1 John iv. 16, 21. "God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. . . . And this commandment have we from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also."
This is the first Sunday after Trinity. On it the Church begins to teach us morals,--that is, how to live a good life; and therefore she begins by teaching us the foundation of all morals,--which is love,--love to God and love to man.
But which is to come first,--love to God, or love to man?
On this point men in different ages have differed, and will differ to the end. One party has said, You must love God first, and let love to man come after as it can; and others have contradicted that and said, You must love all mankind, and let love to God take its chance. But St John says, neither of the two is before or after the other; you cannot truly love God without loving man, or love man without loving God. St John says so, being full of the Spirit of God: but alas! men, who are not full of the Spirit of God, but only let themselves be taught by Him now and then and here and there, have found it very difficult to understand St John, and still more difficult to obey him; and therefore there always have been in God's Church these two parties; one saying, You must love God first, and the other, You must love your neighbour first,--and each, of course, quoting Scripture to prove that they are in the right.
The great leader of the first party--perhaps the founder of it, as far as I am aware--was the famous St Augustine. He first taught Christians that they ought to love God with the same passionate affection with which they love husband or wife, mother or child; and to use towards God the same words of affection which those who love really utter one to each other. I will not say much of that; still less will I mention any of the words which good men and women who are of that way of thinking use towards God. I should be sorry to hold up such language to blame, even if I do not agree with it; and still more sorry to hold it up to ridicule from vulgar-minded persons if there be any in this Church. All I say is, that all which has been written since about this passionate and rapturous love toward God by the old monks and nuns, and by the Protestant Pietists, both English and foreign, is all in St Augustine better said than it ever has been since. Some of the Pietist hymns, as we know, are very beautiful; but there are things in them which one wishes left out; which seem, or ought to seem, irreverent when used toward God; which hurt, or ought to hurt, our plain, cool, honest English common-sense. A true Englishman does not like to say more than he feels; and the more he feels, the more he likes to keep it to himself, instead of parading it and talking of it before men. Still waters run deep, he holds; and he is right for himself; only he must not judge others, or think that because he cannot speak to God in such passionate language as St Augustine, who was an African, a southern man, with much stronger feelings than we Englishmen usually have, that therefore St Augustine, or those who copy him now, do not really feel what they say. But, nevertheless, plain common-sense people, such as most Englishmen are, are afraid of this enthusiastical religion. They say, We do not pretend to feel this rapturous love to God, how much-soever we may reverence Him, and wish to keep His commandments; and we do not desire to feel it. For we see that people who have talked in this way about God have been almost always monks and nuns; or brain-sick, disappointed persons, who have no natural and wholesome bent for their affections. And even though this kind of religion may be very well for them, it is not the religion for a plain honest man who has a wife and family and his bread to earn in the world, and has children to provide for, and his duty to do in the State as well as in the Church. And more, they say, these enthusiastic, rapturous feelings do not seem to make people better, and more charitable, and more loving. Some really good and charitable people say that they have these feelings, but for all that we can see they would be just as good and charitable without the feelings, while most persons who take up with this sort of religion are not the better for it. They do not control their tempers; they can be full,--as they say,--of love and devotion to God one minute, but why are they the next minute peevish, proud, self-willed, harsh and cruel to those who differ from them? Their religion does not make them love their neighbours. In old times (when persecution was allowed), it made them, or at least allowed them, to persecute, torment, and kill their neighbours, and fancy that by such conduct they did God service; and now it tempts them to despise their neighbours--to look on every one who has not these strange, intense feelings which they say they have, as unconverted, and lost, and doomed to everlasting destruction. Not, says the plain man, that we are more satisfied with the mere philanthropist of modern times,--the man who professes to love the whole human race without loving God, or indeed often believing that there is a God to love. To us he seems as unloving a person as the mere fanatic. Meanwhile, plain people say, we will have nothing to do with either fanaticism or philanthropy,--we will try to do our duty where God has put us, and to behave justly and charitably by our neighbours; but beyond that we cannot go. We will not pretend to what we do not feel.
My friends, there is, as usual, truth on both sides,--both are partly right, and both are partly wrong. And both may go on arguing against each other, and quoting texts of Scripture against each other till the last day; if they will not listen to St John's message in the text. One party will say, It is written, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and soul, and strength, and mind; and if thou doest that, and thy soul is filled with love for the Creator, thou canst have no love left for the creature; or if thy heart is filled with love for the creature, there is no room left for love to God. And then thou wilt find that God is a jealous God, and will take from thee what thou lovest, because He will not have His honour given to another.
And to that the other party will answer, Has not God said, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself?" Has He not commanded us to love our wives, our children? And even if He had not, would not common sense tell us that He intended us to do so? Do you think that God is a tempter and a deceiver? He has given us feelings and powers. Has He not meant us to use them? He has given us wife and child. Did He mean us not to love them, after He has made us love them, we know not how or why? You say that God is a jealous God. Yes, jealous He may be of our worshipping false gods, and idols, saints, or anything or person save Himself,-- jealous of our doing wrong, and ruining ourselves, and wandering out of the path of His commandments, in which alone is life; but jealous of our loving our fellow creature as well as Himself, never. That sort of jealousy is a base and wicked passion in man, and dare we attribute it to God? What a thing to say of the loving God, that He takes away people's children, husbands, and friends, because they love them too much!
Then the first party will say, But is it not written, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him?" And to that, the second party will answer, And do you say that we are not to love this fair and wonderful earth which God has made for our use, and put us into it? Why did He make it lovely? Why did He put us into it, if He did not mean us to enjoy it? That is contrary to common sense, and contrary to the whole teaching of the Old Testament. But if by the world you mean the world of man, the society in which we live--dare you compare a Christian and civilized country like England with that detestable Roman world, sunk in all abominable vices, against which St John and St Paul prophesied? Are not such thoughts unjust and uncharitable to your neighbours, to your country, to all mankind? Then the first party will say, But you do away with all devoutness; and the second party will answer, And you do away with all morality, for you tell people that the only way to please God is to feel about Him in a way which not one person in a thousand can feel; and therefore what will come, and does come, of your binding heavy burdens and grievous to be borne and laying them on men's shoulders is this,--that the generality of people will care nothing about being good or doing right, because you teach them that it will not please God, and will leave all religion to a few who have these peculiar fancies and feelings.
And so they may argue on for ever, unless they will take honestly the plain words of St John, and see that to love their neighbour is to love God, and to love God is to love their neighbour. So says St John clearly enough twice over. "God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him." The two things are one, and the one cannot be without the other.
Does this seem strange to you? Oh, my friends, it need not seem strange, if you will but consider who God is, and who man is. Thou lovest God? Then, if thou lovest Him, thou must needs love all that He has made. And what has He made? All things, except sin; and what sin is He has told thee. He has given thee ten commandments, and let no man give thee an eleventh commandment out of his own conceit and will worship; calling unclean what God hath made clean, and cursing what God hath blessed. Thou lovest God? Then thou lovest all that is good; for God is good, and from Him all good things come. But what is good? All is good except sin; for it is written, "God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good." Therefore, if thou lovest God, thou must love all things, for all things are of Him, and by Him, and through Him; and in Him all live and move and have their being. Then thou wilt truly love God. Thou wilt be content with God; and so thy love will cast out fear. Thou wilt trust God; thou wilt have the mind of God; thou wilt be satisfied with God's working, from the rise and fall of great nations to the life and death of the smallest gnat which dances in the sun; thou wilt say for ever, and concerning all things, I know in whom I have believed. It is the good Lord, let Him do what seemeth Him good.
Again. Thou lovest thy neighbour; thou lovest wife and child; thou lovest thy friends; thou lovest or wishest to love all men, and to do them good. Then thou lovest God. For what is it that thou lovest in thy neighbour? Not that which is bad in him? No, but that which is good. Thou lovest him for his kindliness, his honesty, his helpfulness,--for some good quality in him. But from whom does that good come, save from Christ and from the Spirit of Christ, from whom alone come all good gifts? Yes, if you will receive it;--when we love our neighbours, it is God in them, Christ in them, whom we love,--Christ in them, the hope of glory.
What, some one will ask, when a man loves a fair face, does he love Christ then? Ah! my friends, that is not true love, as all know well enough if they will let their own hearts tell them truth. True love is when two people love each other for the goodness which is in them. True love is the love which endures after beauty has faded, and youth, and health, and all that seems to make life worth having is gone. Have we not seen ere now two old people, worn, crippled, diseased, yet living on together, helping each other, nursing each other, tottering on hand in hand to the grave, dying, perhaps, almost together,--because neither cared to live when the other is gone before, and loving all the while as truly and tenderly as in the days of youth? They know not why. No; but God knows why. It is Christ in each other whom they love;--Christ, the hope of glory. Yes, we have seen that, surely; and seen in it one of the most beautiful, the most divine sights upon earth,--one which should teach us, if we will look at it aright, that when we love our neighbour truly, it is the divine part in him, the spark of eternal goodness in him,--what St Paul says is Christ in him,--which we admire, and cling to, and love.
But by that rule we cannot love every one, for every one is not good. Be not too sure of that. All are not good, alas! but in all there is some good. It may be a very little,--a hope of glory in them, even though that hope be very faint. It may be dying out; it may die altogether, and their souls may become utterly base and evil, and be lost for ever. Still, while there is life there is hope, even for the worst; and just as far as our hearts are full of the Spirit of God, we shall see the Spirit of God striving with the souls even of the worst men, and love them for that. Just as far as we have the likeness of Christ in us, we shall be quick to catch the least gleam of His likeness in our neighbours, and love them for that. Just as far as our hearts are full of love we shall see something worth loving in every human being we meet, and love them for that. I know it is difficult. It is not gotten in a day, that wide and deep spirit of love to all mankind which St Paul had; which made him weep with those who wept and rejoice with those who rejoiced, and become all things to all men, if by any means he might save some. Before our eyes are cleansed and purged to see some trace of good in every man, our hearts must be cleansed and purged from all selfishness, and bigotry, and pride, and fancifulness, and anger, so that they may be filled with the loving Spirit of God. As long as a taint of selfishness or pride remains in us, we shall be in continual danger of hating those whom God does not hate, despising those whom God does not despise, and condemning those whom God does not condemn. But if self is cast out of us, and the Spirit of God and of Christ enthroned in our hearts, then we shall love our brother, and in loving him love God, who made him; and so, dwelling in love, we shall dwell in God, and God in us:--to which true and only everlasting life may He of His mercy bring us, either in this world or in the world to come. Amen.