriac Fathers
The Syriac Fathers often reflected on the commandment to love, and the transformative power of love upon our human nature. By way of example this reflection closes with the wisdom offered by St. Ephrem the Syrian, and St. Isaac of Nineveh.
St. Ephrem writes:
Again I entreat you, brethren, since God is love, he is not well-pleased by things that take place without love. How would God accept prayer, or gifts, or first fruits, or offering from a murderer, unless they first repented in accordance with God’s word? But you will no doubt say to me, ‘I am not a murderer.’ And I will prove to you that you are, or rather John the Theologian will convict you, when he says, ‘Every one who hates their brother is a homicide.’ So then, my beloved brethren, let us not prefer anything, let us not hasten to obtain anything more than love. Let no one have anything against anyone, let no one repay evil for evil. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, but let us forgive our debtors everything and let us welcome love, because love covers a multitude of sins. Because what gain is there, my children, if someone has everything, but does not have love which saves? - St. Ephrem the Syrian On Love
St. Isaac writes:
I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways. It torments sinners, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend. But it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability. - St. Isaac the Syrian, “Homily 72: On the Vision of the Nature of Incorporeal Beings, in Questions and Answers,” Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian