From the First Letter of John:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God”, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 John 4:16-21 (NRSV) – April 16, 2013.)
In the 1989 movie Romero starring Raul Julia as the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, there is a scene in which Father Manuel Morantes (played by actor Tony Plana) paraphrases these words of the elder John: “How can we love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love our brothers and sisters whom we do see?” It is clear from the setting that what Father Morantes means by “love” is not merely romantic emotion; it is not starry-eyed sentimentalism; it is not impractical idealism. What Father Morantes means, and what I believe the elder means in this letter, is hard and gritty, down-to-earth, hands-on, practical caring about and caring for others.
In the 10th Chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus affirms that the way to salvation includes both loving God and loving one’s neighbors as one loves him- or herself. A lawyer challenges Jesus with the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer is to tell the story that has come down to us with the name The Good Samaritan, illustrating the concepts of love and neighbor with an appeal to action, to tending the wounds of the victim of a mugging, to nursing that victim back to health, to providing him food and shelter . . . hard and gritty, down-to-earth, hands-on, practical caring about and caring for another.
Recently, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is sort of the governing body of Roman Catholicism in this country, has instituted a program they call Two Feet of Love in Action. The first “foot” is social justice which addresses the political and economic aspects, the structural dimensions of social problems and their solutions. The bishops call upon Roman Catholics to work to address the root causes of social issues by advocating for just public policies and working to change social structures which contribute to suffering and injustice. The second “foot” is charitable works, which are very simply our response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, and so on. This includes all activities to aid or assist others both locally and globally to meet immediate, short-term needs.
I think the Roman Catholic bishops are on to something – love of neighbor, love of brother and sister, is a two-pronged action: reforming structures and meeting immediate needs. In the 2nd Chapter of the Letter of James, the writer asks a pertinent and poignant question: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16)
Love of brother and sister is the hard and gritty, down-to-earth, hands-on, practical work of caring about and caring for others, reforming structures and meeting immediate needs. What is the good of anything else? Those who do not do this for the brothers and sisters whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.